San Diego has arrived at one of those game-changing moments that, with the right decision, can dramatically improve the lot of its citizenry for decades to come. It’s an opportunity of a magnitude seen only once in several decades. A similar past moment in this city resulted in public land grants that created UC San Diego and the Torrey Pines Mesa research hub, which is now the most powerful force in the city’s economy and places San Diego in the top six cities in the country for venture capital investment.

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San Diego can either decide to help East Village on its current path of transforming into an innovative, economic district or it can bend to the will of billionaires and stop the neighborhood’s progress by plopping a huge stadium and convention center annex right in the heart of it all.

The land between Petco Park and Barrio Logan — south East Village — is the most strategically valuable large track of developable land in the city. A major portion of it is public land. It should be used for something that creates important benefits for San Diego’s citizenry and accomplishes important public goals.

The East Village is on the cusp of becoming a so-called urban innovation district. Innovation districts offer cities the opportunity to build economies based on “sticky capital,” or businesses with skilled higher-wage jobs that don’t simply migrate to the locale offering the lowest taxes or fewest environmental regulations. Innovation districts typically involve anchor institutions, research or educational institutions that collaborate, incubate and foster an environment of interdependent businesses. Such growth creates a high-wage jobs cluster. A local example of an innovation district is the Torrey Pines Mesa bio-tech industry, spurred by UCSD and grants of public land to research businesses.

Today innovation districts are most successful, and in most demand, in existing urban centers. High-density diverse urban environments create opportunities for collaboration, stimulating — and often spontaneous — interaction and the walkable/transit-oriented lifestyle sought by millennials entering the workforce. This urban environment is attractive to universities and companies because it appeals to faculty, students and the talent needed by companies. It also helps to fulfill the social justice goals of nonprofit universities by locating in the areas most accessible to diverse populations.

Between 1990 and 2012, San Diego made a massive investment to redevelop its downtown, diverting billions of dollars in property tax revenue – away from schools, police, neighborhood infrastructure and other important functions. The city invested in downtown because it occupies a critical role in defining the region’s economy and infrastructure. The economic component of downtown redevelopment, however, remains largely lacking.

But in the wake of redevelopment and the recession, East Village has been reinventing itself. It now contains the new Central Library, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, the expanded City College and the NewSchool of Architecture + Design, the Urban Discovery Academy, the Fashion Institute of Design Merchandising and other schools. The neighborhood is at the hub of our light-rail system, with connections to all our major universities (UCSD by 2021), diverse neighborhoods and the border. The under-construction IDEA District and Makers Quarter developments, as well as the relocation of several internet companies, are the green shoots of a fledgling innovation district in East Village.

Although San Diego is still the only downtown of a major city without the presence of a major university campus, UCSD and others have shown interest. The unique attributes of East Village will likely attract a major anchor institution that would have a large economic impact on the region.

But the East Village’s transformation into an innovation district may come to a screeching halt if the city cedes a key portion of the neighborhood to a stadium and convention annex, as is proposed in a complicated initiative spearheaded by local attorney Cory Briggs and JMI Realty. If a downtown multi-use stadium and convention center expansion is built, it will severely constrain the space in which an innovation district can flourish, both as a result of the massive footprint of such a facility and from the ancillary land uses that accompany them, like parking lots, garages and hotels.

A suburban academic campus expansion in Mission Valley, an idea that’s also packed into the initiative, is a poor substitute for a downtown innovation district. Mission Valley simply isn’t the right setting because it lacks most of the attributes that are already stimulating academic and innovation growth in East Village and creating a more socially just San Diego geography ­by bringing academia and jobs south Interstate 8.

In other words, Mission Valley lacks an authentic urban location. No matter how it’s tweaked, dressed up or configured, a Mission Valley campus expansion will be an inward-focused and car-oriented suburban campus – the academic version of the valley’s shopping centers.

It’s hard to view the initiative as anything other than a very unequal trade in which two billionaires acquire the city’s most valuable land. Hopefully, San Diegans will seize this strategic moment to create a sustainable future for all its citizens.

Bill Adams is editor of the planning blog UrbDeZine, co-founder of the nonprofit law firm Public Interest Advocacy Clinic and member of East Village People, a committee advocating for an innovation district. Adams’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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