Traffic at the intersection of Friars Road and Frazee Road in Mission Valley. / Photo by Dustin Michelson

Despite the high emotions and heated debates between competing visions — Soccer City (Measure E) and SDSU West (Measure G) — for redevelopment of the Mission Valley Qualcomm site, no transcendent “big idea” seems to have yet emerged. But there have been missed opportunities.

First, neither proposal convincingly makes the case for creating a destination in Mission Valley that fully embraces the connection between global climate change and resilient design. Turning the Qualcomm site into an “ecocity” could put San Diego on the cutting edge of environmental design in large metropolitan regions. Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti project, 70 miles north of Phoenix, is one such example, merging architecture and ecology as an alternative to urban sprawl.

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Second, voters ought to be asking which proposal, if any, offers a truly inspiring “sense of place” for the Qualcomm site, in a valley that has had almost no identity for more than a half century.

Let’s be clear, Mission Valley has been a planning disaster for decades. Redevelopment on the site offers a rare second chance for the city to begin to retrofit Mission Valley, and finally overcome the legacy of bad planning decisions, that have led to what is today an auto-centric, placeless hodgepodge of disjointed and isolated fragments — Hazard Center, Fashion Valley, Fenton Marketplace, Mission Valley Center.

A Mission Valley “ecocity” on the Qualcomm site would be all about creating a self-sustaining place where every facet of its design embraces the natural environment: green building materials, rooftop urban gardens, solar grids, water recycling with the San Diego River, canals or waterways, and bike-ped greenways.

While the proposals on the Nov. 6 ballot pay lip service to the river and more open space, in the end the renderings and site plan descriptions feel more like talking points and less like a commitment to a sustainable future.

As an urbanized district, Mission Valley urgently needs a sense of place. When we think of Balboa Park, the Gaslamp Quarter or the village of La Jolla, there is something about these destinations that makes people want to go back, a feeling of being somewhere special. This is what the Qualcomm site should aspire to — the power of something greater.

In fact, the Qualcomm site is tailor-made for such a path-breaking urban development project for two reasons:  first, at around 300 acres, the site is huge. And the location is unusually strategic. As the saying goes, “value is location, location, location,” and in this case, it’s smack in the middle of Mission Valley, halfway between the coastal and inland urban development clusters, on the cusp between central San Diego and North County, and well-connected to present and future forms of transit.

A green “city within a city” would not only be ideal for Mission Valley; it would fit the definitions of both the San Diego Association of Governments’ vision of a smart growth urban center and the city’s general plan.

Voters have a right to insist on something truly exceptional in Mission Valley — a sustainable, 21st century urban village.

Will it be SDSU West? Proponents argue that the “valley annex” campus will bring jobs and make the university an even bigger player in the region. But they fail to acknowledge that, with only a few exceptions, satellite campuses around the nation are notoriously underwhelming.

There is much to like about SDSU West: a medium-density and mixed-use “site plan that includes a 75-acre park and embraces the ecology of the river and plans to use it as a laboratory for the study of pollution.

Yet where is the “big idea?” Somehow the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts. Design drawings give the impression of a corporate office park.

SoccerCity suffers a similar fate. Its mixed-use site plan cleverly envisions an identity crafted mainly around the sports facility (soccer stadium, perhaps combined with football). But this also feels provisional, in part because it seems to rely on a single infrastructure project.

Voters may legitimately decide we are rushing too quickly to choose between two interesting but incomplete proposals. It’s time to challenge the 20th century surfer adage that there’s “no life east of I-5.” The reinvention of the Qualcomm site must be a more robust 21st century response to climate change. We need to get this right. The Mission Valley site is too big to fail.

Lawrence A. Herzog, an author and the 2017 San Diego State University Faculty Monty Award winner, has taught urban planning for more than three decades. He’s currently the co-coordinator of the graduate program in city planning at SDSU’s School of Public Affairs.

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