Why Design Matters, San Diego! North Park Community Plan Update Issues

Climate Action Plan, San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

For the past 4 or 5 years, I’ve been working on the North Park Community Plan Update for the North Park Community Planning Group, and here at the end it simply is not achieving the goals the community set out to accomplish when the project started 8 years ago. The three issues I have with the North Park Community Plan Update (CPU) are:

1) Any up zoning beyond our 1986 plan that enables 2016 mixed-use, walkable urbanism on Transit Corridors necessitates an expensive + time consuming Planned Development Permit/Process 4. We wanted to focus, encourage, and make easy new development on El Cajon Blvd – ECB;

2) Dismissal of requested Historic District Designations in older bungalow neighborhoods that need/want the discretionary review mentioned above for ECB as local ‘preservationist’ agreed to this compromise as we intended to give additional protections and make it harder to bungalow neighborhoods, and;

3) 1960s city-wide zoning replaces 1986 local zoning and both still enable new single-story/use drive thrus (new Starbucks, Wendy’s, Sonic as examples) on ECB by-right and easier than vertical mixed-use buildings (this shift was a big deal to build more housing and shops in NP).


New mixed-use housing… a full lot OFF University Avenue (a Main Street)


New development on El Cajon Boulevard… again note the drive up chain food with urban housing a full lot OFF the main boulevard. This is the predominate pattern.

I will post my PEIR issues at a later date…

So, Community Plans are only used to review discretionary process as zoning does the heavy lifting to build San Diego. You have a zoning designation on your lot now and to change that takes discretionary review. So, status quo has been maintained and all of the new policies written into the CPU are only reviewed on those few projects requesting changes. The problem is we have now made new development on ECB more difficult than new development in our bungalow neighborhoods.

It is important to know that San Diego zoning does not have to be in conformance with its policies b/c we are a Charter City. This makes our City of Villages big idea near impossible to Implement. And, we didn’t upgrade/change any of our zoning from 1986 all we have essentially maintain status quo with this CPU.


Existing Zoning on University Avenue and 30th Street, the Village ‘Center’ of North Park.

All of our zoning is based on 1960s suburban community building tools and is built on segregating Land Uses from each other (Residential/Commercial/Industrial) and is difficult to use to build mixed-use, walkable urbanism (think about the difference in vertical mixed use in older east coast cities versus in newer southwest cities).

The best example of how our single-use zoning doesn’t implement the type of contemporary city we want is found near one of our obvious Transit Village Centers at University and 30th Street. This could be either the next great place or Another PB or College bar scene.


Existing Commercial Buildings, some historic, most just stucco boxes. My Grandmother worked the Woolworth building in the center and lived three blocks away.


Existing Residential buildings, with many historic bungalows here and more just off image.

Today, our best vertical mixed-use walkable building’s are a half-block off University (La Boheim, You’ve Got Mail, New Senior Housing, and Parking Garage) b/c University is zoned heavy commercial and the neighborhood behind is zoned heavy residential. But planners knew that a transition was needed, so they made very flexible zones to allow either commercial or residential or some of both… which put our best urban buildings closer to historic homes than ON the transit corridor. Almost every new building is OFF the night street (crazee burger, CWH on Texas & Howard) b/c of this vert good mistake.


Our recent and best new mixed-use, 4-6 story buildings are all just OFF University Avenue, and deeper into the historic neighborhood, making local NIMBY opposition more heated.


This is what have and are continuing to build today…

How to fix this?  Well, it is too late to fix in the Community Plan Update, but the Land Development Code is updated annually and zoning is the key to success anyway. So, I recommend using a Zoning Overlay, or a Place-Based, Form-Based, context-sensitive zoning tool to achieve the overall density within 600-feet of major transit station areas to shift or mode of transportation from predominately autos to walking, biking, riding transit, and cars. Here is what the results could deliver:


More housing/jobs bang for our transit buck and all ON University Avenue, staying out of the neighborhoods that’ll add housing with state-mandated  Accessory Units (Granny Flats)


Place-Types identified and coded accordingly: Core – I / Center – II / Edge A – III / Edge B – IV / Historic  – H/ Civic Space – P / Residential – V


Why Design Matters, San Diego! The Cabrillo Bridge + Plaza de Panama

Public Space, San Diego, Urban Design

Way back in 2010 I asked the City of San Diego Planning Commission, “Why screw up the bridge to fix the plaza?” Six years later it still rings true as it makes very little sense to significantly alter/change one of San Diego’s best places, the Cabrillo Bridge, in order to remove the few cars now flowing through the now beloved Plaza de Panama. Back then, the project passed our city council amidst volatile debate and subsequently failed a court challenge. Very few cried its demise. Mayor Sanders and beloved philantropist Dr. Irwin Jacobs walked away from their “all-or-nothing pedestrian-oriented plaza Centennial Plan” that consisted of an auto-oriented ‘by-pass bridge’ appendage off the Cabrillo Bridge that funneled traffic into a 200-car parking garage. However, last year the lawsuit was overturned and the exact same project was quietly resurrected by new Mayor Falconer.


A ‘World’s Fair’ with the same design intent as Chicago’s White City and London’s Crystal Palace.

Three years ago, a group of us assisted Mayor Filner (curse his name) to design a temporary pedestrian plaza that has been a clear success (for 60 plus years it was a parking lot for 57 cars).  It was a ‘tactical urbanist‘ approach to test and measure success before investing in such a dramatic change in its character from a parking lot into the plaza it was designed to be. We had to be mindful of local institutions fear of losing customers (all have since had record breaking years) who would want to park in front of their museums as well as the Uptown Planning Group not wanting people to park in their community if the bridge was closed to all traffic. The plaza sits on an isolated mesa and as design icon Leon Krier noted, the plaza core needs traffic to bring people to it as nobody lives in easy walking distance, which makes it very different from European city plazas in the center of town (Plaza San Marco in Venice, Piazza Navona in Rome, and Rittenhouse Square in Philly).


7/8th of Plaza was re-opened to pedestrians, replacing 57 parking spaces, but still allowing cars and trams to flow through 1/8th of the plaza to pick up/drop off.



Today the plaza hosts events, food trucks, troubadours, children, new restaurant, 2016 Tour de California, and many wedding pictures.

The Problem

The new by-pass project looks like any other auto-oriented grade-seperated off-ramp leading to a parking garage between Sabre Springs and Riverside. The design is an after thought, breaking the flow of one of the world’s best designed places found in San Diego (the other might be the Salk Institute).


Rick Engineering and Civitas Design for the Auto By-Pass + Parking Garage (on right)


I’m not sure what to write here… except that this is exceptionally underwhelming.

My concern is that the poorly conceived, traffic engineering focussed space that will scar our Panama Exposition core as every other building, street, plaza, park space and parking space in it was executed with tremendous design acumen over a century ago for our pleasure. What will be beloved about this new appendage a 100 years from today. It appears we are honoring our cultural heritage with what will now be two new dreary parking garages (the other is between the Botanical building and the zoo) and a ‘by-pass’ that diverts people away from intended beauty and into an enclosed parking lot.


Okay, a bit dated, but so are the issues at hand.

Unfortunately, San Diego has again forgotten what, Bertram Goodue, and George and Hamilton Marston knew: Building towards social and cultural value always equates to economic value while the converse is not always as true. Point is, we need to design in ways to celebrate, exhaust, express our local cultural values… maybe the by-pass does this?

I understand the construction documents are currently under review in the city’s Development Services Department, so this is essentially a moot point. I’ll go on as an explanation for posterity purposes, and thank you for continuing to read this…

The Original Big Idea

In my century old edition of Carleton Winslow’s, The Architecture and the Gardens of the San Diego Exposition, master architect,  Bertram Goodhue, clearly explains Panama Exposition’s big design idea. His metaphor was to give visitors to San Diego a virtual tour of traveling across the Atlantic Ocean (The Cabrillo Bridge); Through the Panama Canal where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans collide (California Quadrangle and its California Tower as a beacon); Up the Mexican Rivera coastline (the Spanish Arcades), and finally; A majestic arrival at a new California Arcadia (The Plaza de Panama)… all set in a ‘garden!’


Goodhue had a darn good idea, executed it well, and let everyone experience what the Panama Canal means to San Diego and its beautiful, well-designed future!


The View of the By-Pass Bridge area as conceived by Goodhue. These buildings are suppose to be in a garden setting, and not a parking lot.



The two reclining figures represent the Atlantic and Pacific oceans with the waves colliding at the Panama Canal in the center.

Three Better Design Options:

1. Shared Street: Keep everything as is… and rather than build more auto-oriented facilities (by-pass bridge + 200 space parking garage), a more  austere solution would be to make the street a ‘shared space,’ and keep the traffic flow to minimum speed of bikes and pedestrians with valet drop off, in order to access and enhance – rather than alter – San Diego’s greatest civic space. Everyone wins, even the parking garage can be built, and the cars/trams will behave even better, while continuing to deliver people directly to and from the institutions, and it only takes the cost of a sign. Supporters of the Sanders/Faulconer plan say the traffic today is dangerous. This would improve that for essentially $250 dollars (the cost of five signs).


We already have these in San Diego (at the Mouth of the mighty San Diego River).

2. Use the Existing By-Pass to the Existing Parking Garage: Irving Gill, another great designer, already built an arcade portal that links to the north that needs just one short connection to access existing streets and an existing subterranean parking structure. Add 200 parking units (one deck) to the existing structure, make that one connection, and viola! A well-designed By-Pass that drops the elderly and patrons direction in front of the Theaters. Supporters of the Sanders/Faulconer Plan say they want the access/parking for the theaters and the core… this is closer, cheaper, faster. (Post-script: Heard the Quince Street off-ramp could be a better solution for this access point and should be discussed)


Two ways to access a parking deck and maintain the integrity of Goodhue’s masterful design: Through the Gill’s driveway or up from Quince Street)


See Irving Gill’s one-way By-Pass arch there on the left? Just signage and paint and its better designed than the engineering Sabre Springs off-ramp.

3. How about a Beautifully Designed Bridge: Propose a new addition that carefully and thoughtfully adds dignity, value, and delight to visitors biking, walking, tramming, or driving to visit the Panama Exposition Grounds. Simply host a design competition. Ask the best in the world to give their best ideas, be bold and transparent to San Diegans about the value of the place that we all love and care for! I have never understood why a world-class design competition has been avoided from the beginning and this project being handled in this ‘my-way-or-no-way’ manner?

The design issue is, beyond its mindless deconstruction of the Nationally Registered Historic Cabrillo Bridge, the banal by-pass bridge in a sea of beauty that purposely impedes the flow of Goodie’s original design idea while adding nothing to the culture and heritage of San Diego’s most recognized jewel. Well, now we can hope for the best as we have zero assurances the best is being considered a century after our forefathers delivered such for our benefit.



Think this Bridge is Important to our Heritage? “Its more than a Bridge…”


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Understanding How Homes Get Built – The 10-step series


Understanding San Diego

A 10-part series on how the home-building "puzzle" pieces work in San Diego A 10-part series on how the home-building “puzzle” pieces work in San Diego

On this blog, I write about San Diego issues that could use straight forward explanations.  Most people don’t have time to wade through the technical differences between an enterprise fund and a general fund, or complex deferred maintenance documents related to infrastructure.  If our city is to do anything meaningful about how hard it is to afford to live under a roof in San Diego, as a community we must get a better working knowledge of how homes are built. Over the next couple months, I’ll release several straightforward pieces about real estate development – the process by which companies turn land into places to live, work, or play.  First up, let’s talk big picture.

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The New Town of Whitehall

Urban Design, Urban Planning
[Prologue: Yes, I know this is a bit too aspirational, maybe a touch over the top, but I wrote what I felt so it must be true to some degree… and admittedly, a bit of ego is involved as I had a small hand in the making of what I believe is a great place, The Town of Whitehall. This new Town, and its neighborhoods is being constructed today in New Castle County, Delaware, and is founded by Brian DiSabatino (development manager) and Rich Julian (builder), with the help of my former firm, PlaceMakers, Robert Gibbs, Steve Mouzon, Mike Watkins, and many others.]

Whitehall was envisioned eight years ago on a 2nd story corner design studio located in a historic brick building in downtown San Diego. It came from a rudimentary understanding that small town culture was dependent upon the conception of balancing nature with our daily needs. Instead of forming a single and isolate subdivision of housing or commercial strip center shops that disregarded the surrounding landscape’s natural setting, Whitehall was organized as a variety of streets, blocks, houses, shops, schools and squares set within the beautifully Delaware’s timbered countryside. The master plan illustrates how streets radiate deep into a neighborhood defined by streams and woodlands that becomes a transcendental experience when the fall colors turn.

(The first idea is on the left; the plan today is on the right)

For this vision to becoming a built reality, New Castle County’s conventional suburban subdivision development policies and zoning regulations were updated to offer an alternative to reflect this long-standing neighborhood-to-nature interdependence upon which the character of each neighborhood is complete. Whitehall’s neighborhoods are being built as a 3-dimensional form of our spiritual and material worth expressed. The town expresses our collective values in how we choose to live our daily lives. It’s dignified, it’s flexible, and it accommodates everyone. This is a choice. To live in a city, town or neighborhood is not an accident, but the result of a coherent vision that built old New Castle, and the newer Kentlands, and King Farm, Maryland.

Conceived in the long-standing tradition of town building as a series of neighborhoods that coalesce into a new town over time, the interactions of neighbors, residents, visitors, and those who are ‘just passing by’ will build both past memories and future expectations that will shape the town’s eventual ‘community character.’ The design team understood that this traditional place making pattern brings people together while also siting lightly on the local landscape. These traditional urban design tools were used in order to build upfront a comfortable ‘sense of place’ to be accentuated over time with specialty and civic buildings as citizens move in, engage, and shape their built environment to their collective values. It also respects the existing neighbors to the east and doesn’t impede on their choices and built expressions, and the new highway will provide access to the region in need of towns, and districts, and forests, and bays.

Yes, Whitehall is personal and it is yours. And it is your choice to live and prosper in close proximity to your neighbors, shops, schools, and nature. Your parents auto-oriented status quo is shifted back to being human-oriented by this purposefully natural living arrangement as we have been expected to just get in our cars and drive to and from our homes, shops, schools, squares and parks without question. This new/old arrangement of streets, squares and buildings within walking, biking, scootering, hop-scotching, strolling and driving questions status quo as you choose to make your home personal, which matters if you care enough to change conventional expectations of how you live your life.

(New Mixed-Use Building, Mike Watkins is the consulting Town Architect)


The place we live in, grow up in, remember, and the culture that is cultivated in these sorts of places matter to our lives. As where you choose to spend time, which is all we really have in this world, comes a tremendous cost and forms the heritage we leave behind. Whitehall has purposely turned the chaotic, drive-by, unfulfilling auto-oriented lifestyle around to offer a more connected, comfortable, and convivial neighborhood setting to make with it what you will. You can go to school, or a shop, as well as drift off into the woods. This is a recognizably different set of promises built on the idea that the quality of our lives hinges upon our free choice and not upon the fate of those before us.

And then yet you will find Whitehall.

[Epilog: Ok, I stole that last line from Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau (Mickey Ioane), Hawaii ’78 protest song, which is one of the greatest protest songs ever written about people’s feeling about sacred land. While not beloved yet, as it will take time for citizens to transfer its character from its initial ground breaking. Whitehall is in its essence a protest statement against not being coerced to spend our valuable time and money on things and places that mean nothing to us. Our endless miles of cars, highways, gas stations, parking lots, driveways, turnpikes, 7-11’s, Applebee’s, Olive Garden, Starbucks, drive thru garbage food, etc…]

Overpassing the Value of Public Space

Public Space, Urban Design

Caltrans does not restrict the right of free speech with handheld banners, but attaching flags or banners is not allowed,” a Caltrans-Spokesman told the San Jose Mercury News. He added, “We are concerned that people waving handheld banners could cause driver distraction — putting their safety or that of the motoring public at risk.

Today, we have prioritized the ‘motoring public’ over all other aspects of public life.

Our failure to cultivate the value and quality of our public spaces and public life is found in this picture of protesters and political advocates on a freeway overpass. Our cities are made up of public buildings, streets, squares and private lots, blocks and buildings. But when people want to be heard, seen, and get their message out to as many people as possible, they now gather on freeway bridge overpasses… for its on the freeways where everyone else can be found today, and not on our public street corners and squares.

Public assembly, free speech, and protests are cornerstones of American society. Our history includes the creation of National Parks and grand public spaces, such as Central Park, Golden Gate, and Balboa Park. They were created by us to, among other things, excercise our inalienable right to free speech and assembly. And, we continue to express our values in public and innovative ways as seen in the Occupy Wall Street protests, vile Trump rallies, and New York’s High Line success. These events are reflective of how our civilization grows and transitions over time.

We collectively expect access to public space in order to communicate with the bureaucracy running the machinery of our nation, state and city. We also know we must endeavor to protect these rights, as well as the spaces where these rights are exercised; Neither of which is easy.

In San Diego, our historic downtown ‘Speakers Corner’ is now long forgotten as 5th & E Street was the scene of great civil unrest a century ago. And, today’s homelessness explosion in our city has disturbed our relationship with public spaces. And, now our public parks and plazas are security patrolled, well-programmed, and require permits to use.

We also expect them to be animated with attractions to hold our limited attention spans or they’re considered ‘boring.’ As Camillo Sitte wrote over a century ago that, “In former times the open spaces—streets and plazas—were designed to have an enclosed character for a definite effect. Today we normally begin by parceling out building sites, and whatever is left over is turned into streets and plazas.” And, admittedly so, these stand-alone left over space ‘parks’ are too often inadequate and in need of bells and whistles to attract the ‘motoring public’ from far flung suburbs.

When I see people expressing their views on freeway overpasses, I see our civilization under duress or at least in transition – from gathering in the square to holding signs on an overpass bridge. These are one-way statements and this type of conversation does not facilitate a dialog and understanding. Sadly, this illustrates how far we’ve receded from what urban design guru Leon Krier teaches, “The architecture of the city and public space is a matter of common concern to the same degree as laws and language – they are the foundation of civility and civilization.”

Downtown Block

Design Thinking…

Urban Design, Urban Planning

It has taken me years to learn that no matter how many times I draw my little comic pictures, which I’ve been doodling since I was a kid, I am not an artist. Limited by well-honed procrastination techniques (see this blog), my design technique is to ‘craft’ images by any media/means necessary to express my design ideas. Understanding that I’m a craftsman has made it easier for me to convey my ‘design thinking’ to others. The following is my design process… for better or worse!


My cartoons sketches, as good as they will ever get, are unlike Geoff Dyer‘s drawings, as I continue to learn how to move from cartoon to a publishable illustration.

The duality of life… life/death, sun/moon, light/dark, man/woman, formal/informal, yen/yang, etc… is an inherent basis for my design approach.

As Viennese architect Camillo Sitte wrote in 1889, the distinction of these dual powers is found in the Temporal realm (political) and the Spiritual (religious) realm. These require distinctive public centers, such as the Public Forum/Agora, Market Hall, Temple/Church Square, and Manor Palaces/City Halls. Leon Krier further identifies that our neighborhoods (res Civitas), and their resulting character, are defined by a public realm (the street, square, and civic buildings – res publica) in relationship to our private realm (blocks, yards and building – res economica). And, Andres Duany’s brilliant planning and design tool, the Transect, distinguishes the gradations between nature and the urban core. These truisms set the context or parametric for how I begin to design a place.

The duality of designing places begins with the assembly of two components. The first is man-made geometry (the circle, square, and triangle are not found in nature), and the second is crafting these shapes towards a specific location’s cultural values. Geometry equates to the project’s spiritual aspiration and higher purpose. When applied to a local culture’s memory and expectation it provides the design an emotion or accent. How ‘local’ you apply these shapes shifts the design from either a more formal classical pattern or towards a more local vernacular or dialect.

The story told by the above language is the design’s ‘Controlling Purpose,’ (per Frederick Law Olmsted), ‘High Concept,’ (per J Mays), or ‘What’s the Big Idea!‘ (per Frank Wolden). And then everything else plays a supporting role to the big rational idea. This is when the project moves from diagrams towards design.

As a child I enjoyed drawing. As a New Urbanist, my design aspiration is beauty, to improve the quality of people’s lives, and connect us with places that we feel good in. This agrees with Aristotle who summarized every principle of city building with: “A city should be a built to give its inhabitants security and happiness.”

I agree with JMay’s that beauty is revealed in the further refinement of proportion (scale/intensity), line (flow), and shape (form)… in that order of importance.

A correct proportion is determined by the project’s aspiration, role, and character as expressed in a locale’s memory and expectations. The line leads the project’s ‘flow’ and the form/shape expands from the line (See Renzo’s image below). A favorite quote on lines from ‘The Education of Henry Adams‘ is: “He knew the artistic standard was the illusion of his own mind; that English disorder approached nearer the truth, if truth existed, than French measure or Italian line, or German logic.”

California Academy of Sciences

Renzo Piano’s Big Idea and line for the California Academy of Sciences Building (Image from Gordon Chong Partners)

Calfiornia Academy of Sciences Building

From Big Idea to a Public Building that Reflected the cultural values of San Francisco at that moment in time (Image from Gordon Chong Partners)

Following this yen/yang big picture thread, Leon Krier once said, “All it takes is just one wiggle…” to make a tremendous difference in making a great place within a monotonous grid of US west city streets. Leon tends to lean towards a less formal ‘flow,’ much like my other design hero Geoff Dyer. And, I understand that I lean towards a more formal ‘flow’ starting with a grid pattern and deviating only stubbornly during the public charrette.

Vernacular Classic Urbanism

Krier’s diagrams shows less ordered (vernacular) and more ordered (classical) design patterns

Another helpful design tip came from Andres Duany, who encouraged me with, “Don’t get in the way of the flow,” and allow the local context to tame my classically ordered street patterns.  And finally, Liz Plater-Zyberk, Andres’ partner, wrote that ‘Urbanism is the tension between two buildings,” as that tension gives ‘life’ to these two forms. Indeed.


The Line, profile pattern of buildings, led to the pattern of Shapes/Forms. (Civic Innovation Lab project w/David Saborio)


Its not Smart Growth… It’s Called Avoiding a Housing Crisis

Climate Action Plan, San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

(First printed in here on March 1, 2016)

California’s Bay Area housing disaster tells Southern Californians that our housing crisis will only get worse and doing nothing is both an irrational and irresponsible response. We are faced with deciding to have more neighbors or pay more taxes as we desperately need money to fix our city’s crumbling infrastructure. The conundrum is that we despise taxes and the mere mention of ‘density’ polarizes any discussion into either demands for no new growth or building tall towers.

I believe answers to meet San Diego’s housing demand are found in the following two-tier approach:

The first tier is a baseline ‘Beach Density,’ which I’ve written about here. An existing housing model found in our older, traditional beach neighborhoods that fills our need for the ‘missing middle’ types of housing. This model is essentially a residence or shop with three (3) to five (5) units on each lot that are no more than two (2) to three (3) stories tall. All of these homes and businesses are mixed together every few blocks or so. By allowing every lot in San Diego’s urbanized areas to have up to five (5) units’ by-right, we have the opportunity to solve for our critical housing and infrastructure financing deficiencies without dramatically altering our city’s character. Ultimately, the entire city can enjoy and benefit from our healthy, outdoor lifestyle that this Beach Model provides us.

The second tier is more precisely located ‘Climate Action Zones.’ Per its recently adopted Climate Action Plan, the city of San Diego is required to take actions to “Implement transit-oriented development within Transit Priority Areas,” and to “[a]chieve better walkability and transit-supportive densities by locating a majority of all new residential development within Transit Priority Areas.” In combination with the Beach Density’s baseline housing bump, these Climate Action Zones are intended to achieve our city’s legally binding Climate Action Plan within a reasonable timeline.1 We cannot expect the city to complete it all at once, but it can accommodate for an urban acupunctural approach… pin pricks at key points to make great change.

These ‘zones’ will require updated and new city policies, including community plan updates, to facilitate increases of land use intensity near our region’s transit investments. Fortunately, we have one of our nation’s first and best Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) guidelines written by planning guru Peter Calthrope in 1992 that have sat neatly on a shelf in the city’s Planning Department over these many years, having been emasculated by our currently suburban and convoluted parking regulations. We should dust these off, as they’ve been proven throughout the world – as well as Portland – to increase transit ridership. In addition, we should manage our off-street parking and simplify one space per unit to permit transit, walking, and biking to be as advantageous as driving.

SD GP Map Before

City of San Diego Plan Before Climate Action Zones

A ‘tower’ in San Diego is a building over 7 stories, and are only appropriate in one or two areas beyond downtown. However, 4 – 6 stories have been built in our old streetcar neighborhoods since their founding 100 years ago, as this height is a ‘walk up’ and appropriate in ‘walkable’ neighborhoods. Climate Action Zones should be located on the 4 to 8 blocks (600 feet radius) around primary intersections with cross-street transit service, currently built as 60’s era gas stations, drive-thrus, and strip centers.


San Diego Development Potential with Climate Action Zones

Data shows that the majority of trips within 600 feet of a transit station are made by transit, bike or foot. These zones would permit mixed-use, up to 7 stories/90 feet tall max, using our TOD guidelines that allow for shared parking ratios with limited Community Plan conformance reviews in order to ensure transition steps to protect neighbors. Rather than waiting to build another Rancho del Rancho on our suburban periphery, these retrofitted intersections will be the focus of new development for the next 15-years. Successful case studies include Salt Lake’s Commuter, Light Rail (LRT), and Streetcar corridor economic engine, Dallas’s new LRT stations and Klyde Warren Park and Historic Streetcar value explosion, and Denver’s new infill coding success.

It is untenable to keep century old urban communities from change. But we know change brings fear to local citizens, which is why this two-tier approach makes very clear that new housing can fit comfortably within our current lifestyle if we explicitly plan for what we need using San Diego proven models. Finally, we have to plan for the change we want in order to fix our infrastructure, add public spaces, and to continue to be relevant to working economies by providing attainable housing, accessible transportation, and our unique outdoor lifestyle.


An Archive of Blogs… (this title has that ‘Led Zeppelin’ or ‘Jumbo Shrimp’ feel to it)

Social Media, Urban Design, Urban Planning

My former company, PlaceMakers, has a great blog site and wealth of blogs archived to mine a wealth of urban design, community buildings, and innovative ideas from. They fortunately keep my old blogs on their database that can be found here.

They are also recirculating a very good idea Scott Doyon played with from a comment I made in an earlier blog on ‘PlaceShaking vs. PlaceMaking.’ It can be found here and think its relevant to our smaller steps to city making and how we get things done in the 21st century. Check them out, they do great work and I’m looking forward to their new plaza in Downtown Las Cruces grand opening soon. Cheers!


A collaborative approach to fixing North Park’s few problems

San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

North Park Community Plan Update – We Can Do Better by Working Together

By Howard Blackson and Don Leichtling

North Park is one of San Diego’s finest communities. It has many distinctive neighborhoods, with most containing block after block of beautiful bungalows of all varieties. It contains award winning schools, and every quarter-mile or so, neighborhood centers that contain great restaurants, small shops, brew pubs, and corner markets.  Hipsters, elderly, and families with kids love living in North Park because it is already both walkable and diverse.

Historic North Park also has its share of problems because of its age, but now changes are occurring to make it even better because North Park is now one of San Diego’s most desirable places to live.  The City has earmarked funds for the long awaited new urban park behind the North Park theater, SANDAG has begun design of major new bicycle friendly routes, MTS has just finished building Rapid Bus lanes with stations along El Cajon Boulevard (ECB), and new joint-use park facilities are also being developed with local schools.

The City has also spent the past six years investing in a much-needed update to its 1986 North Park Community Plan in an effort to fix some of these problems. The community plan is a policy document intended to provide clear direction for the next steps to make our larger goals come to life.  We think the following recommendation are better approaches in achieving the goals stated in the Community Plan Update, which are with our clarifications in [Brackets]:

  • A diversity of housing types with varying levels of affordability;
  • Businesses that contribute to the vitality and growth of the community in harmony with [their nearby] residential neighborhoods;
  • A circulation system that offers safe, multi-modal access between jobs, shopping, recreation, businesses, schools, and residential neighborhoods;
  • A [safe] community that is a center for creativity and enriched by public art;
  • Employment and mixed-use centers that allow North Park residents to work where they live through the attraction of new businesses and higher paying jobs;
  • A high level of public facilities that not only meet the needs of the community, but serve to enhance community identity [and improve the quality of life for everyone];
  • A community that fosters the expansion of [healthy] recreational opportunities through traditional and innovative ways [that guarantees equal access for all];
  • Open space resources that are managed, maintained [or enhanced as density is added];
  • Sustainable residential neighborhoods and business districts;
  • Cultural and historic resources that are respected and preserved through historic designations and adaptive re-use [whose numbers continue to grow as North Park’s housing stock ages]. 

Our Areas of Concern

On El Cajon Boulevard (ECB) high-speed traffic, along with the hookers, new and old drive-thru restaurant’s and older, dilapidated single story commercial buildings have been problematic for 50+ years. These elements have slowed the revitalization of this major transit corridor through North Park.  Many believe that now is the time to build upon the median upgrades and high speed transit improvements have been recently installed.

On University Avenue, the long vacant Woolworths building is a constant reminder of what San Diego’s first thriving shopping district once was.  In the late 1950’s, developers disinvested in North Park’s business district and poured their money into new commercial areas first in Mission Valley and then at almost every new freeway interchange north of it, as ever more people used cars to go shopping.

In the 1960s and into the early 1980s, developers started to build Huffman 6 unit buildings or “six-packs”, where once there were single-family homes.  These were the cheapest form of then market rate housing at the time but they lowered the quality of North Parks building stock through, because they added housing units without any infrastructure, appropriate parking or Quality of Life (QOL) improvements.


(Image of Huffman 6-Pack by Howard Blackson)

Our Simple Approach

In order to clearly articulate to developers, residents, business owners and decision-makers what the community plan intends to do, we recommend a simple but effective approach:

  • Protect and build upon the best elements of each neighborhood within North Park;
  • Design better ways to fix our worst problems, instead of leaving it up to chance;
  • Make sure that all the new projects connect to the best neighborhood elements in ways that fulfill our community’s values and goals.

Our Recommendations 

1. Expedite designation of potential historic resources. The goals of the Community Plan Update state the community’s intent to protect its wonderful historic resources, the Burlingame Historic District, the North Park Theater, the iconic green water tower as well as the many blocks of soon to be historic bungalows as outlined in the plan’s historic district designation. This will ensure that all new development protects these identified resources, while providing the maximum amount of much needed Low and Low-Moderate additional housing and other business resources. The plan’s historic district designation is being updated at this time and needs to spell out clearer policies, such as expedited historic designations processes for those areas identified as being potential new historic districts, which will increase North Parks attraction to San Diego’s visitors. (See the Draft Community Plan Land Use and Historic Preservation Elements for reference linked here)


(Image of Burlingame Historic District by Howard Blackson)

2. Build upon the new Rapid Bus transit route along ECB to provide a more active multi-modal circulation system. We need to expeditiously link North Park with job centers in Mission Valley, Downtown, Sorrento Valley, and our neighboring communities.  We support new bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure first. These systems are spelled out in the plan’s Circulation Element, but must it must be explicitly linked to create new value for more high quality development projects. (See Mobility Element)

3. Our worst problems are found in 60’s-era auto centered drive thru restaurants, haphazard buildings located nearer to historic bungalow blocks rather than on our main streets, and a limited housing supply for rent restricted Low and Low-Moderate income people which includes the young and old alike. A better way to fix these problems is to state that we should retrofit El Cajon Boulevard first.  At key well-connected intersections, we should encourage 6-stories or less mixed-use buildings. These buildings can add both long term rent restricted Low and Low-Moderate housing plus some market rate “attainable” housing while providing new employment and business opportunities for all.

Since 1986, El Cajon Boulevard’s zoning has been 109 dwelling units per acre [du/ac] with unlimited height and has failed to encourage mixed use development as we continue to build new drive-thru restaurants. To shift the development pattern from the current “auto-oriented strip commercial” to a better mixed-use transit supported pattern, the ECB corridor should be clearly identified in the plan’s Land Use element with 145 dwelling units per acre with an 80-foot height limit on lots located on the property fronting ECB with a ‘Community Review’ process, while at the same time, requiring set backs from and stepping down to its alley, so as to not create a linear walls looming over its neighbors across the alley (see diagrams below). Because this new development is located where the community gets the most value for new development’s location, a more predictable city entitlement ‘Process 3’ should be used to focus it here while at the same time making it more difficult to occur in the stable historic residential blocks. (See Land Use and Urban Design Elements)


(Diagrams of how new buildings should step down towards neighboring homes by Howard Blackson)

Focus new development along ECB, over the next 20+ years, with enhanced design standards that will also protect the adjacent residential neighborhoods from the building height transition along ECB.  This will connect not only the new housing, jobs, and shops to the rest of North Park’s great neighborhoods but also to our parks, other new future transit public investments, and public improvements. Likewise, new development on University Avenue, Park Boulevard, Adams Avenue, 30th Street north of University Ave. and Texas Street will need to make use of similar scaled down transition rules, that relate to lot size and road widths as found in the plan’s Urban Design Element. This emphasis on transition rules is concurrent with the community’s many already and soon to be historic districts in the areas north and south of ECB and south of University Avenue as listed in the Historic Preservation Element being updated now. (See Land Use, Mobility, Urban Design and Implementation Elements)


(Image of building stepping up towards neighboring homes by Don Leichtling)

4. Redeveloping former strip centers like El Cajon Boulevard is now a successful national trend. A similar transition between building patterns and scale is needed to replace the most rundown of our auto-oriented Huffman six-pack apartments, clustered in the blocks between El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue.  Because this is an innovative approach the entire city can learn from, the replacement of selected Huffman’s needs to have wide spread public support with clear design policies and standards that allow North Park to test and measure proposed outcomes prior to enabling across-the-board retrofits. Most of these buildings are scattered haphazardly and we must test new retrofit approaches in order to avoid repeating past mistakes, mostly due to added density without amenity.  Most North Park’s residents will support ‘Quality Density’ improvements benefiting everyone equally, rather than just adding more Density in certain areas. We recommend any increase in density comes with design standards and a high-level ‘Community Review’ Process 4 with a 1 to 3 years ‘testing’ period statement. (See Land Use and Urban Design Elements)

5. Make managed parking areas less difficult to create, more flexible to share, and easier to find since parking is a concern always cited. “Hunt-and-peck” parking is becoming more and more difficult, especially in older neighborhoods whose homes have undersized turn-of-the-century garages and that are located near popular night-time businesses. This is especially important to all those who, for whatever reason, are not able to walk long distances or ride a bike.  Having access to parking ensures better access to North Park.  Having different parking management plans for the business corridors (ie. El Cajon Boulevard and University Ave) while at the same time protecting the residential properties located within walking distance to the business districts is imperative to the plan. Of great importance similar to historic district preservation and focusing new development on ECB, the Mobility Element must explicitly allow neighborhoods adjacent to business districts the ability to designate managed parking areas as a top priority (See Mobility Element, section 3.5.)

We realize that the new NP Community Plan is a living document that needs our continued scrutiny, adaptations, and support to achieve our collective goals.  Now after several years of draft plans and many late night meetings, all these issues are now being outlined in multiple Community Plan Elements listed above, and they will be finalized over the upcoming weeks.  In order we may together plan the best possible future for our neighborhood, we have collaborated on these recommendations in hopes of helping both preservationists and urbanists understand and support these conclusions, which we feel best address North Park’s most pressing problems.

(Mr. Don Leichtling is a local preservationist and whom I appreciate debating on ways to improve our local community. I want to thank Don for collaborating with me on these recommendations)


Urban Acupuncture – Homelessness

San Diego, Urban Planning

Homeless Americans are not illegal refugees to be incarcerated and deported. While a criminal element has easily exploited our homeless poor’s predicament, they too are being supported by our current haphazard hand-out response to our homeless economic issue. Fortunately, homelessness doesn’t directly affect a majority of San Diegans, but these citizens are in desperate need of an alert and immediate response from those of us able to help.

In our neighborhoods, seeing people sleeping or living on our streets is painful. It is a reminder of our need both small-scale built form response as well as a large-scale health and human services responses to the too visible problem in our city. Doing a little as possible to date has only exacerbated the issue and we now having linger ramifications that bring out both the best and worse in us.

For 2016, I recommend the City of San Diego enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with various Homeless advocacy groups to allow the public facilities necessary to provide basic human services in the public street’s right-of-way, such as portable restrooms, bathing and shelter facilities. This MOU is similar to the agreements the city has with utility companies to allow for electrical boxes to sit permanently in our sidewalks, and would legally allow parking spaces and street frontages to be utilized for transitioning homeless people to more dignified living arrangements faster. This is similar to how we treat our refugees of natural disasters, such as New Orleans after Katrina and New Jersey after Sandy.

This simple paper agreement is intended to transform our first response to homelessness from a being crime into a humanitarian effort in order to get our people off the streets and into homes in a streamlined and morally responsive rather than combative manner.