Innovation Districts… in San Diego?

Innovation Districts, San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

Innovation Districts are a contemporary economic development model focused on geographic areas where medical institutions (Med), research universities (Ed), and technology industry companies (Ted) are purposely clustered and connected with entrepreneurs, start-ups, accelerators, and incubators. These new era economic generators are a market shift from previously isolated suburban research parks towards mixed-use, walkable, amenity-rich places. These Med-Ed-Ted hubs, innovation districts, are useful tools to provide a competitive advantage for large swaths of a city over a single, isolated, private development project.

A question is when is an Innovation Districts more of a big picture policy/vision organizing and fundraising tool or a more refined geographical place defined by its regulatory structure?

THE IDEA DISTRICT – East Village, San Diego

In downtown San Diego, California, Local developers, David Malmuth and Peter Garcia of IDEA1, have identified and marketed their project in East Village as an Innovation District as an ‘education corridor’ from Balboa Park to Petco Park. These types of districts are well documented by urban scholar Bruce Katz here in 2016 and 2019. And a great model of success is found in San Francisco’s Mission Bay, one of the 20 or so of successful innovation districts across the nation.

Innovation District success is found, as Mr. Katz has written, “… in their complexity and integration of what was previously separated and ‘siloed’— people, quality of place, and innovation.” One of San Francisco’s Mission Bay accomplishments is found in its governance, which is evolving from the alignment of strategies and tenants to more sophisticated interventions around place-making. Another of its successes is found in attracting anchor companies, such as Dropbox in Mission Bay, as well as Quicken Loans in Detroit, Comcast in Philadelphia, and Amazon in Seattle’s South Lake Union.

Important urban design elements listed by Mr. Katz include providing a platform for various activities. This means its jobs and work, R&D and education, the arts and transportation. This variety provides the necessary critical mass to support each other. Scientist and creatives, teachers and residents, artists and employees, entrepreneurs and students. The scale and intensity cultivate an ‘eco-system’ that grows innovation and creativity that competes from the local to national scales. These plug into the existing economic infrastructure and governance, which infuse it with civic champions, business entrepreneurs, and leadership. And, finally, Mr. Katz says these big moves led to many small wonders that creates interest and complexity to what is replacing the conventional Class A Business Park model.

While the education anchors (City College and UCSD International Studies) are found in San Diego’s East Village today, it lacks a few of the key ingredients listed above to form a successful Innovation District. Importantly, an important portion of downtown’s governance is transitioning from Civic San Diego to the City of San Diego Development Services Department (DSD) with Civic San Diego still retaining some its economic development functions, such as Tax Credits, but losing its planning, permitting, and parking district oversight.

While a very real shift with intended and unintended consequences, this change appears to be an opportunity to better align the city’s planning/permitting of private property with its traffic, transportation and parks duties. Historically, these services have been ‘siloed’ and this shift might be an opportunity to better align the implementation of the Downtown Mobility Plan with new projects being entitled in East Village to craft a distinctive Innovation District to strategically attract anchor company tenants.

The City of San Diego’s Economic Development Department, and local Non-Government Organizations, the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and Downtown Partnership, provide incentive programs for new businesses to locate downtown. And, this may be an opportune time to advocate for a dedicated Innovative District with additional incentives and municipal services available to private development, possibly via a Joint Power Authority consisting of a combination of City of San Diego Economic Development Department (Christina Bibler), EDC (Mark Cafferty), Civic San Diego (Andrew Phillips), SD City College (Ricky Shabazz), UC San Diego (Mary Walshok), and California State University (Adam Day) agencies, or some other enabling tool post-redevelopment to purposely provide a competitive advantage for East Village over San Diego’s rival innovation hubs across the US West and beyond.

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