The Next New Urbanism

Transit, Urban Design, Urban Planning

This Covid year has accelerated development patterns that have been shifting over the past decade, and as originally formulated by New Urbanists 20 years before. Do you support transit-oriented development? Participating in charrettes? Reforming your zoning with form-based codes? Then thank a New Urbanist. There are many prominent patterns emerging right now, including less commuting; more home/work balance; less industry expansion; and more technology-based business growth in a post-industrial economy.

Detroit Shifting Towards Industrialization Patterns in the 20th Century.

These shifts are changing the way we work, just like the industrial revolution changed our world 130 years ago by creating new building types and city-making technology with the invention of steel. In response to that revolution, our cities were reconfigured with skyscrapers, blocks of offices/factories, highways, and cars.

Many cities were reconfigured during that time, but Detroit is our nation’s most dramatic shift to and from industrialization patterns in the 20th century.

Now, as we shift into our post-industrial age—and deeper into the age of climate calamity—we are able to measure both its successes and failures. For example, classicism works best at the human scale, but it failed us at the industrial scale when it became an ornament/style and a fascist/authoritarian tool. The international style failed us at the human scale but is ubiquitous because it’s faster, easier, and cheaper to build. And modernism was a disaster at every scale (Google Léon Krier; he was right).

We are once again entering a brave new era with the opportunity to create a balanced approach to architecture, building types, and city-making techniques that are intended to civilize and modify the best and worst of our industrial advances with the best of our human-scaled buildings and places. By using a full spectrum of 21st century placemaking tools, the Next New Urbanism is able to advance the human condition toward a more sustainable future.

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Pre-Industrial and Post-Industrial Urbanism… in search of Equilibrium.

Industrialization (or The Education of Howard Blackson)

Climate Action Plan, Leon Krier, Urban Design, Urban Planning

Industrialization via the internal combustion machine changed the world (or the Dynamo as described in the great autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams) when it created steel that created new industrial scaled building types. The factories, offices, and skyscrapers were invented in the late 19th century. And because this invention happened during our western civilization’s Neoclassical era, this familiar classical architecture was applied and used to ‘humanize’ these new buildings. However, because the building forms were new, the classicism was applied as a façade, and thereby is ornament… or this mismatched scale made classicism more of a style than a building technology.

A New Age Industrial Scale Office Building Expressed in a Classical Architectural Style, 1920
A New Age Skyscraper in the Classical Architectural Style.

The technology of building at the human scale was obliterated by the modern industrial materials, energy, and resulting scale. Along with these new engines and buildings, new forms of mobility rose as well, trains, streetcars, and then automobiles transformed with the age. The industrial scale of car production created another mismatch in our traditional city environment. Industrialized suburban sprawl was fueled by this auto production.

Leon Krier Alerted us to this in the Early 1970s.

Modern architecture formed in a parallel track. Le Corbusier’s 1923 book, ‘Towards a New Architecture‘ responded to this new scale w/an industrial design aesthetic post WW1. And until post WW2, cities used both classical and international styles on modern scaled buildings and places. And I am writing this next sentence as carefully as possible because it is an extremely volatile subject… it was the WW2 fascist Axis power’s adoption of classicism as an authoritarian tool at an industrial scale that shamed the use of classicism almost out of existence for generations in both academia and society’s elite. For such, classicism was rightfully deemed a failure. Leaving us limited to only one architectural tool, the untested International Style/modernism, to integrate industrialization into our cities over time. And it eventually failed too.

Industrial Scaled Buildings Expressed with International Style Architecture.

Classical style failed us architecturally at the industrial scale. It had worked fine for thousands of years pre-industrial age and scale. And the International Style failed us urbanistically when applied to the pre-Industrial city. And I dare say the Industrial scaled city (suburban sprawl) has failed use urbanistically as well. This was a lesson Frank Gehry’s ‘Bilbao Effect’ taught us. That the traditional city works great and modernist architecture fits in it well in juxtaposition to it and its classical architecture… adding complexity and excitement to the same old classical buildings set in the same old traditional streetscapes.

Bilbao’s Big Idea Wasn’t, “Hire a Starchitect!” It Was the Architectural Tuning of Place to Create Complexity!

The following are general lessons learned. Modern architecture works fine above the traditional city as long as it doesn’t meet the street/ground. And, classical/traditional architecture works well at the human scale when it touches the ground, but it has to be at the small block and up to mid-rise scale (not at an industrialized size). The traditional city pattern works best to make urbanism. Modern architecture works well when set in natural spaces.

The Salk

Using all of these tools today allows us to build better cities, places, and experiences. A century and change later, we no longer need to censor one while villainizing the other. They both work fine in certain situations and not so well in others. These are just tools that can work together if we understand how to use them.

Expanding on Leon Krier’s Tuning of Architectural Settlements with Classical and Non-Classical Buildings Creating a Variety of Place Types.

We are unfortunately in a new climatic calamity era and are thereby fortunately free of the surly bonds of mid-20th century style wars. I find it maddening that designers and urbanist still argue over style when industrialization is the root cause of our current climate/social calamity! We industrialized work and segregated our society. We industrialized our food and have put our health at risk. We used industrialized machines to emit coal and oil carbon particles into our atmosphere and are heating up our finite planet. We industrialized our health care and extended our lives and increased our population, so it has its merits too. What we need to address is that most people still see industrialization as the only tool to fix what originally caused these calamities… truly, a modern day Aesop’s fable.

In our new 21st century post-industrial/climate calamity era, we are now able to use every tool available to us to build more sustainable cities and places that range from More Industrial to Less Industrial / More Traditional to Less Traditional depending on its context.

Finally Free to Design Using all of our Tools in the Toolkit!

The City Making Process Takes Visioning, Coding, and Implementation.

Urban Planning

I was intrigued by an intelligent comment on Twitter, by @EricsElectrons, who put this nugget of truth out there and I got all excited about its process of intellectual elimination:

Everyone discusses problems.

Very few can come up with practical solutions.

Even fewer can objectively weigh all costs and benefits of all proposed solutions and then put into practice the best tradeoffs to correct for current problems.

Then I realized that he’s doing a great job describing the decision-making process cities go through when making city making decisions. This process of elimination is a form of subsidiarity enabling those few elected decision-makers to determine how we fix problems. the steps are:

First, a problem is identified, because everyone discusses problems. Let’s say for this post the problem is not enough middle-income housing in San Diego. How to solve for building more middle income housing in an economically hot coastal city is difficult and there are few practical solutions as most are complicated and convoluted that take time to realize. We understand the problem and we state a vision, “We need more middle-income and affordable housing in San Diego!” We’ve done this for many years with our city council declaring a ‘housing crisis’ annually.

And, because these complicated policy and long-range time fixes in need of multiple groups to enable, very few can come up with practical solutions. So, we need a plan that starts with the vision stated above, as well as practical solutions listed by planning scenarios that illustrate the costs and benefits (CEQA is a state law that is supposed to simply disclose the costs of new development) with objective-based data, such as this much VMT, GhG, number of housing units, retail, and so on. These plans codify the road map to get from problem to solution. The value of plans is to avoid duplication and waste of public investments, unite citizens to work towards a common vision/future, and show us practical, sensible ways of providing a place for everything we need to live in a more sustainable city.

Third, our elected and appointed leaders, we only have a few (zoning administrator, planning commission, city council, mayor, city attorney – why – and, county supervisors and commissioners opine on city making decisions) who are allowed/enabled to objectively weigh all costs and benefits of the planned solutions and then approve/put into practice the best tradeoffs to fix our stated problems. For middle income housing, the city of San Diego is choosing to use tools in our our Affordable Housing program and Complete Communities program in an attempt to solve our oft-stated problem. So, Eric is right… and rational.

The steps to solve for identified problems that affects everyone stats with understanding the problem, making a vision statement for our intended outcome, and then making codes and plans for ways to fix the problem. This direction is then decided by a select few who weight the costs/benefits using objective data.

COVID-19 Cities…

Social Justice, Urban Planning

As we find safety and comfort in telecommuting during this pandemic, we are rightfully questioning the need to live within proximity to workplaces, office parks, and large city employment centers. We aren’t sheltering-in-place as much as we have been sheltering-in-our-neighborhoods, and we’re recognizing that walkability, bikability and an active, healthy lifestyle is easier to achieve without wasting time in a car commuting for our every daily need. With small towns and gateway communities being seen by upper middle class families as ‘livable’ places again, folks are relocating to small towns in close proximity to national parks and wilderness recreational areas to live a more outdoor recreational and lifestyle. This Fast Company ‘Zoom Town’ story alludes to one of the many lessons being taught by Covid-19… the value and pleasure of an active lifestyle (replacing the time spent commuting).

Another lesson is that individual ‘jobs’ are now mobile and families are more free to relocate, which is similar to retirees with a only few differences. My experience in planning for new residents in the small gateway towns of Taos, Joshua Tree, and Borrego Springs (adjacent to Anza Borrego Desert State Park) is to carefully balance the need for long-term local resident economic stability (that funds small town local amenities) with the value and disruptions that high visitor demand brings to national park seasonally. This tradeoff is precarious to manage and zoom/boom towns need useful planning tools to avoid being a bust.

This balancing act is artfully told by Stephen Spielberg in the horror movie, Jaws. Except that COVID-19 is the shark, and the little town of Amity is a gateway town to the beach, with the overwhelmed sheriff trying to balance the safety and needs of the locals with the mass of summertime visitors that help the town survive the rest of the year. The Sherriff’s solution was to blend local knowledge (Quint) together with outside expertise (Hooper). There are several new toolkits online to provide that outside expertise to help towns adjust to new realities. In addition to the Gateway and Natural Amenity Regional Initiative toolkit referenced in the Fast Company article, friends and colleagues, PlaceMakers, have released their small town and cities Pandemic Toolkit, here, in response to these new challenges imposed by COVID-19.

Reforming Government to End Systematic Racism

Uncategorized, Urban Planning

An answer to our demands to end systematic racism will be found in reforming our role and structure of governance. Rick Cole, former Santa Monica City Manager, made some solid points about how our government system of today is a turn of the 20th century Progressive Era construct, a response to industrialization, in an era of racism. Racism was prevalent throughout that political movement comprising mostly white, small-town, Progressive voters grabbed the reins of power from business elites, government anti-trust policies shifting power from the elite robber barons.

As Thomas Leonard writes in, Illiberal Reformers, Princeton University Press, 2016, “The industrial revolution and the rise of big business after 1870 dramatically increased American living standards, but the era was plagued by recurring financial crises, violent labor conflicts, and two deep economic contractions. In response, progressive economists sought to regulate the American economy through a new administrative state based on scientific management principles. They established economics as an academic discipline, while promoting and helping build regulatory and independent institutions such as the Federal Reserve (1913), the Federal Trade Commission (1914), and the International Trade Commission (1916).

Unfortunately, their policies were based on social Darwinism and eugenics and excluded groups deemed inferior — including women, Southern- and Eastern-European immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and blacks.”

Red Lining and resulting zoning were born from that era, which I have spent a career focusing on reforming. However, I only just now realized that this advocacy for zoning reform was a very limited view and that I should be advocating for government reform in the same way.

Here are Rick’s comments: https://planningreport.com/2020/04/19/rick-coles-resignation-santa-monica-city-manager-canary-coal-mine-cities….

Pop-Up Pandemic Plazas and Parklets

Innovation Districts, Public Space, San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

PopUp1

Three Types of Open Air Spaces

PopUp2

Pop Up Parklet

PopUp3

Pop Up Plaza

PopUp4

Pop Up San Diego Scenario

PopUp5

Pop Up Spaces Defined

PopUp6

Pop Up Plaza, Parklet and Full Block Plaza

These illustrations and site plans are intended to assist our cities in enabling open-air markets in streets and rights-of-way. A follow up to the Podcast interview I had with Andrew Keatts this week (click here), the math shows that a full block provides the most area to enable more dining and shopping to be located in neighborhood centers located every half-mile or so apart. These ‘streateries’ would be managed and operated by local Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and Main Street organizations in order to be equitable across the city without it being shop by shop and coordinate efforts and resources (money) to enable us to have a safe place to go to dine in/out, shop in/out, and communicate with others.

San Diego simply doesn’t have enough local parks and plazas to handle the excess space needed to bring small businesses back to our neighborhoods. These places are intended to help small businesses reopen, as well as provide more public space to safely re-emerge from our homes and back into our neighborhoods. These standards would mitigate for social distancing while allowing the local shops to expand their capacity with the biggest issues to be planned for are conflicts between cars and people and maintaining socializing distancing.

The state is beginning to allow shops and restaurants to reopen at 50% capacity and still offer take out service. These plazas are intended to provide that other 50% capacity to help these businesses. In these standard 3-feet by 5-feet ‘safe zones,’ surrounded by a 6-feet social distancing area, are able to comfortably provide a table with two chairs, or a merchandise display, clothing racks, and a place to sit and wait for food while enjoying beverages in the summer time. They’re a safe relief value from the past 3 months of quarantine.

Importantly, American Disabilities Act standards are maintained. Stormwater runoff at the curb is maintained. And, a 15-foot clear fire access lane is maintained through the center of the streetscape as these spaces are marked off by tape and paint. The traffic barriers and reflective tape/paint costs money by the BIDs and local municipalities. The maintenance, cleaning, and daily operation will be a public-private partnership with local shops being active participants in managing these new public spaces. The shops that front onto the space, as well as in the immediate surrounding area, are able to benefit from this extra area and enhance the experience with lighting, signage, shade, seating, and sounds.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (@NACTO) has recently shared its open Streets for Pandemic Recovery design guidelines here. And, a favorite colleague,  Mike Lydon of @Streetplans, is leading a national Open Streets effort, which can be heard/seen here.

We rarely go out shopping and dining to stimulate the economy. The quality of these dining or shopping experiences will entice us to spend time and money because we go places for the experience. Opening streets to businesses involves a plan and design outcome that makes being there worth the time spent. I hope these are useful in starting that plan and beginning the design of our brave new world… outdoors!

My opinions on our Post-Covid future…

Public Space, Uncategorized, Urban Design, Urban Planning

I got a blog, I’m an urban designer, and I got opinions… so let’s do this!

This epic pandemic moment will resonate in two scales. First, at the global scale:

  1. Easily identified our global economy as being very fragile and forgetting the trickling down part…
  2. Every nation now has the experience to work collectively to… limit Greenhouse Gas emissions. We can all stop driving and we will survive. When our Climate Change Pearl Harbor or asteroid moment occurs, we’ll have practice in how to collectively work on surviving it. This is the hope we were looking for.
  3. There are always people on the wrong side of history. The anti-vaccine groups, hate groups, and libertarians are not helping us collectively survive and thrive as citizens.
  4. Today’s cities exist because of jobs. With the local economies collapsing, big cities will continue to provide the most available jobs to any region, and will continue to grow as long-standing local economic jobs in small towns will be late to the economic recovery cycle. We must prepare for continued big city housing crisis.

Second, at the local scale:

  1. We are sheltering-in-our neighborhoods (place). We are seeing our local streets, right-of-ways, and parks as the health, welfare, and safety valves they actually are. Mindful of San Francisco’s parks post-1906 earthquake and fire, where people lived until they were able to rebuilt their homes.

Camp_1906_SFearthquake

2. Pre-Covid trends will be accelerated:

    1. End of Class A office park pods (retrofitted w/urban amenities);
    2. More outdoor dining/entertainment (pop up container parks)
    3. More online shopping & music concerts/events;
    4. More bike/walkable streets;
    5. More parks for our health, welfare, and safety (See point #1).

3. (Stolen from Bill Fulton) New Office Space as a place more specifically for meetings, sales, showroom, model building, virtual touring (gaming), lectures, parties, and fun and less as a dedicated production work space, allowing for more of that to happen at home. This more mixed-use flexible workspace will help retention of parents who are raising young children, and people who love working from home. It’s a retention program.

4. The neighborhood is the Rosetta stone of understanding how to build cities, which are very complex. And, at this moment, we are collectively learning more and more about our neighborhoods because we are driving less and walking more which is a good thing.

Plus, we’re learning how to respond to a global scale crisis, which is another good thing when the comet (climate change) hits.

More later.

How to Enable Social Housing in San Diego

San Diego, Urban Planning

The Trouble with California’s Constitution Article 34

We Californians added a state constitutional requirement in 1950 for voter approval before the building of any public housing. Article 34 was passed then because the real estate industry argued that public housing is publicly funded infrastructure similar to schools or roads, and that taxpayers should have a right to vote on low-income housing projects. At that time, the campaign also stoked racist fears about integrating neighborhoods along with the McCarthy-era rhetoric about the need to combat socialism (sounds terribly familiar to our health care and higher education dialog today).

The Supreme Court of the United States upheld Article 34 in the early 1970s. And today, State Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) has introduced legislation to repeal the Article on the 2020 statewide ballot. San Diego is experiencing an acute housing crisis. The State is instructing cities to lower regulatory barriers to building Affordable Housing (AH), and San Diego has complied with some parking reductions, an AH incentive program, and other tools to assist private and non-profit developers to build more AH housing. However, all are encumbered by high land and labor costs with the majority of the savings on the cost of newly constructed buildings found in permitting and processing, which is a low percentage of the cost of housing.

Public housing built on public land is provides the cheapest delivery mechanism to build cheaper housing for people who cannot afford market rate housing. Bottom line, the land is the cheapest, the labor is well-negotiated, the outcomes are more predictable than using subsidies, waivers, and other regulatory tools to subsidize new construction. The City of San Diego needs to build 12,000 new units annually to keep up with demand (we might build half that on a good year), and we’re trying to double our production with one hand tied behind our back by only relying on private development transactions. We’re in a crisis and it’s time to untie the other hand.

HousingProductionSanDiego

The following are my recommendations for how our region’s cities, and City and County of San Diego can begin to build public housing:

  • Build local state governance representative support for Senator Allen’s bill to repeal Article 34 via Honorable Toni Atkins and Hon. Lorena Gonzalez. Because this will need political will from the Democratic/Labor left, public housing offers the incentive of more construction and management jobs and housing opportunities for trade workers.
  • Take the lead in proposing a statewide ballot proposition to repeal Article 34 by obtaining signatures from 8% of the registered voters who voted (12,464,235 total votes) in the most recent election for governor. This is impossible as we’d need 997,139 of signatures @ $6.20 per signature = $6,182,260.00!
  • Lead a local ballot measure to ask for a majority public vote on allowing the county and cities to build Low-Income (Subsidized) housing on City, County, Agency, and State lands. Initiated by either a petition signed by registered voters or via State Legislature such as Ms Gonzalez or Ms. Atkins, which again needs political will from the Democratic/Labor left, offering more trade jobs and housing opportunities for trade workers is the incentive for their support.
  • Build Middle Income, non-subsidized “Essential Workers” housing that is above the subsidized state-defined Moderate-Income Affordable Housing program, which is >120% AMI. Average Median Income (AMI) for all counties established by HUD is $64,800 for 2019, which is $77,760. San Diego’s annual median income is $76,662. Start building Median Income Housing for rent on City and County lands today betting that Article 34 will be repealed and you’ll have future AH housing stock available – This could be done in conjunction with a non-profit education platform to help local citizens strengthen their neighborhoods through small-scale real estate projects. The Incremental Development Workshop trains small-scaled developers to build capacity and value for locals to be education on how to use San Diego’s inherent land values (as owner/developers or trades/labor) to invest in their own neighborhoods, retain their stake in a neighborhoods, and raise values lot-by-lot without displacement. Importantly, this could be financed by allowing local municipalities to borrow against their assets and rental income in the same way as registered providers and the private sector.

A common fear over this method of delivering AH is the possibility of skewing the housing construction market’s ability to fill any new market demands/needs. Our construction costs today are going through the roof (and has historically) as the ability to attract and retain construction workers in an expensive housing market makes workers scarce. So, the concern about the potential pressure on the existing skilled labor force is very real and illustrates the need for cheaper housing in our region.

In other places with skill shortages, such as the UK and middle-America, they are turning to establishing factories to create homes using modern modular methods of construction.
The rise and fall of our housing market influences the amount of Inclusionary Housing fees collected, which exacerbates the one-hand-tied-behind-our-back conundrum. And to build a significant amount of AH, we need new housing starts funded by developers’ contributions and any reduction in these contributions has a considerable effect on the  availability of AH. As a capitalist society there are always uncertainties in the market related to finance, labor force to construct housing, professional skills and shifts in the proportions of dwellings in each of the 10 housing market types.

Here are the ten (10) types of housing markets in San Diego (and who is responsible for building each type):

  1. Low/Mid-Rise New Construction Housing for Sale (National, Regional, Local developers/builders);
  2. Low/Mid-Rise New Construction Housing for Rent (National, Regional, Local developers/builders);
  3. High-Rise New Construction Housing for Sale (National, Regional, Local developers/builders, Trades);
  4. High-Rise New Construction Housing for Rent (National, Regional, Local developers/builders, Trades);
  5. New Affordable Housing for Rent (Housing Commissions + Non-Profit AH Developers, Trades);
  6. New Special Needs/Workforce Housing (Housing Commissions + AH Non-Profit developers, Trades)
  7. Existing Special Needs/Workforce housing (Housing Commissions + AH Non-Profit developers, Trades)
  8. Existing Housing Stock for Sale (Investors/Homeowners);
  9. Existing Housing Stock for Rent (Investors/Homeowners)
  10. New Custom and Self-Built Housing (Investors/Homeowners).

There are two (2) additional types of housing missing in San Diego that are available to other human beings in other parts of the world:

  1. Social Housing for Sale (Agencies, Housing Commissions + Trades);
  2. Social Housing for Rent (Agencies, Housing Commissions + Trades).

A hard truth is that our well-trained construction trades limit worker availability capacity (scarcity) that drives up construction costs. Another hard truth is that cheaper labor doesn’t offer the same level of quality . Affordable Housing built in private low to mid-rise development mostly excludes Trades Labor. And, Trades are used for all high-rise development, for rent or for sale, because of the expert skills needed to construction tall buildings. And, the trades-only construction scenario for AH/Special needs housing is detrimental to the cost of construction but imperative to the political will to build it. In my opinion, this illustrated clearly the failure of capitalism.

The need for more construction workers is real. The need for housing to house new construction workers to live in is a chicken/egg conundrum San Diego has had to deal with for a century. And, it is a common insistence from the development industry that the nation is suffering from a labor shortage.

So, the best solution is to cultivate a local construction trade industry, rather than hope to poach workers from other cities. San Diego City College has a trade apprenticeship program that a national developer is working with to building their own General Contracting company to build a new project in San Diego. This is the future of construction.

These are my recommendations to deal with the labor market via private corporate leadership (Chamber, Trades, Economic Development Corporation’s role):

  • Build up skills to support housing delivery including labor trades, capital program accountants, legal and structural engineers as well planners and surveyors;
  • Assume that some housing will need to be provided with direct involvement of local municipality;
  • Recognize that corporate leadership is central to success in housing delivery;
  • Recognize the role of local industrial strategies in supporting local housing needs for a full range of dwelling types that can house people who can support the local and regional economy.

These are my recommendations to enable social housing in local municipalities:

  • Understand the Cities, County, and Agencies have different buckets of money to access and land taxation rules than neighboring cities;
  • Recognize in housing finance policy that the number and mix of homes required in San Diego over the next forty years cannot be provided entirely by private sector funding;
  • Consider the role of the municipality as a patient investor in its area;
  • Consider providing all 12 types of housing that might be required for local needs if this is not being met by other providers;
  • Establish a housing and planning delivery team to manage the implementation of all housing plans regardless of public or private proponent;
  • Establish a housing delivery board to monitor progress and delivery;
  • Establish a housing delivery forum of all providers in the area to meet regularly to discuss progress and problems;
  • Establish a housing intervention fund to help overcome issues on individual sites (funding can be made as a grant, a loan or in return for development equity);
  • Promote how housing supports the local economic objectives (e.g. retention of younger professionals and graduates living in and moving to the area);
  • Assess all sites in municipality ownership for housing suitability;
  • Include more detailed housing delivery outcomes in SANDAG’s annual monitoring report;
  • Consider purchasing land for housing as an investment for the longer term;
  • Work in conjunction with non-profit education platforms, such as local Labor/Trades Unions, LISC, and NeighborWorks, to trains locals construction trades and how to be small-scaled developers to build capacity and value for locals to be education on how to use San Diego’s inherent land values (as owner/developers or trades/labor) to invest in their own neighborhood through small-scale real estate projects. The Incremental Development Workshops encourages locals to retain their stake in a neighborhoods, and raise values lot-by-lot without displacement or outside forced gentrification, and;
  • Establish a funding subsidy program through grants for local authority direct delivery of housing and other mechanisms such as by bonding or the general fund.

I have in my hand a list of 135 known socialized housing projects throughout Vienna that prove this is a viable tool to addressing San Diego’s housing crisis. Thanks to Voice of San Diego and Unsplash for the graphics, and political consultant Andy Kopp for the inspiration.

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.