City planning director William Anderson says San Diego “didn't have the public policies and strategies to provide public amenities concurrent to the development,” when the plan was announced. He claims those shortcomings are being fixed.
“We are at the turning point right now,” he emphasizes.
When the City of Villages plan began in 2001, officials noted that San Diego was being guided by a 26-year-old general plan written when the city had thousands of acres of undeveloped land. They believed a new, more urban approach to planning was needed to ensure that residential and retail units were being built and that schools, roads, public space, transit, and other amenities were in place to support them.
New growth would come via these mixed-use village centers that would protect the environment, increase the amount of affordable housing, and enhance the economic viability of existing neighborhoods and communities.
In 2002, the city agreed to solicit proposals for pilot villages that would best demonstrate the aims of the City of Villages plan. Developers and community groups were required to form teams to submit proposals.
The five winning proposals were announced in February 2004. In addition to Mi Pueblo in the San Ysidro community, the winners included The Boulevard Marketplace in the Normal Heights community; North Park; The Paseo, adjacent to San Diego State University; and Village Center at Euclid and Market, located in the southeastern part of the city.
An elevation rendering of a new San Ysidro main street shows higher-density buildings and multiple unit types, designed in what planners call Latino New Urbanism.
Credit: Casa Familiar
The City of Villages plan has not been without its critics, particularly during the public hearings before its approval by the city council. In one planning commission hearing, residents of Allied Gardens, a predominantly middle-class community of single-family homes, objected to the idea of rental apartments.
Others, such as San Diego activist Randy Berkman, believe the initiative doesn't manage growth, but encourages it by increasing the amount of units that can be built on a site.
“We cannot grow indefinitely,” says Berkman, president of the River Valley Preservation Project. “There is not enough water, food, [or] land for this indefinite growth to go on.” Berkman says the point may be moot; the city's budget issues may stall the project indefinitely. “The deficit, the [$1.2 billion] deficit in the pension fund,” Berkman reminds. “Where are they going to get the infrastructure funds to pay for City of Villages?”
Anderson believes there is still life in City of Villages. The city is working on a public financing strategy to fund infrastructure improvements, and the plan's concept informs development throughout the city, he says.
In the meantime, Flores says his group plans to go ahead with smaller projects proposed within the Mi Pueblo pilot village. The group's 13-unit Abuelitos senior citizen housing project, designed for seniors who have custody of their grandchildren, has moved past the construction documents stage.
The project is proceeding because it's being built within the area's current zoning. The picture is cloudy beyond that, he says.
“Here in this community, we have been able to get folks on board, inspired,” Flores says. “They were not afraid of increasing density as long as the infrastructure came along with that. Now, unfortunately, it's not happening.”
Lee Bey is a Chicago-based writer, critic, professor, and adviser on architecture and urbanism.