In many cities, a place such as San Diego's working-class San Ysidro community might have been left to fend for itself while development and services poured into new towns on the suburban fringe.

An aging commercial boulevard and a historic but slightly down-at-the-heels residential area sit at the core of this neighborhood of 30,000 on the edge of Mexico. But city planners, developers, and a community organization plotted a different course for the community of San Ysidro and its eponymous boulevard. The area became one of five pilot projects designed to manage San Diego's population growth by channeling new development back into already-developed areas.

Today, San Ysidro Boulevard is a lifeless corridor with vacant lots and buildings with haphazard uses, heights, and spacing.
Casa Familiar Today, San Ysidro Boulevard is a lifeless corridor with vacant lots and buildings with haphazard uses, heights, and spacing.

San Diego's City of Villages plan, announced in 2001, offered the usual smart growth/antisprawl amenities such as communities of walkable neighborhoods, mixed-use development, better-planned open space, and access to mass transportation. Rather than being just the rule-makers in this venture, the city offered to be a partner: San Diego would adjust its approval of building permits and zoning variances to make development easier. And the city would substantially increase infrastructure funding in targeted areas.

The city kicked off the effort with its five pilot “villages” to demonstrate what the city could look like under this new plan. The San Ysidro community plan, called Mi Pueblo, promised 1,100 new residences, new regional commercial stores, public plazas, a 20,000- square-foot library, and more-affordable housing. As part of the model, developers would be paired with community-based organizations and stakeholders to ensure that residents' needs were met.

But five years after City of Villages was announced—and nearly three years after Mi Pueblo and the other pilot villages were approved by the city council—the ambitious plan has stumbled on its way to reality. “Not much has happened,” says David Flores, community design and development officer for Casa Familiar, the nonprofit community organization involved in the Mi Pueblo pilot village. “It has gone to the back burner.”

Another pilot village is even more in doubt. The Paseo, an effort at San Diego State University aimed at creating a more residential and urban campus with new affordable housing nearby, was scheduled to start construction in January 2005, but university officials backed away over myriad issues, including the propriety of mixing commercial uses on campus.

The setbacks would seem strange for a city of 1.2 million that has had no problem embracing urban planning in the past. In addition to the city's general plan for San Diego, 48 separate community plans exist. But City of Villages' slow start was further hampered in 2005—the year the plan was set to go from “strategy to action,” according to city documents—when Mayor Dick Murphy suddenly resigned eight months into his second term, and the city's budget deficit ballooned to $50 million.

The shortfall not only prompted talk the city should file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, but it also made the City of Villages pledge to build new libraries, parks, roads, and other infrastructure nearly impossible to keep.

In addition, officials were not able to dodge bureaucratic slowdowns, nor did they fast-track construction and zoning approvals for pilot projects.

“There was no process within the city in place in order to move those projects [forward] in a somewhat orderly fashion,” Flores says. “We took two of our projects in for processing at the city's development services department, and there was no assistance … no process that would give the reviewers that were looking at the projects any tools to make the necessary adjustments.”