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Can Mission Valley handle 50,000 more residents?

Thursday, September 8, 2019 |

Article by San Diego Union Tribune | Jennifer Van Grove

New community plan refocuses the region around walking, biking and the San Diego River Mission Valley is not a model community — but it could be.

This is a view of Mission Valley looking northeast with the San Diego river on the right side. The Mission Valley Community Plan Update includes the addition of pedestrian and bicycle paths. (John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

By 2050, the town that is mostly commercial in function and primarily navigated by cars should be practically unrecognizable. It’ll be a walker’s paradise and a safe haven for bicyclists. More importantly, the region will serve as the archetype of a new kind of neighborhood, one where people of varying income levels will want to ditch their cars, take the trolley and live near their jobs.

Such is the dream of San Diego city planners who have crafted the Mission Valley Community Plan Update. Started in 2015, the new land-use and policy document is in its final form; it replaces a plan that’s been on the books for more than three decades and is no longer in fashion.

Tuesday, City Council will vote on whether to adopt the plan and certify the associated environmental impact report.

Should they do so, they’ll make room for 28,000 housing units — or more than 50,000 new residents — through a comprehensive rezoning process that will also support the addition of nearly 20,000 jobs. The planning document also lays the foundation for two north-south roads that cross the river, six pedestrian- and bicycle-only bridges, and a San Diego River Pathway that stretches the entire width of the neighborhood.

“The Mission Valley Community Plan, originally written in 1985, is pretty archaic. ... The plan has reached its functional shelf life,” said Nancy Graham, who led the city’s planning effort. “Mission Valley has very little housing compared to its geographic size. Because of that a lot of people who work in Mission Valley cannot live there.”

In July, Graham told the city’s four-person Land Use and Housing Committee that just 600 people were living and working in the area, per a 2014 calculation. What’s more, over 40,000 commuters are driving into the neighborhood every day while another 8,000 people are driving out, presumably to get to other work centers.

Photo via: San Diego Union Tribune Artcile

The metamorphosis of Mission Valley

Although much of Mission Valley is built out, city planners believe that many of the area’s existing properties, which usually come with their own supersized asphalt parking lots, are ripe for turnover to new owners who will reconsider how best to profit from the land in their possession. In essence, property owners will want to pack more of everything save for parking — housing units, office space and retail — into their parcels, the thinking goes. And, if needed, surface parking spaces can be pushed into above- or below-ground structures.

Outside experts agree: There’s plenty of room for population growth.

“We have a critical housing shortage, and I think Mission Valley is underutilized. There’s a lot of isolated development and parking lots,” said Michael Stepner, who teaches urban design at the New School of Architecture & Design. “There’s a lot of room for infill development, and that’s what this plan purposes. That’s a good thing.”

Specifically, the plan creates an all-new-to-the-city land-use designation known as “mixed use” that will allow for far bigger, and presumably better, developments with flexible footprints. In fact, much of Mission Valley is getting a mixed-use medium or mixed-use high designation through the new plan, meaning developers can construct as many as 145 housing units per acre, compared with 73 units per acre in the past.

That will allow the residential population to balloon by 248 percent from 20,800 people in 2012 to 72,400 people in 2050, according to the plan.

At the same time, policies associated with the mixed-use designation will force builders to approach their projects from a pedestrian point of view. For instance, new projects will require interactive ground floors. And there will need to be plenty of paseos, or pedestrian walkways, that not only break up expansive sites into walkable chunks but also connect them to off-property park and recreation space.

The zone type, then, is the city’s primary tool for flipping Mission Valley inside out, making it a place where walking or biking is more efficient than driving.

Even if the city can get the right mix of workers and dwellers, questions remain as to whether it can adequately accommodate everyone.

“Absorbing 50,000 people over the next 20 to 30 years is not a problem if it’s done right,” Stepner said. "(The plan) won’t work unless we are serious about schools and parks, and upgrades to sewer systems.”

Infrastructure is an essential part of the community plan. The plan identifies new parks, a couple of roads, more than a handful of bridges, protected bike lanes in place of shared bike lanes, two recreation centers and even an aquatics center.

The unknown is who will pick up the bill. The city can use funds collected from fees levied against developers, entice builders to take on some of the responsibilities themselves, or ask for federal or regional dollars.

“The city has the responsibility to push for those improvements. Otherwise we’re not going to be able to accommodate all the new residents,” Stepner said, adding that the city has struggled to keep pace with infrastructure needs elsewhere in town.

The San Diego river is the main natural environment left in Mission Valley and will be showcased according to the new Mission Valley master plan. This view is looking east. (John Gibbins/ The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A River Runs Through It

Ignored by many locals, the San Diego River will, going forward, act as the organizational spine of Mission Valley and provide for a branching park system that people can enjoy throughout the town.

“Wide, well-lit, tree-lined, pedestrian paseos will extend from the river’s edge to allow walkers, cyclists, and the like the ability to traverse Mission Valley safely as a more enjoyable alternative to the automobile,” the community plan states. “These meandering pathways will join with green streets that have enriched pedestrian spaces including linear parks and nodes of pedestrian-scale, visually stimulating developments that contain restaurants, retail, offices, and residences.”

It’s an idealistic vision that relies, in part, on a completed San Diego River Pathway from Ocean Beach to Navajo.

Currently, the pathway starts and stops in small fits at the river’s edge. It is envisioned, however, to extend the width of Mission Valley and allow for a totally uninterrupted, car-free route in the middle of town. The path is being carried over from the San Diego River Park Master Plan of 2013, which also made room for a wetland buffer in an effort to reverse the commercial intrusion on the natural habitat.

While the new community plan appears to celebrate the river, its implementation may also work to erode some of its most important qualities, environmentalists fear.

“We started 18 years ago with the reality that people weren’t connected to the river and therefore didn’t care about it,” said Rob Hutsel, who is the president and chief executive of the San Diego River Park Foundation. “We’ve worked hard to raise awareness that it is a historical treasure.

Any document that recognizes the river is an awesome thing, but a big part of the river is its ecological value and some of the things that are proposed will have a negative impact.”

Hutsel had hoped, with little success, to make inroads with city planners and persuade them to move away from two new streets that will cross the river, one toward the west end of Mission Valley through the future Riverwalk development and the other on the east side at Fenton Parkway.

“When you put a crossing over a river, it has impacts,” he said. Shade underneath prevents vegetation growth, bridge traffic creates noise that scares off wildlife and structures get in the way of existing flood patterns, he said. “Every once in a while, you need a really good flood to wash through and pick up all the muck.”

The roads, said the city’s lead planner Graham, date to the 1985 document and are needed to allow for traffic to flow north and south of the river. They will, she said, take pressure off the region’s busy east-west streets, Friars Road in particular.

More people, less driving?

The controversial connectors are one of the only ways the city plans to handle the traffic that comes with 50,000 more people. Other mitigation measures were identified as part of the environmental review process, but they would interfere with the city’s bigger vision

“If you widen roads, that inhibits the ability to include bike lanes and creates longer pedestrian crossing times,” Graham said. “We don’t want to widen roads. We want to make a better mobility system.”

The new plan, at build-out in 2050, will increase the total vehicle miles traveled in the area by 43 percent from 1.65 million miles per day to 2.36 million miles per day, according to the city’s comprehensive traffic analysis. At the same time, city planners believe the average vehicle miles traveled per person will decrease by 31 percent, from 25 miles per day to 17 miles per day.

The number goes down because trips are more efficient, Graham said. And the efficiency comes from additional pedestrian and cycling infrastructure that supports existing and future trolley lines and stops in the area. The plan, for instance, expects to introduce 17 new miles of bike lanes, most of which are intended to be protected from car traffic. Shared bike lanes are being eliminated altogether.

Still, the traffic impacts are expected to be significant on 27 roadway segments, at 14 intersections and along 20 freeway segments, according to the environmental review.

San Diego State University is negotiating to buy SDCCU Stadium and its parking lot and plans to redevelop the property with a smaller stadium and a satellite campus. (John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The elephant in the parking lot

“The biggest issue for me ... is how the SDSU Mission Valley plan is going to integrate into what’s being planned. It’s the largest development that we’ll ever have again in the valley,” said Cary Lowe, who is a land-use attorney and a board member with the civic participating group, Citizens Coordinate for Century 3. “If you look at (the Mission Valley Community Plan Update) it shows the SDSU site as essentially a black box.”

San Diego State University is currently in negotiations to buy 132 acres of land from the city of San Diego. The institution plans to redevelop the property, currently home to SDCCU Stadium and its massive parking lot, with a smaller stadium and a satellite campus.

Despite not yet owing the site, SDSU is already working on its Campus Master Plan in the hopes of wrapping up its environmental review and getting to a ground breaking by early next year. The campus plan calls for 4,600 residential units, 1.5 million square feet of campus office and lab space, 100,000 square feet of medical office space, 95,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, 400 hotel rooms and a mixed-use stadium with a 35,000-person capacity.

However, the stadium site plan is still mostly conceptual, Lowe said.

“The project is not designed in enough detail to do meaningful analysis,” he said.

The somewhat parallel planning processes all but ignore one another, Lowe said, leaving the door open for uncertainty around key infrastructure improvements. He points to the extension of Fenton Parkway to Camino Del Rio North, which is called for in the Mission Valley Community Plan as a means of getting people to and from the Fenton Parkway trolley station at the stadium site.

“The SDSU (environmental impact report) makes no assumption that the (Fenton Parkway) extension will be made, nor does it take any responsibility for having to make it, despite (the planned roadway) being just outside its boundary,” Lowe said.

The university’s draft environmental impact report was released in August for a 60-day public comment period that ends on Oct. 3.

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