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Building Up California 

A high-rise condo boom in San Diego may show the way out of a statewide housing and sprawl problem

Wednesday, May 5 2004
It's mid-April, and I'm in San Diego with a group of San Francisco planners, architects, developers, and policy wonks, looking at a possible California future that's unfolding just north of the Mexican border. A 5-year-old boom in downtown condominium construction and the wildly enthusiastic public response to it are forcing builders, planners, and local boosters up and down the coast to rethink western Americans' supposedly limitless love affair with suburbs and cars.

The early stages of the San Diego experiment portend great things for a state that has become uncharacteristically pessimistic, thanks in part to unchecked urban creep. The bamboolike growth of suburbia that once made California possibilities seem endless is now the state's greatest burden. Living closer to one another would lessen that burden in many ways, and the revitalization of downtown San Diego provides a hint about how greater urban density can be achieved. The San Diego experience unveils a glimpse of a possible future in which Californians embrace the dense urban life most of the rest of the world enjoys, while it destroys old myths about California's supposedly inviolable car culture. But the redevelopment of San Diego's city center also has spawned plenty of caveats, highlighting the real cultural and political problems that keep Californians from regaining their economic footing.

As the state becomes an ever more massive swath of interlocked freeways, the dysfunctional tangle of governmental entities connected by those arteries becomes increasingly troublesome, not just in terms of transit and development, but in terms of the overall prospects for California. Twenty-six years after the passage of Proposition 13, that measure's built-in tax incentives urge on the construction of sprawling office and commercial parks and, at the same time, push housing construction constantly into the next county, extending commutes and ruining commuters' quality of life. Those incentives have infected California for more than two decades, and they have produced their logical end result: near-gridlock from Oregon to Mexico.

A mini-Manhattan sprouting at the edge of San Diego Bay offers hope as medicine for what ails California. But a three-day trip to the state's southernmost city suggests a complete cure is still far off.

For a century and a half, California has been America's laboratory of the future, a place where the rest of the country has looked for new cultural, political, technological, and business ideas. We achieved our stature based on a real openness to new people and their new notions. Now, though, housing is so scarce in many areas of the state that employers in economic heartlands such as Silicon Valley are moving jobs elsewhere. Commute distances grow by the year; much of San Diego's work force, for example, drives to the city from southern Riverside County, 100 miles to the north. Outsiders only make things worse, whether they come from Tulsa or Guanajuato. The widespread idea that immigration is an environmental threat stems from this perceived connection between gridlock and growth.

The renaissance of downtown San Diego provides a compelling contranarrative.

The story begins nearly 20 years ago and a half-continent to the north, where officials in Vancouver, British Columbia, pondered what to do about their own version of West Coast sprawl. The city was desperate for new housing in an urban area that had spread 100 miles. Vancouver officials beckoned developers to fallow industrial yards near downtown. Supported by capital flowing out of Hong Kong in the years before its transfer from British to Chinese control, developers were able, within 10 years, to build a miniversion of an Asian city -- only nicer. Thanks to careful civic planning, developers were forced to provide land and/or money for ample parks, bikeways, and community centers.

Nat Bosa, an Italian immigrant who entered the building trade 30 years ago as a laborer, was among those who foresaw that Canadians would pay good money to live in such a place. "My prediction in 1990 was, in 10 years, it will be fashionable to live in downtown Vancouver, and in 15, it will be a great place to live," he says. "People now love it."

As prime, cheap land began to disappear from central Vancouver, Bosa and other Canadian developers looked south to San Diego and saw another abandoned, decrepit downtown. Like Vancouver, San Diego had a beautiful bay to the west, and a hundred miles of traffic-choked sprawl to the east. As in Vancouver, San Diego city officials were anxious to do something about a housing shortage, and to revitalize a decayed downtown. "I felt it was just a fabulous place, with a great climate. I thought it was ready for what I call urbanization," Bosa says. "It was lacking on one big thing -- more people."

When San Diego's Center City Development Corp., which runs the downtown redevelopment area, asked for proposals to build on downtown land in 1997, Bosa and other Canadian developers were at the front of the line. Center City Development had set in place clear, simple, consistent permitting rules to encourage development in the area. But it didn't expect anything like the frenzied response from Canadian developers.

"Outside people came in to invest, and they saw an opportunity locals didn't see," says Walter Rask, who for eight years was chief planner for San Diego's downtown redevelopment district, before entering the private urban-design field in San Francisco last year. San Diego officials, he says, "had no clue that there was this market here. It took outsiders to reveal that. What it showed was that there was a huge market for downtown living."

During the past four years, developers built 13,000 residential units in downtown San Diego, with another 9,000 under construction or permitted and ready to build. At the beginning of last year, Vancouver's Bosa was the biggest developer in the city's central area, with 1,553 units either completed or approved for construction. Intergulf Development Group, also headquartered in Vancouver, had 630 units. Toronto-based Intracorp was third, with 521 units.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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