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Mayor Murphy's city of villages: a never-neverland kind of plan

Somewhere over the rainbow, in a San Diego not long ago, single-family homes, safe cul de sacs, wide boulevards and car friendly neighborhood shopping centers were the stuff of planners' dreams. And then came Mayor Murphy's City of Villages.

Car culture planning had produced dozens of master planned communities in the city of San Diego like Carmel Valley, Otay Mesa and Rancho Penasquitos, built by the region's biggest developers according to regulations imposed by government officials.

But, about 80 percent of the way down the yellow brick road, regional planners figured out that developable land in San Diego was in increasingly short supply, and in fact, amounted to a mere 331 square miles after a hefty hunk was cut out for habitat preservation.

With a projected countywide population growth of over a million more people in the next 30 years, planners realized that either open space or the single-family home or the next generation had to go.

And so, local governments set about revising and rewriting their vision of the Emerald City in order to change the hearts and minds of people who had decided, often by experience, to detest density, which had become synonymous with overcrowded recreation facilities and schools, crime and traffic jams.

The City of Villages Plan, which will be considered by the San Diego City Council this spring, authored by Mayor Murphy and driven by environmentalists, citizen policy dilettantes and professional planners, seeks to redirect growth from the county's rural outskirts and the outreaches of Temecula to newly planned and established neighborhoods in the city by focusing development on underused commercial centers and around established gathering places.

The sprawl amelioration plan is filled with swell ideas like increasing or creating "retail street level activity," "significant public plazas and greens," "locally serving employment centers" and "public transportation nodes." It is on sale on every city corner, from community forums and Planning Board meetings to the editorial pages of our newspapers.

As a result, even without an official stamp on the City of Villages Plan, the rules of engagement in today's Planning Departments are to densify, densify, densify-anyhow, anyway, any chance, often with the mere flick of a planning department employee's pen.

With the ink on the proposed City of Villages proposal so wet it is already smudging, evidence is mounting in the real world of development, in still developing places like Carmel Valley, Sorrento Hills, Rancho Penasquitos and Torrey Highlands, where conditions should give such notions the best chance of success, that the City of Villages is an emperor whose clothes exist only in the wonkish minds of city officials, planners and environmental activists.

And that's because developers are telling local planning groups in suburban areas ripe for village plans, and any public official who cares to listen, that "walkable village centers," meaning attractive mixed-use retail and office live aboard centers, are not commercially viable and that there are few, if any lenders interested in striking out on new paths.

If these developers are right, and they should know better than anyone in government, the City of Villages will one by one regress to six story apartment complexes around strip or big box shopping centers so that residents can drive across the street instead of over several blocks to shop after gassing up at the corner mega gas station and mini mart.

Ask the Rancho Penasquitos Planning Board who are grappling with changes to their community plan to increase densities around a proposed big box shopping center in the new adjacent Torrey Highlands community under the rationale of City of Villages principles.

A closer look at that project tells a far different story. Instead of a "walkable village," four story 1100-unit apartment buildings will sit across a busy street from a typical car-oriented shopping center replete with plenty of drive through eating opportunities but no retail street activity on the apartment building side.

Or talk to the Sorrento Hills Planning Board as they fight a change to their Community Plan that will replace the local serving employment center contemplated by smart growth advocates to a regional drawing commercial building complex on the scale of Mission Valley that will hover over quiet single-family neighborhoods and an elementary school.

More disturbing is that the first village community plan out of the gate in the former "future urbanizing area," a plan passed by the voters in 1996 partly because of the village center promise, is morphing into a strip mall because no one wants to build a mixed-use retail center. Even the affordable housing folks don't want their living-units built on top of retail spaces there.

And in Carmel Valley, several dumb and dumber plans for 16 promising acres across from the euphemistically named Highlands Town Center shopping center are pitting the property owner and public school taxpayer watchdogs against a school district and the Community Planning Board.

Faced with the inevitability of a city-approved walled-off 800 unit multi-family project across from the Town Center, the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board recently supported a Solana Beach School District plan to condemn the property for a gold plated elementary school that could cost a whopping $40 million because of commercial land costs and end any hope for a viable village center on the site.

The City of Villages does in fact provide the framework for what ought to happen in these Town Centers: mixed-use complexes with public space, retail stores, restaurants and cultural facilities on the ground floor and apartments, offices and lofts above. A professional theater organization has already expressed interest in such a project in Carmel Valley.

But, without real incentives for commercial builders and their lenders to do something different, like reduced fees, expedited permit processing and attractive financing opportunities, the market simply will win out over the best made plans.

And if City of Villages doesn't work in affluent developing communities with public facility coffers fat with builder fees, the prospects in older parts of the city with no such pot of gold to pay for infrastructure are even bleaker.

Until some reality is injected into the City of Villages Plan, Community Planning Boards will not, and should not, buy into this fairy tale.

Lisa Ross is a writer and consultant. She can be reached


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