By Howard Blackson and Don Leichtling / UrbDeZine
North Park is one of San Diego’s finest communities. It has many distinctive neighborhoods, with most containing block after block of beautiful bungalows of all varieties. It contains award winning schools and, every quarter-mile or so, neighborhood centers that contain great restaurants, small shops, brew pubs, and corner markets. Hipsters, elderly, and families with kids love living in North Park because it is already both walkable and diverse.
Historic North Park also has its share of problems because of its age, but now changes are occurring to make it even better because North Park is now one of San Diego’s most desirable places to live. The City has earmarked funds for the long-awaited new urban park behind the North Park theater, SANDAG has begun design of major new bicycle-friendly routes, MTS has just finished building Rapid Bus lanes with stations along El Cajon Boulevard (ECB), and new joint-use park facilities are also being developed with local schools.
The City has also spent the past six years investing in a much-needed update to its 1986 North Park Community Plan in an effort to fix some of these problems. The community plan is a policy document intended to provide clear direction for the next steps to make our larger goals come to life. We think the following recommendations are better approaches in achieving the goals stated in the Community Plan Update, which are with our clarifications in [Brackets]:
- A diversity of housing types with varying levels of affordability;
- Businesses that contribute to the vitality and growth of the community in harmony with [their nearby] residential neighborhoods;
- A circulation system that offers safe, multi-modal access between jobs, shopping, recreation, businesses, schools, and residential neighborhoods;
- A [safe] community that is a center for creativity and enriched by public art;
- Employment and mixed-use centers that allow North Park residents to work where they live through the attraction of new businesses and higher paying jobs;
- A high level of public facilities that not only meet the needs of the community but serve to enhance community identity [and improve the quality of life for everyone];
- A community that fosters the expansion of [healthy] recreational opportunities through traditional and innovative ways [that guarantees equal access for all];
- Open space resources that are managed, maintained [or enhanced as density is added];
- Sustainable residential neighborhoods and business districts;
- Cultural and historic resources that are respected and preserved through historic designations and adaptive re-use [whose numbers continue to grow as North Park’s housing stock ages].
Our Areas of Concern
On El Cajon Boulevard (ECB) high-speed traffic, along with the hookers, new and old drive-thru restaurant’s and older, dilapidated single story commercial buildings have been problematic for 50+ years. These elements have slowed the revitalization of this major transit corridor through North Park. Many believe that now is the time to build upon the median upgrades and high-speed transit improvements have been recently installed.
On University Avenue, the long vacant Woolworths building is a constant reminder of what San Diego’s first thriving shopping district once was. In the late 1950’s, developers disinvested in North Park’s business district and poured their money into new commercial areas first in Mission Valley and then at almost every new freeway interchange north of it, as ever more people used cars to go shopping.
In the 1960s and into the early 1980s, developers started to build Huffman 6 unit buildings or “six-packs”, where once there were single-family homes. These were the cheapest form of then market rate housing at the time but they lowered the quality of North Parks building stock, because they added housing units without any infrastructure, appropriate parking or Quality of Life (QOL) improvements.
Our Simple Approach
In order to clearly articulate to developers, residents, business owners and decision-makers what the community plan intends to do, we recommend a simple but effective approach:
- Protect and build upon the best elements of each neighborhood within North Park;
- Design better ways to fix our worst problems, instead of leaving it up to chance;
- Make sure that all the new projects connect to the best neighborhood elements in ways that fulfill our community’s values and goals.
- Expedite designation of potential historic resources. The goals of the Community Plan Update state the community’s intent to protect its wonderful historic resources, the Burlingame Historic District, the North Park Theater, the iconic green water tower as well as the many blocks of soon to be historic bungalows as outlined in the plan’s historic district designation. This will ensure that all new development protects these identified resources while providing the maximum amount of much needed Low and Low-Moderate additional housing and other business resources. The plan’s historic district designation is being updated at this time and needs to spell out clearer policies, such as expedited historic designations processes for those areas identified as being potential new historic districts, which will increase North Parks attraction to San Diego’s visitors. (See the Draft Community Plan Land Use and Historic Preservation Elements for reference linked here)
- Build upon the new Rapid Bus transit route along El Cajon Boulevard to provide a more active multi-modal circulation system. We need to expeditiously link North Park with job centers in Mission Valley, Downtown, Sorrento Valley, and our neighboring communities. We support new bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure first. These systems are spelled out in the plan’s Circulation Element, but must it must be explicitly linked to create new value for more high-quality development projects. (See Mobility Element)
- Our worst problems are found in 60’s-era auto centered drive-thru restaurants, haphazard buildings located nearer to historic bungalow blocks rather than on our main streets, and a limited housing supply for rent-restricted low and low-moderate income people which include the young and old alike. A better way to fix these problems is to state that we should retrofit El Cajon Boulevard first. At key well-connected intersections, we should encourage 6-stories or less mixed-use buildings. These buildings can add both long term rent restricted low and low-moderate housing plus some market rate “attainable” housing while providing new employment and business opportunities for all.
Since 1986, El Cajon Boulevard’s (“ECB”) zoning has been 109 dwelling units per acre [du/ac] with unlimited height and has failed to encourage mixed use development as we continue to build new drive-thru restaurants. To shift the development pattern from the current “auto-oriented strip commercial” to a better mixed-use transit supported pattern, the ECB corridor should be clearly identified in the plan’s Land Use element with 145 dwelling units per acre with an 80-foot height limit on lots located on the property fronting ECB with a ‘Community Review’ process, while at the same time, requiring setbacks from and stepping down to its alley, so as to not create linear walls looming over neighbors across the alley (see diagrams below). Because this new development is located where the community gets the most value for new development’s location, a more predictable city entitlement ‘Process 3’ should be used to focus it here while at the same time making it more difficult to occur in the stable historic residential blocks. (See Land Use and Urban Design Elements)
Focus new development along ECB, over the next 20+ years, with enhanced design standards that will also protect the adjacent residential neighborhoods from the building height transition along ECB. This will connect not only the new housing, jobs, and shops to the rest of North Park’s great neighborhoods but also to our parks, other new future transit public investments, and public improvements. Likewise, new development on University Avenue, Park Boulevard, Adams Avenue, 30th Street north of University Ave. and Texas Street will need to make use of similar scaled down transition rules, that relate to lot size and road widths as found in the plan’s Urban Design Element. This emphasis on transition rules is concurrent with the community’s many already and soon to be historic districts in the areas north and south of ECB and south of University Avenue as listed in the Historic Preservation Element being updated now. (See Land Use, Mobility, Urban Design and Implementation Elements)
- Redeveloping former strip centers like El Cajon Boulevard is now a successful national trend. A similar transition between building patterns and scale is needed to replace the most rundown of our auto-oriented Huffman six-pack apartments, clustered in the blocks between El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue. Because this is an innovative approach the entire city can learn from, the replacement of selected Huffman’s needs to have widespread public support with clear design policies and standards that allow North Park to test and measure proposed outcomes prior to enabling across-the-board retrofits. Most of these buildings are scattered haphazardly and we must test new retrofit approaches in order to avoid repeating past mistakes, mostly due to added density without amenity. Most North Park residents will support ‘quality density’ improvements benefiting everyone equally, rather than just adding more density in certain areas. We recommend any increase in density comes with design standards and a high-level ‘community review’ process 4 with a 1 to 3-year ‘testing’ period statement. (See Land Use and Urban Design Elements)
- Make managed parking areas less difficult to create, more flexible to share, and easier to find, since parking is a concern always cited. “Hunt-and-peck” parking is becoming more and more difficult, especially in older neighborhoods whose homes have undersized turn-of-the-century garages and that are located near popular night-time businesses. This is especially important to all those who, for whatever reason, are not able to walk long distances or ride a bike. Having access to parking ensures better access to North Park. Having different parking management plans for the business corridors (i.e., El Cajon Boulevard and University Ave) while at the same time protecting the residential properties located within walking distance to the business districts is imperative to the plan. Of great importance similar to historic district preservation and focusing new development on ECB, the Mobility Element must explicitly allow neighborhoods adjacent to business districts the ability to designate managed parking areas as a top priority. (See Mobility Element, section 3.5.)
We realize that the new NP Community Plan is a living document that needs our continued scrutiny, adaptations, and support to achieve our collective goals. Now after several years of draft plans and many late night meetings, all these issues are being outlined in the multiple Community Plan Elements listed above, and they will be finalized over the upcoming weeks. In order that we may together plan the best possible future for our neighborhood, we have collaborated on these recommendations in hopes of helping both preservationists and urbanists understand and support these conclusions, which we feel best address North Park’s most pressing problems.
This article also appears in Howard Blackson’s blog as A Collaborative Approach to Fixing North Park’s New Problems
Don Leichtling: Writer, thinker, and activist, Don seeks to improve the quality of life of all the people in his North Park San Diego historic community. He was the founder of the North Park Residential Improvement District (NP-RID), the first RID in California. He has also served on the following boards and committees: North Park Redevelopment Project Area Committee (NP-PACB), the North Park Lighting, Landscape Maintenance District (NP-LLMD, which is now known as the North Park Maintenance District NP-MAD), and the Greater North Park Planning Committee (GNPPC). He helped approve planning that has resulted in large numbers of additional high-quality low and low-moderate housing. He was the first to suggest how to fund/build the North Park Parking Garage, which is now a huge asset for the NP Business District. He helped spec/fund/install the first solar powered street lights in California, which are still in operation. An avid bicyclist, he is involved in planning the SANDAG Mid-City Bicycle Corridor to make commuting through North Park even more accessible for all. As a long time resident, he is especially interested in refining the different elements of the North Park Community Plan Update to ensure that it continues to respect all the soon to be historical bungalows and their residents.
Howard M. Blackson III, is an Urban Designer, author, lecturer, and aficionado of neighborhoods. Most recently dabbled in the City of San Diego’s Civic Innovation Lab for Bill Fulton; Directed Planning for PlaceMakers; Partnered with Chong | Partners and Stantec Architecture under Rick Drake, and; have thoroughly valued every minute I’ve spent with Leon Krier, Michael J. Stepner FAIA, FAICP, Geoff Dyer, and Andres Duany. Educated at the University of Westminster, London (MA-Urban Design), and University of Texas at Austin, you can find his older blogs here. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts.