Smart Growth Illustrated
Uptown District, San Diego, California
The Uptown District in San Diego, California, demonstrates how redeveloping abandoned retail centers, or "greyfields," can help revive and reconnect communities. The project, a successful 14-acre mixed-use, high-density development in the city's Hillcrest neighborhood, was built on the site of an abandoned department store and its surrounding parking lot. The city of San Diego purchased the site in 1986 with the intent of building a new library but subsequently decided to keep the library downtown. The city conducted an intensive community planning process, including an early visual preference survey, to help formulate the design of the mixed-use development in 1987. The winning bidder, developer Oliver McMillan/ Odmark and Thelan, then went back to the community to refine the design features.
The project combines a mix of uses, including 318 homes, 145,000 square feet of commercial and retail space, and a 3,000-square-foot community center. The residential density is over 20 units per acre, far more than the city average of less than 3 units per acre. The uses are mostly mixed horizontally, with most of the retail surrounding a central parking plaza anchored by a large grocery store in the rear. The housing is on an adjacent block with pedestrian courtyards connecting the units. There is some vertical mixing of uses in the housing block along with first-floor retail along Vermont Street and University Avenue.
Restoring old streets that had been removed to create the original store's parking lot helps create a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere. Smaller blocks, along with pedestrian pathways, make walking safer and easier. A pedestrian bridge over a busy street and a canyon connects the adjacent University Heights neighborhood with the project and University Avenue, giving University Heights residents access to shopping and transit. Underground parking for both the grocery store and the homes helps reduce the presence of automobiles in the project.
Most grocery retailers say that, to be successful, they need to be visible from a major arterial and have plenty of surface parking. Uptown's grocery store is located well off University Avenue and has only minimum street signage and mostly underground parking. Yet it is still one of the most successful stores in its chain.
Because the project was in an existing community adjacent to one of the city's busiest bus corridors, the developers could reduce parking below the requirements for conventional developments in the city. While the Hillcrest neighborhood averages 2.25 parking spaces per residential unit and one parking space per 250 square feet of commercial space, the uptown district offers 2 parking spaces per town house, 1.7 parking spaces per apartment, and one parking space per 270 square feet of commercial space.
Greyfield properties, like this one, offer many communities the opportunity to provide housing choices and new retail options without building over open space. They can also spur redevelopment of adjacent properties. By the time the Uptown District's construction was well underway, 15 other projects in the area had started or were in advanced stages of planning.
Among the many awards it has received, the Uptown District was named the Project of the Year by the National Association of Home Builders in 1991 and was awarded the Urban Design Award by the California Council of the American Institute of Architects in 1991.