By: Gary London
As published in the San Diego Business Journal: June 6, 2012

Take a look at the picture on this page and you will see the architecturally splendid new Vons on West Washington Street in Mission Hills. The project was designed by MCG Architecture, and developed by Vons, which replaced an older and smaller store at this same location with this much larger supermarket, including structured parking below.

The project is completely wrong. With the exception of good architecture, it violates just about all of the City of San Diego’s espoused planning guidelines, starting with the General Plan which designates this part of town “mixed use.”

In other words, Vons elected not to build housing above its supermarket. The community’s planning group (Uptown Planners) as well as the city’s Planning Department went along with the decision.

Why would Von’s, a Safeway Inc. supermarket company, want to go through the extraordinary damage of mounting an entitlement battle against community planners, just to build housing? While such a course was much needed, it would have invited debate, delay and probably disaster.

Just ask Allard Jansen, the much heralded architect/developer who built a successful residential over commercial project in Kensington. Then, what he got in return was incredible “push-back” from the locals as he has moved forward with his subsequent Kensington Terrace project down the same block on Adams Avenue.

By building a single use project on what has to be viewed as a classic mixed-use development opportunity site, the developer, the planners and the city have once again turned their back to the need for housing. The site was perfect for mixed use. It fronts busy Washington Street a major commercial corridor with four lanes. The back of the site faces the sleepy side of University Avenue. High density residential would be the perfect land use to transition to the dominantly residential neighborhoods directly to the south.

Ignoring the Spirit

All parties involved ignored the spirit, if not the letter, of the General Plan, which states “A ‘village’ is defined as the mixed-use heart of a community where residential, commercial, employment, and civic uses are all present and integrated.” The Mission Hills neighborhood, in which this project is located, has been targeted in the General Plan as one of these villages and should be developed accordingly.

My purpose is to highlight this project as a missed opportunity. I am simply asking the City of San Diego to enforce its own policies and get into the business of pressing all future development proposals to include housing.

In the near future, once we pull out of this economic calamity, a housing shortage will emerge. It already has in the rental world.

The problem is that demand — the natural extension of employment and population growth — will outpace an ever diminishing supply of developable land, leaving our existing communities as the only place to turn for vertical housing product.

How can a meaningful level of housing starts ever be achieved if we continue to allow these single-purpose projects, however good looking?

The idea for this article came out of my “drive by” of the project. My first reaction was “this is very nice.” My second reaction was “where’s the housing?”

No Champions

So we did some research to find out the answer. Essentially what we found was that there were no “champions” for the housing cause.

Vons is in the supermarket business. They initially included housing, but quickly withdrew once the company recognized the resistance it would face. It didn’t proceed, even though housing serves both its customers and its employees.

The community planning group, if it raised the issue at all, didn’t press. In fact, when we contacted the past chair, we were told that there would have been all kinds of problems if housing was included, such as infrastructure problems (read: “transportation”) and feasibility.

Transportation issues cannot be used as a restrictive issue because the very idea of adding a housing component is to diminish the reliance on commuting and encourage household heads to find and occupy housing nearer to employment centers. This is a classic urban center. There are two hospitals (with lots of employees who need housing) within walking distance.

It was suggested to us that the project was not economically “feasible” if it included housing. This is just plain wrong. There is a strong market demand for housing. Certainly in the rental market, vacancies are very low and rents are very high and rising. And this is in a weak economy.

The economics of the project couldn’t have been the limiting factor: The site has been owned forever by Vons. There is no sump cost. They operate a successful retail operation, one that already supports a parking structure. I can give this a feasibility green light with my eyes closed.

One interesting explanation suggested to us was the incompatibility between supermarket and residential — read: noise and smells.

That’s interesting. Someone should have mentioned that to the developers of the new Pacific Station in Encinitas, whose Whole Foods Market is the anchor of a bustling, successful mixed-use project, including housing. With just a little cooperation and some ingenuity, Whole Foods and the developer have been able to overcome every problem that has arisen to date.

The bottom line is that when no one champions mixed-use development on obvious mixed use opportunity sites, it will not get built. The housing component, whether modest or ambitious, invites too many problems, delays and expense.

Communities find all sorts of excuses: those codified in convoluted rules, those involving infrastructure, those involving, as in this case, alternative developer motivations. Yet, we are dealing with nuance when what we need is housing.

Stewards of the Status Quo

I can actually understand how most of our community planning groups would not be the likely champion. They mostly view their job as preserving the existing character of their communities. They see themselves as stewards of the status quo.

What I don’t understand is why the paid city planners are not diligently following the plan. In this case, the General Plan as well as the City of Villages policy, both encourage just such a mixed-use project as I am lamenting. I do not understand why our elected policymakers — the Planning Commission, City Council and the mayor — are not outright rejecting these exercises in short-term expediency which turns a blind eye to the future. It shouldn’t take a curious columnist to raise the issue.

It’s too late for this site, but it is not too late for others.