It’s Time for San Diego to Grow Up

The current mayor of San Diego campaigned on a pledge to treat the place like a metropolis rather than a network of sprawling suburbs. You think San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and New York, and you immediately think compact blocks with mixed-use buildings, high-rise apartments and stately rowhouses, corner convenience stores, great ethnic restaurants and excellent public transportation.


San Diego has those things too, except the great public transit. 


I was reminded of how much San Diego has grown during a recent early morning walk from Little Italy to Seaport Village via The Embarcadero. And again, a week later when we visited  our old suburb with family in town. 


I can remember some of my first runs along the Embarcadero, dodging more homeless people than tourists, even during Comic-Con. The Gaslamp Quarter was still the nightspot it is now, but you took greater risks walking beyond its boundaries in the dark. 


Cortez Hill, East Village, and Little Italy (pictured above) are now gentrified, and that’s made it safer to go on urban hikes or city walks, whichever term you prefer. Our recent walk began with great on-street parking just blocks from our chosen breakfast venue and the Little Italy Farmers Market. More apartments mean less space for vehicles. We walked a few blocks toward the bayfront, past the Little Italy Trolley stop and around Waterfront Park since it was fenced off for a ticketed music festival. The Embarcadero itself has gotten a shot in the retail/restaurant arm with a local landmark, Anthony’s, being converted into a much larger and swankier retail complex anchored by The Brigantine. It’s a seafood chain, like Anthony’s, well known throughout the County.


We were just a couple of weeks shy of cruise ships returning to the Port of San Diego, but you could tell they’d spruced up the docks in anticipation of the return of passengers. The latest major construction project to transform the waterfront is a planned large residential/retail/restaurant complex just off The Broadway Pier, which on Saturday mornings is lined with eager buyers for fresh seafood. Beyond the Pier are a few blocks devoted to San Diego’s important role in World War II, with the U.S.S. Midway as the showcase. 


The new Rady Shell at Jacobs Park (yes, everything new needs naming rights here) is the latest architectural and acoustical gem that hosts concerts year-round. It’s just past Seaport Village and behind The San Diego Convention Center, which appears to be on officials’ radar for expansion every election cycle. There’s a pedestrian bridge that drops you at Petco Park, a public-private partnership that has lived up to its billing. Then heading back, you skirt the still-asleep Gaslamp before returning to the streets of Little Italy.


It is difficult to quantify just how much this area has changed. Twenty years ago, this place was known less for fine dining and more dive bars. I did a midnight ride here years ago and was amazed how many inebriated people came out to heartily cheer on us cyclists before last call.


It’s not just the city core that’s changed. The suburbs are being transformed too. 


Neighborhoods of single-family homes are under threat from relaxed regulations allowing more dense housing on residential lots. This brings me to that other trip I took to Scripps Ranch. There are two major, multi-unit housing projects underway. One is next to a freeway and business park and the other adjacent to our first home here. Man, did homeowners fight to keep young teachers and firefighters and Amazon drivers from establishing residency here.


I still sometimes run or walk those streets. When you have a daily or weekly running route, you don’t notice changes as easily. You don’t immediate pick out the crumbling facades of residents unable or unwilling to keep up the place. You don’t quite grasp the bigger cars and garish outdoor decor when a place turns over occupants. You unconsciously absorb the lack of young families moving in due to unaffordability because you are still the youngest on the block. It’s not until you venture out that you realize other communities have a stronger pulse. Other places have a vibrancy that yours now lacks. It’s because everyone is excited and engaged to live in a more inclusive, diverse neighborhood, whether they own or, more likely, rent.


The change in neighborhoods and new development is a frequent topic of discussion on group walks. I get the resistance from longtime residents who bought in an area because it promised more prestige and privacy and street parking. I’m just not sure we can afford to keep shutting out those struggling to get in. Or keep griping about poor roads and lousy schools and yet not reform incredibly unfair property tax laws. I think it’s time we embrace change or allow certain entitlements to lapse.  I think it’s time San Diego grew up. 



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