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Real estate expert says SD should be more walkable

A Louisiana real estate and marketing specialist offered up a new tagline for San Diego: Live outdoors.

“You guys have absolutely no excuse, whatsoever, not to be the most walkable, bikeable city in the United States,” said Nathan Norris, CEO of Downtown Lafayette, a nonprofit which worked on revitalizing downtown Lafayette, La.

Ideal weather and variable landscape could, and should, drive future development decisions, because it’s already affecting lifestyle choices, Norris said.

“What do you have that other people don’t have? You have a beautiful setting with great weather. You can live outdoors the entire year,” said Norris, an attorney, real estate broker and marketing specialist. “You’re lucky your topography and natural environment keeps you from being Atlanta -- you have nature that keeps you somewhat compact in certain areas.”

Norris has been traveling the country talking to Realtor groups, thanks to a National Association of Realtors grant that encourages locals to be more active in deciding how their cities grow.

He discussed "place making" and functional design as key in creating healthy, smart-growth communities.

The Greater San Diego Association of Realtors’ intimate “Smart Growth in the 21st Century” summit — with less than a dozen people attending — allowed for more conversation than presentation throughout the four hours.

Though small, the group was diverse: a Chicago transplant, a man returning from years in Japan, a new Realtor, a lifelong San Diegan and a civil engineer, among others.

“Your downtown is really fascinating to me. It’s so close to being the best downtown in America,” said Norris, previously of the New Mexico-based PlaceMakers.

“And yet everything I see that’s new, it’s like the additions that are coming are just not getting this detail right or that detail right, and that impacts its overall vibrancy in the long haul. You have too [many] suburban design elements still being the default setting downtown.”

From an outsider’s perspective, downtown San Diego could be “so much better” if a few things were changed, based on functional design details.

For instance, allowing windows to be opened in office buildings, such as the one where the summit was held in the complex housing SDAR’s Kearny Mesa Service Center on Ronson Court, he said.

Focusing on traditional neighborhood design, rather than sprawling suburban neighborhoods, was another example, as was allowing for visually stimulating density and development.

The city should build with the goal of vibrancy, such as using chamfered corners instead of 90-degree angles, and create village centers that get cars off freeways, he said. The city should also consider incremental urbanism that allows for staged development.

The demand for large living spaces is also fading here, Norris said.

Ample amenities outside, combined with the mild weather, allow for smaller living environments. Of course, housing options aren’t one size fits all, and a housing type for each buyer may last about 10 years, and then alter due to life situations, he said.

A variety of housing styles in one neighborhood, such as the traditional neighborhood design of The Waters in Montgomery, Ala., which he worked on, allows for diverse areas with a range of housing opportunities and choices.

Norris also praised the City of Villages method as a way to accommodate growth, with strong village centers connected by transit lines.

Naysayers might not understand the full potential of such a plan, he said.

“If someone is objecting [to] density, they’re objecting [to] poorly designed density,” Norris said. “They haven’t seen good density.”

Transit and density go hand in hand, allowing affordability and sustainability. Norris recommends first planning where high-density zones would be, to support certain types of transit.

Graphic-based codes also help simplify zoning descriptions and make for better understanding among developers, city officials and residents.

The country is now facing a new “perfect storm” for a great migration, as the Millennial generation — ages 18 to 34 — drives radical changes in buyer preferences, Norris said.

Factors include declining quality of suburbs, an aging population that wants to use transit as they lose their ability to drive and smaller households with more women in the workforce.

“We don’t need to keep building the way we did,” Norris said.

Convenience and vibrancy are key to making downtown urban settings work.

Downtowns should look to the traditional mall for an example as to how to design effectively around human behavior: Glass storefronts keep shoppers engaged, wide walkways allow ease of use, and signs and lighting are also placed in appropriate sizes and spaces.

“Nothing is by accident,” Norris said.

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Greater San Diego Association of Realtors

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Greater San Diego Association of Realtors Executive(s):

Linda Lee

  • 2013 President

Leslie Kilpatrick

  • Board President

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