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Downtown's renaissance follows smart growth principles

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As downtown San Diego continues its $3 billion-plus renaissance, the practical applications of smart growth principles are easily visible from any block, in any neighborhood.

The Smart Corner mixed-use development on the corner of Park Boulevard and C Street serves as a model of urban planning, blending affordability, proximity to mass transit, and a combination of office, retail and residential space.

Smart growth has become one of the most popular terms in modern city planning. However, it's no longer a buzz phrase unique to urban planners, developers and city officials. As more people move into downtown, people in all sectors are becoming educated on the principles of efficient land use policies that link and mix housing, transportation, office buildings, retail stores and recreational opportunities. While this proximity of amenities and increased density makes for more convenient living, it also helps reduce pollution and stress, and forges intimate, connected neighborhoods that improve the quality of life.

"Downtown San Diego is viewed as a model for smart growth due to a series of planning initiatives that establish the appropriate and thoughtful revitalization of our core area," said Centre City Development Corp. President Nancy Graham. "Historically, the solution to population increases was building out to the farthest reaches of the county. With less than 4 percent of land left for development, San Diego no longer has that option. We must appropriately densify our older neighborhoods, by embracing the City of Villages concept, providing opportunities for a mix of uses, and creating attractive alternatives to suburban sprawl."

The region's population is projected to grow by 1 million people in the next 30 years. Limited availability of developable land will require downtown to absorb a significant portion of the city's new residents. Downtown's current population of 30,000 is anticipated to swell to nearly 90,000 during this time period.

While some observers feel downtown is already too dense, in reality, downtown is only one-third of the way to ultimate residential build-out and one-half of the way on commercial development. Through creative design, careful integration of open spaces, easily accessible transit corridors and amenities, a balanced and diverse housing stock, and careful, detailed attention to quality of life issues, a dense urban environment can successfully flourish.

The recently approved Downtown Community Plan (online at www.ccdc.com/planupdate) calls for high-density development along major transit corridors, making public transportation readily available to ease traffic congestion, as well as the need for several parking garages. It also calls for mixed-use projects enabling residents in any downtown neighborhood to live within a five- to 10-minute walk of public open space and neighborhood-serving retail stores.

The plan increases levels of public safety with the addition of two new fire stations and open space with seven new parks planned.

Towers in downtown are being built to accommodate ground-floor retail and commercial activity, making the city more pedestrian-friendly while creating opportunities for entrepreneurs to capitalize on the increased foot traffic of a denser downtown. Additionally, developers are now offered incentives to provide affordable housing, green roofs, environmental-friendly buildings and to build to higher densities.

Several downtown projects exemplify these principles, most notably the Smart Corner mixed-use development on the corner of Park Boulevard and C Street. Like its name implies, this project serves as a model of responsible urban planning, blending affordability, proximity to mass transit (the College Station trolley stop will bisect the two buildings), and a combination of office, retail and residential space to create a self-contained, intimate community close to an array of cultural amenities and City College.

Several new commercial projects, including Broadway 655 and DiamondView Tower, will complement new residential development and accommodate businesses moving downtown to take advantage of the growing workforce. Providing added office space will help reduce reverse commutes, where downtown residents would have to drive back from downtown homes to suburban office parks to work.

"High-density development is something that must be embraced in order to achieve the planning goals contained in the Downtown Community Plan," Graham added. "By building up instead of out, we'll ensure the most efficient use of limited space and resources, making it possible for residents to live, work, play and do their business close to home."

While common for more than a century on the East Coast and other parts of the U.S., San Diego has differentiated itself from other major West Coast cities by embracing high-density urban living, helping to preserve resources and habitats for future generations. This intelligent use of space helps prevent the rampant urban sprawl that has characterized much of California's early development.

Getting San Diegan's to reduce their reliance on single occupancy vehicles is an important step in solving some of the region's smart growth issues. Downtown is accessible by all forms of public transit and many new developments are being constructed near or adjacent to transit lines.

Downtown's urban model has proven to be extremely energy-efficient. Smaller living spaces and shorter commutes translate into lower per-capita energy consumption. It's as simple as requiring less electricity to light and less gas to heat smaller spaces. Similarly, when residents live within walking distance of work, errands and public transportation, they're less dependent on their automobiles.

All of these advantages are meaningful only if there is a high quality of life and plentiful amenities to attract people to downtown. The city and CCDC have taken a proactive approach by promoting vibrant and diverse cultural and civic attractions. From the Gaslamp Quarter, to the Civic Theatre, Horton Plaza, San Diego Convention Center and Petco Park, downtown has achieved a balance between the necessities of work and play. And more is yet to come. The $230 million revitalization of downtown's western waterfront along the North Embarcadero will add more than 30 acres of new public open space providing San Diegan's with an exciting, world-class front porch.

This simplified, smart growth model continues to draw attention from suburbanites curious about the conveniences of urban living, as indicated by the ongoing demand for new condos and apartments. Smart growth planning cannot be done in a vacuum, but must include the collaboration of all public agencies working together to address regional issues relative to future growth and mobility. By putting the principles of smart growth into action, CCDC is helping foster a strong sense of community that enriches the lives of our residents, visitors and workers.

Danziger is the communications director for Centre City Development Corp. You can learn more about downtown redevelopment at www.ccdc.com.>

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