A Placemaking Journal

Redevelop this, California!

How California will redevelop its existing communities in the future is up for debate. And, it’s about time.

The role of redevelopment in shaping our built environment came to its crescendo in the halcyon days of 2005 over Kelo vs. New London. Today, Susette Kelo’s home sits as a vacant scar on business-as-usual redevelopment practices.

Born from the sins of blight eradication through Urban Renewal, redevelopment’s application of Corbu’s mechanical tower-in-a-park utopia led to the rise of Jane Jacobs and the re-humanization of city living. A seemingly positive turn of events, and yet this pendulum swing of community influence, taken to its less positive extreme, has bred a culture of increased NIMBY vigilante justice that’s questioned not only redevelopment, but every urban planning move in recent years.

California’s Proposition 13 initiative was passed in 1979 and led everyone to believe you can have something for nothing. Property taxes were fixed at 1% while costs for city services continued to rise, leaving redevelopment as the only tool for increasing property tax revenues in local communities. Meanwhile, everything else was on its way to Sacramento to be lost in a bloated bureaucracy.

Redevelopment has been a double edged sword for the City of San Diego. An easy target of public demagoguery when successful, such as in downtown’s Gaslamp District or City Heights neighborhoods, it’s criticized as a back room deal tool for private developers to be handed public money. On the other hand, where deemed a failure, it’s portrayed as a coarse tool wantonly scarring communities with projects either out-of-scale or out-of-character.

Where Are We Now?
Despite New Urbanism providing better context-sensitive tools, such as our transect and place-based designs and codes, redevelopment is still a relatively crude tool, mostly leveraging a community’s ability to assemble private property into master planned chunks, increase the land’s value, and bond against the value to get buildings built. However, by being private property-centric, all new redevelopment puts pressure (and thereby angst) on surrounding properties to upgrade to the new standard, intensity or height only initially achieved through subsidy. 

A conundrum wrapped in an enigma. The use of government to condemn private property in order to raise property values (and taxes) has aligned mostly pro-business property rights advocates and taxpayer associations against redevelopment. Yet, with insufficient property tax funding to keep the lights on, redevelopment has been seen as a positive source of community building until recently. In fact, because of its success in bringing people back to cities, blight is now as difficult to define as “rural community character” and the role of the government in improving property values through stimulating infill development in what were formally unloved urban areas is in question.

The nation has been trending towards living in urban areas over the past decade. New Urbanism is old hack, and the days of assembling an entire block of private property are over. What will we do now? I suggest keeping your eye on San Diego.

America’s Finest City
Why San Diego? The city has a tremendous history of changing our nation’s built environment in both good and bad ways. The first Mission built in the late 1700’s. In 1915, Bertram Goodhue’s reinterpretation of Spanish Baroque and Spanish Colonial architecture ‘invented’ a new architecture style that defined Southern California and led to the Art Deco movement that swept across our nation. During our 1935 International Exposition, the Federal Housing Authority unveiled Richard Neutra and Garrett Eckbo’s vision of socialist housing subsidized by the FHA’s mortgage insurance, which inadvertently led to the suburban sprawl we have finally neutralized 60-years later. Despite that one little screw up, San Diego notably re-introduced compact, mixed-use, and economically successful infill development with Michael Stepner’s Uptown District, which still wins national awards to this day.

So, assuming redevelopment funding is gone and we lose the ability to leverage private parcels into great higher tax brackets, where will be find new land to develop and revitalize?  In San Diego, the new land is right in front of us.  Our street sections are, on average, 80-feet wide throughout the city. Add mandatory 20-foot setbacks on both sides, minimum. Therefore, at any given section we have 120-feet of right-of-way (ROW) in four directions, with squat corner buildings vying with billboards, street trees, signage, lights and power lines for your undivided attention.

The Four-Corners idea was developed by Leon Krier during his stay in San Diego last year. Combining this idea with Leon’s Architectural Tuning of Settlements, we developed 16 distinctive character types of town and neighborhood centers to reconfigure mostly within the ROW (click for larger view):

By ‘wiggling’ the street at appropriately located street corners, a variety of things occur simultaneously to increase property values:  

1) Appropriate areas to revitalize valuable centers are usually located in the highly sought-after older Traditional Neighborhoods. The bones are already in place, infrastructure is sized to increase intensities and, urbanistically-speaking, they usually are in need of additional civic space and sidewalk/streetscape improvements. Suburban-sprawl retrofit is possible too, but I am concerned about their lack of lovability and infrastructure (streets and pipes) built for one intensity, thereby being less sought-after and more expensive to retrofit.

Existing US Condition



2) Civic spaces work well with civic buildings. Adding new civic buildings and spaces needs to be well-designed. Foreground buildings (Civic) in relationship to existing private buildings, oriented by the urban pattern (new and old), create a distinctive character.

3) Terminating Vistas create retail value, just like JC Penny’s at the Mall. Adjusting streets to ‘see’ the new retail frontages, and parking spaces, creates greater value than only seeing signage for shops while driving through at 45 MPH.

4) Slowing Down Traffic helps you see the place. The architecture is more important because it is seen. The retail is seen, the parking is seen, the people enjoying themselves are seen. Slowing down traffic at key Neighborhood Centers allows for walkability, outdoor dining, and increased retail sales. Note the difference in business along Bird Rock’s La Jolla Boulevard after the street improvements calmed the traffic greatly.

5) But, I want to drive fast! Not every street on every corner is appropriate for the cross-roads infill design. And the corner of two ‘A’ Streets creates a different design approach than an ‘A’ and ‘B’ Street corner or two ‘B’ Street corners. This has been the only criticism of the concept as people want to drive suburban speeds across our urban neighborhoods. Just as women used to be discouraged from riding bikes, it’s possible our car culture can be discouraged from driving over 35 MPH through every neighborhood, and slow down to spend a little time and a little money in terrific neighborhood centers.

6) Condemnation isn’t necessary. With the city adding land (ROW and setbacks), that adds value to a developer pioneering a new development model. Wiggling the roads create a destination in our monotonous grid, adding value to a few key areas without ‘taking’ private property and creating unrealistic development intensities. 

Importantly, street improvements are financed by a city’s General Funds, State Transit Funding (1/3 sales tax), and Federal Gas Taxes. Smart Growth funding and the recently increased Federal/State dedication to infill development is reshaping our redevelopment future.  

–Howard Blackson

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