Apartments in San Diego’s East Village. Photo by Chris Stone

By Brian Mooney and Ricardo Flores

Over the course of 2020, public health, racial equity and authentic placemaking have surfaced as key issues in the San Diego-Tijuana region and across the country, as the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests have taken center stage.

To provide San Diego-Tijuana civic planning and development professionals a blueprint for moving forward equitably and knowledgeably, the San Diego-Tijuana District of the Urban Land Institute has announced a multi-year initiative called The Inclusive Region that will culminate with the 2022 ULI Spring Meeting, an international convocation that will bring planners, developers and academics from all over the world to our region to glean insights from one another and the development professionals reshaping our community.

ULI San Diego-Tijuana launched The Inclusive Region initiative with a four-session virtual symposium that addressed diversity, equity and inclusion; public space and public health; innovation and leadership; and the built environment. The free-wheeling discussions, which drew hundreds of real estate and design professionals, included an in-depth examination of the history and causes of inequity and resulted in a wellspring of ideas and techniques that members of the 700-strong district council could use to address them. The ULI symposium was sponsored by the San Diego office of Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national nonprofit that helps community residents transform disinvested San Diego neighborhoods.

Speakers from a wide range of disciplines included Mike Hansen, planning director, City of San Diego; Dr. Rubén Roa, undersecretary of the economy, state of Baja California; Betsy Brennan, president & CEO, Downtown San Diego Partnership; Tida Infahsaeng, senior policy associate, San Diego Food System Alliance;  Amy Denhart, representing the YIGBY initiative of San Diego Grantmakers; Ricardo Flores, executive director, LISC San Diego; Dike Anyiwo, vice chair, Midway Pacific Highway Community Planning Group; Zach Adams, vice president, Brookfield Properties;  Peter Bryan, vice president of construction and development, the Golden State Warriors; Stephen Russell, executive director, San Diego Housing Federation; Jill Holslin, visual artist and professor, San Diego State University; and William Logan, owner of Veranda Properties. Moderators included Diego Velasco, principal, CityThinkers; Omar Passons, director, County of San Diego Department of Integrative Services; Brian Mooney, principal Rick Engineering; and Maya Srikrishnan, reporter, Voice of San Diego.

The speakers raised awareness within the real estate industry about the role of real estate in promoting public health and addressing the country’s deep racial and social inequities. This was coupled with a growing sense of urgency among ULI members to reckon with the legacy of racism in land use and take action to address it.

Key to the symposium was the discussion of proven ways to move forward and areas of opportunity. These include:

Healthy Food Access

Panelists emphasized the need for healthy food in marginalized communities. Solutions include incorporating shared gardens in new developments; making space for farmers markets and/or community gardens on vacant lots; and including community gardens in affordable housing developments. A shining example is Project New Village, a neighborhood-based nonprofit that operates the People’s Produce Night Market (a farmers’ market) and Mt. Hope Community Garden in Southeast San Diego. PNV grew out of a collective call to action among residents and other stakeholders in Southeastern San Diego to change the physical and social environment to address health disparities.

Housing Collaborations

There are many collaborations that partner private and nonprofit entities to build permanent supportive housing.  Flyaway Homes and The People Concern of Los Angeles have teamed up to build quality housing out of repurposed shipping containers at one-third of the time and one-third of the cost per person compared to traditional affordable housing. With the public entity guaranteeing 15 years of rental income, Flyaway Homes was able to secure private financing.

Housing in God’s Backyard

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, San Diego’s oldest African American church, is the first local faith-based partner to build affordable housing on their property through Yes in God’s Backyard. YIGBY, a project fiscally sponsored by San Diego Grantmakers, is a collaborative group of experienced real estate professionals, homeless advocates and philanthropic organizations that are partnering with faith communities to rapidly develop affordable housing on underutilized faith community properties, using a self-supporting, scalable model. According to Times of San Diego, there are over 1,000 vacant parcels of land in the county that are owned by faith-based organizations, so the opportunities for faith-based affordable housing are significant.

Authentic Community Engagement is Critical

All panelists described some version of needing to deepen up-front, authentic community engagement. This was described as finding community members where they are, learning from them and having them shape key elements of work all the way through the project life cycle.

New Development Should Build with the Community in Mind

Panelists linked community health, wealth and happiness to a thoughtful approach to new development. Raising the issue of gentrification, speakers advocated for developers to find opportunities to fill commercial vacancies with local small businesses and invest in a community-first, long-term vision of their neighborhood.

History and Culture Matter, No Matter the Scale

Drawing on his decades of experience and connection to San Diego’s local history, Brian Mooney highlighted the too-often hidden history of Black San Diego and the short-lived attempt to form a cultural district in and around the city’s urban core. Authentic cultural identity is more meaningful than anything dreamt up by planning professionals. Examples of this are myriad, from Barrio Logan to the recently christened Convoy Pan-Asian cultural district.

Reform Land Use Laws

Encourage city councils to allow 5,000-7,000-square-foot land parcels to be subdivided into four parcels and sold individually. Then, encourage private developers to buy land in low-crime, high-wealth communities; subdivide the land and build for-sale housing for families who could not otherwise afford to live there.  Support funding for grant down payment assistance for people of color.

Educate Minorities about the Benefits of Homeownership

William Logan emphasized the need to educate minorities of the benefits homeownership.  He said that children and grandchildren of Black homeowners are moving out of their ancestral  neighborhoods to rent elsewhere. He called homeownership the key to stability, expense stabilization, and wealth-building.

Development Opportunities at the San Diego Sports Arena Site

One outstanding opportunity that could include many of the solutions raised in the symposium is the San Diego Sports Arena site recently awarded to Brookfield Properties to plan and develop. This site, centrally located on 48 acres in the Midway District, is a consensus site to develop a new authentic entertainment-oriented neighborhood with over 2,000 units of diverse housing, a mix of retail, employment and associated parks in a complete walkable community connected to transit. It also can serve as a stimulus to revitalize all of the Midway Community Plan into a new urban center for the city connecting San Diego and Mission Bay through a series of trails, bike paths and corridors.

The issues raised in the Inclusive Region symposium are not necessarily unique to the San Diego-Tijuana region. However, ULI’s united cohort of development leaders, public officials and professionals from diverse disciplines on both sides of the border may be. As San Diego looks ahead to the assumption of a new mayoral administration and the landscape of Tijuana continues to evolve at an impressive speed, now may be the moment for new thinking to finally bring new results.

Brian F. Mooney, is chairman of the 700-member San Diego-Tijuana District of the nonprofit Urban Land Institute and managing principal of the Community Planning and Landscape Architecture Division at Rick Engineering Company. Ricardo Flores is executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation San Diego, a nonprofit community funding agency.

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