Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"We’re seeing a real flight out of suburbs like Rancho Santa Fe"

There are many hilarious things about this WSJ article pumping up downtown San Diego as a walkable foodie valhalla, not the least of which is the cover photo of shirtless hooligans illegally skateboarding on an upscale condo development to demonstrate how classy the neighborhood has become. But I'm pretty sure that the image of a "flight out of Rancho Santa Fe" is the best. Try to imagine these poor, huddled masses, fleeing their unwalkable mansion developments with only their Birkin bags and the Lululemon hoodies on their backs. Their Range Rovers snake down the clogged I-5 South, strewn with the abandoned vehicles of refugees past, towards their last beacon of hope: the luxury high-rises of downtown San Diego.

Never mind that there are probably about five people in the entire county doing this, and all of them are quoted in this article. That's the definition of a trend article. Let us now consider the great attractions that the new and improved "city center" holds. It's "walkable." Which means what exactly? You can take a walk, just as long as you don't actually hope to get anywhere. Can you walk to the grocery store? Nope. Your doctor's office? Probably not. The local high school? Negative. You can walk to a number of trendy restaurants and to "touristy Seaport Village." I can probably walk to the airport, but why would I do that? Ah, but here is what walkable means:
A few months ago, Huey and Suzanne Antley sold their home in the northeast edge of San Diego and bought a 1,000-square-foot condominium in the Marina district downtown, a neighborhood known for its high-end condos, parks and touristy Seaport Village. The couple paid about $600,000 for their condo, which is near a park where they can walk their dog. 
Walkable means you can walk your dog in a tiny park. Of course, on the "northeast edge of San Diego," these people could've probably walked their dog in a five-mile canyon. But no matter. They are so excited about this that they're even considering ditching their car:
“We maybe use the car once a week for an hour,” says Mr. Antley, a vice president of a data analytics company, who works from home. “We’re kicking around the idea of buying a Vespa.”
Ah but if you work from home, you don't need to drive to work no matter where you live. With such flexibility, people looking for a walkable city experience could even move to a city that's actually walkable, which would not be San Diego. We're talking about a place where you can't drive more than five miles in any direction without having to get on a freeway to go any further. And you can't walk on the freeways. And come to think of it, you can't drive a Vespa on the freeways either. So maybe this couple should consider the building with the "boat-share program" mentioned in this article before they trade in their car, so they can have some means of leaving their walkable urban paradise to get provisions.


Alex said...

Yes, but Mr. Antley's wife now walks to work. Being able to walk to work, a dog park, and restaurants means the area is walkable. For me, it has to include a grocery store...although now there is instacart. Plus, ideally, the increased density drives demand and feasibility of more walkable amenities as well as public transit options. I don't walk to work, but I walk to either the bus or the train, so I define my neighborhood as walkable (although not everyone does).

Downtown San Diego was once seedy?

Miss Self-Important said...

It's not a dog park per se; it's a small green space next to their building. If we were to define it by the majority of its occupants, it would be a homeless park.

I think the idea of making SD a walkable city is a pipe dream. It was built around the freeways. Mrs. Antley works in downtown b/c she's in law and there is a concentration of courts and prisons in downtown, but relatively few people are employed by them. Downtown is not the concentrated employment center that it is in other cities; it's just one of many employment hubs. And all of them are moderately walkable in the sense that each neighborhood is like an island with its own set of amenities which are in walking distance of most residences in that neighborhood. But you can't live here without a car unless you want to be trapped on your island.

I don't actually think this is a problem. San Diego is a pretty functional city the way it is, and the freeway flow is generally well-managed. It's actually much better than in Chicago, where I-94 appears to be permanently jammed through the entire North Side. Not every city has to be dense and transit-oriented. Just the city I live in does, b/c I hate driving, but lots of people evidently LOVE it. And people in SD shouldn't kid themselves.

Downtown San Diego still is seedy in large parts. Lots of bail bond places b/c of the proximity to the county jail, and homeless people lying on the sidewalks. The place where you stayed used to be pretty gross but was improved in the '90s. Another area nearby, East Village, is "improving." I don't know if Little Italy was seedy, but it was just not hip like it is now.

Alex said...

"And all of them are moderately walkable in the sense that each neighborhood is like an island with its own set of amenities which are in walking distance of most residences in that neighborhood."

Well, that is great. My sense is that's not really the case in most places. Even if you had to drive to work, being able to do all of your other errands and activities on foot would be a win for an area.

Not every city has to be dense and transit oriented, but walkability should certainly exist in most places. For example, where my mom lives in Miami is probably more dense and has more business than my DC neighborhood, but you can't walk anywhere because there aren't sidewalks and crosswalks, and you'd have to dart over freeway entrances. That is really dumb, and easily fixable. The goal wouldn't be to get rid of your car, but to not have to drive every time you want to go down the street.

I think you should be pro-urban SD revitalization movement. You work from home. The more development near you, the less you have to drive to get it somewhere else, right?

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, well I definitely support sidewalks, but I don't think SD especially lacks them. The big problem is that the islands of stuff are more easily accessed by freeways than by transit. So if you get tired of the overpriced hip restaurants in your neighborhood and want to eat an $8 bowl of ramen in a strip mall between car dealerships, you have to drive. I used to think this was horrible, but now I am ok with it, so long as there is parking and traffic is manageable.

And I am in favor of revitalization in the sense of people opening businesses where there was previously nothing, and especially coffee shops b/c I live in them, but I don't care about luxury condos with boat shares, and I don't want to be priced out of places on their account. Basically, although I hate SD, I don't think there is anything structurally wrong with its layout. It's very suburban and spread out, but all the stuff you'd need and want is relatively easy to get to, so the distances aren't a real problem. Though I would like to have more convenient grocery options to my current residence. A nearby market has been "coming soon" for six months already.

Alex said...

This is not about SD, but I think a lot about accessibility to other "islands of amenities" living without a car. I have basically everything I need within a one mile walk (including bus and train to get me somewhere else) but there are lots of things I *prefer* because they are better/cheaper/cooler that I don't have easy access to without a car. Sometimes it frustrates me, and sometimes I get all meta and think it is just ok to not be able to easily get to things that are far away and that physical distance has been a powerful limiting factor for human beings for a long time.... I feel pretty strongly that unless you need a car to get to work, it is a luxury, and it is not that hard to do without some luxuries. [Not claiming I don't have many luxuries in my life! Also Amazon, Uber, and Instacart are my BFFs.] We will probably get a car at some point, but we're trying to hold off as long as possible, plus Jason hates the idea of driving/car ownership. I can't really picture having kids in DC without a car, but Jason points out that Uber has car seat options now.

Anyway, for DC, I am very pro-density and pro-walkable development, and pro bringing as many amenities as possible to a neighborhood so you don't ever have to leave it if you don't want to. I am also pro- catering to pedestrians and bicyclists on the streets, no matter the inconvenience to drivers. This makes me a very stereotypical and disdained gentrifier to some of my neighbors.

Miss Self-Important said...

"I feel pretty strongly that unless you need a car to get to work, it is a luxury, and it is not that hard to do without some luxuries."

That might be true in a small number of eastern seaboard cities like DC, but it can't be true in most of the country, can it? You won't die without a car in most places, but your life will become significantly more complicated and possibly also more expensive without one. Anywhere where things are as spread out as southern California, the cost of Uber and car-shares which bill per mile or by time traveled can outstrip the cost of gas for your own vehicle.

Also, if ensuring that every island has ALL the possible amenities were to become a development priority, wouldn't there potentially be a trade-off with variety across islands? Part of what drives specialization is that people will come from outside your neighborhood to visit and spend money at the places inside your neighborhood. If a specialty olive oil boutique (to use an example from Cambridge) had to rely only on people within walking distance to shop there, it would never make it, b/c the locals only need so much specialty olive oil. The only kinds of businesses that can survive exclusively on local traffic are pretty generic - groceries, convenience stores, diners, a Starbucks. Most cool things need to convince people to leave their own islands and swim over to theirs.

Miss Self-Important said...

I think we have switched positions since college, when you loved driving and I wanted to abolish it.

Alex said...


Alex said...

I didn't say all islands should have all *possible* amenities, just as many as possible. No need for all islands to have specialty olive oil boutiques. I know this isn't happening right now, outside of a few places, but I would like it to be. That's why I support these urban development efforts. And re-structuring existing developments to make it easier for pedestrians and bicyclists to get around and access things.

Speaking of Sbux, rumor has it they are interested in my neighborhood, and the business association is trying to kill it because we only want happy, local business. Nevermind that we have a 7-11, a Subway, and CVS, and many of the local businesses sell totally stupid knickknacks, AND we have plenty of empty storefronts. Stupid aging hippie NIMBYs.

Miss Self-Important said...

But doesn't prioritizing basic amenities on the assumption that the neighborhood should be self-contained and residents will never leave (and, inversely, that outsiders will not come) discourage specialized businesses like the olive oil shop? It;s not that all islands need one, but that this kind of development would result in no island having one.

Poor Sbux. They get such a bad rap. There are many neighborhood-y Starbucks's, especially if the neighborhood is relatively isolated. There is one place in SD like that where I once went in and felt immediately like everyone in there knew one another and I Did Not Belong.

Bike lanes and stuff are fine by me. My only concern is that not all places are realistically very bike-able, so it might just be a waste of money. Like the area near Seb's parents has great bike lanes but is so hilly that hardly anyone ever uses them. We tried once and had to walk our bikes up the hills half the time. Also I once tutored a guy from Dubai who was getting an urban planning degree from the Extension School and was writing a thesis on how to relieve Dubai's traffic congestion, and one of his proposals was to build bike lanes. And I asked him if that would really be feasible where it's over 100 degrees for much of the year, and he was like, well, it's what cutting edge urban planners in America and Europe say to do, so we should do it too.