WE REALLY HAVE, from a pedestrian's point of view, two kinds of places in San Diego," said Stephan Vance of the San Diego Association of Governments. "There's the older urban core that was built around the old streetcar systems. In those parts of town, the streets were laid out so that people could walk to the streetcar and they would have easy access to retail. Those parts of town tend to be fairly walkable, but because they are the older parts, they have a lot of the maintenance issues -- the cracked sidewalks and that sort of thing that need to be fixed."
The second kind of place is "The newer, post-World War II suburbs that were developed more around the automobile," Vance said. "There the sidewalks might be in better condition, but the nearest place to walk to may be miles away, other than to see a neighbor.
"For pedestrians," Vance continued, "it's not just a matter of having sidewalks on the streets -- it's having places that you want to get to by foot."
The new urban village in City Heights has many places for people to walk to. The most dramatic transformation in the redevelopment project is a nine-city-block area at Fairmount and University Avenues.
"When I grew up," said Donna Alm, of the Centre City Development Corporation, "Fairmount and University was where the movie theater was, the bank, the drugstore -- all the important buildings were at that intersection. Then in the '60s, we kind of lost everything. In the '50s and '60s, with all the growth that had to occur after World War II, San Diego and a lot of other cities sort of negated the importance of their villages and their downtowns. I know East San Diego, as it was called at that time, suffered a lot in that period."
The City Heights Retail Village has an Albertsons, eateries, nail salons, banks, and Starbucks. Entertainment is available at the performance annex. Across Fairmount are townhomes and office space. The Weingart City Heights Library, Head Start, the town council offices, and a community service center are across the way, off Wightman. A traffic roundabout on Wightman promotes pedestrian safety by slowing automobile traffic.
The amenities bring pedestrians out, but according to some longtime residents and merchants, the foot traffic has always been high. Michael Sprague, chair of the City Heights Area Planning Committee, said, "We have major bus lines. We have major businesses. We have banks that are there. There are lots and lots of reasons for people to be walking through that intersection, both before and now. We have a lot of small businesses that cater to a specific clientele, and a fair amount of that clientele is within walking distance. A lot of our small businesses are what you might call incubator or start-up businesses. We don't have great parking, so people do tend to walk."
Tina Zenzola, director of Safe and Healthy Communities and boardmember of WalkSanDiego, said, "There was a study done by a professor at San Diego State, Jim Sallis. He looked at Normal Heights and compared it to Clairemont. What he found was that people in Normal Heights tended to get about 70 minutes more physical activity each week. Most of that physical activity was from walking to do errands in the neighborhood.
"If you look at the typical suburban development, I hate to point the finger, but I think Clairemont is one where the land uses are very separate. They've got residential over on one side of town and a commercial strip mall on the other side and the school way outside the center of town. When you have all those things, you don't see many people walking.
"In general," Zenzola said, "our older communities have the good bones of being walkable places. Unfortunately, overlaying those good bones has been the trend in transportation planning -- to place the flow and speed of cars above the comfort and safety of pedestrians. We've sort of ruined, in some ways, a good situation, but we still have those good bones."
Redevelopment has reversed the trend of overlaying those good bones. In the urban village in City Heights, "Now there's more shopping available that's easier to get to," Sprague said. "The library itself is phenomenal. People are really fairly astonished that plans we began drawing in 1994 are actually built and functioning. And we have four new schools coming online in the next three years."
Sprague spoke of the future, saying, "The virtually empty block on the northeast quadrant of the University and Fairmount intersection is designed for more commercial development and some senior housing. Price Charities owns the remainder of the block, and they're planning to develop that fairly soon."
Vegas Bray, a 14-year-old freshman at Hoover High, hanging out in front of the Weingart City Heights Library, said, "I like it here because you just see people around that you know and you can say hi and just chill in the shade. I like all the new things that are going in around here, especially the places to eat." Vegas has lived in City Heights for eight years.
Ivan Sanchez, 21, said, "I've lived in City Heights since I was born. I live close enough that I could walk to work if I want to. I like the diversity of this area. I also like all the effort the city is going to, to bring up this part of town. I run into people on the streets all the time that I know. The bad thing is that most of them are leaving because they can't afford it anymore. It's too expensive. That's the only bad part. I've thought of leaving too, but I just can't. I don't want to leave." Sanchez works at the Blockbuster in the retail village.
"I lived in this neighborhood when I was a kid," said Norma Perez, a Mesa College student who was visiting with friends in the park. "It looks much better here than it did before. The old part was really bad, like, a lot of drug dealing was going on. Now it's changed, and we have a library and a learning center. Now there is more freedom. The kids can come here and play around. When I was 10 or 11 or 12, our moms used to be after us to be careful because so many people around here were bad."