Photo by Robert Burroughs
San Diego River, Mission Valley. It is not much of a river. More a wide brown ditch lined with willows and reeds.
On February 13, 1980, a storm system from the Pacific Ocean moved across Sun Diego and dumped one-third inch of rain in less than twenty-four hours. It was a hard storm in a year that had already brought more than its share of rain, but violent downpours are a common feature of winter in Southern California. No one could possibly have known then that the storm was the first of a series that would soon bring to San Diego the worst flooding in more than forty years.
Mission Valley, 1980. Avenida del Rio and Friars, Fashion Valley and Mission roads were partly submerged.
A new storm the next day rated front-page treatment in the Sun Diego Union. Wind, hail, and more than half an inch of rain slammed into the county, toppling trees and antennas and causing Lake Hodges and Barrett Lake reservoir (near Dulzura) to overflow.
Mission Valley, 1980. A taxicab was swept away when the driver tried to ford a small road behind Fashion Valley shopping center.
Mud slides blocked Highway 76 in Fallbrook, and as usual. Stadium Way and Mission Center Road in Mission Valley were closed due to flooding. The weather service noted two more storms were on the way.
Steve Bieri:“There’ll be islands in the middle of the river for wildlife."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
By Monday, February 18, nearly an inch more rain had fallen on the coast, and backcountry towns such as Palomar and Julian were reporting four and five inches a night. The Sweetwater dam became the third reservoir in the area to overflow, and in Mission Valley a number of streets, including Avenida del Rio and Friars, Fashion Valley. and Mission roads were partly submerged beneath the rising San Diego River.
Angeles Leira: "Mission Valley property owners turn their backs on the river.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
A taxicab was swept away when the driver tried to ford a small road behind Fashion Valley shopping center; although he and his passengers escaped uninjured, the cab wasn't found until the next day, overturned and lodged against a tree a quarter mile downstream.
Wimmer, Yamada, and Associates
Two days later, amid continuing rain, a state of emergency was declared in the county. City Manager Ray Blair moved into the bunkerlike emergency operations center in the basement of the city operations building downtown, and among the areas he monitored on the radios and video screens there was Mission Valley. The valley, the main drainage for a large portion of central San Diego County, was having problems already, and looked as if it was in for more.
Mission Valley, 1935. In 1958 the city council listened to the May Company argue its case for building a shopping center on ninety acres near the geographical center of the valley.
San Diego Historical Society
The city’s San Vicente reservoir was spilling water downstream into the El Capitan reservoir, and Blair and other city officials knew that if El Capitan overflowed, there would be no place for the water to go except the densely developed lower valley. The resulting flood was expected to pour past the county's flow-gauging station near Santee at a rate of at least 36,000 cubic feet per second, filling the valley downstream from bank to bank and inundating virtually every structure in it.
The quintessential Mission Valley experience today is driving down a freeway.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Mission Center Road would lie beneath a dozen feet of water, and, as one city planner later described it colorfully, some of the valley’s major buildings “would be down around the Coronado Islands.’’ As El Capitan continued to fill, teams of lifeguards were dispatched to Mission Valley to dissuade people from trying to cross flooded streets in their cars.
It was still raining on February 21, and another storm was due that night. Police had set up a command post in a parking lot of Presidio Park, and patrolled Hotel Circle in four-wheel-drive trucks. At ten o’clock the next morning the Stardust Hotel was evacuated, and one hour later, as the water level in the huge El Capitan reservoir crept to within twelve inches of the top, most of the valley’s businesses voluntarily shut down and their employees left for home. All freeways leading into the valley were closed, and much of it was already covered by murky brown flood waters.
But the rain was over. The approaching storm drifted harmlessly southeastward, and Mission Valley’s buildings were spared. The same day the valley was being evacuated. Union reporter Daniel C. Carson got on the phone to Ken Klein, an assistant planning director for the City of San Diego, and asked him if the city had learned any lessons about building in flood plains. “If we had it to do over again,’’ Klein replied, “we would have planned and anticipated the concentration of development in Mission Valley.”
Klein was being diplomatic, but he could easily have been vindictive. City planners fought long and hard to prevent the sprawling development of Mission Valley, and the story of why they failed is one of the most complex and intriguing in San Diego’s history. Since 1950 the planning department has tried at least four times to formulate a master plan for development and flood control in Mission Valley, and each time the department’s proposals have been rejected by the valley’s property owners. A powerful group of businessmen and developers who hold the rights of private property particularly dear, most of them have had little patience with the department’s concept of planned growth and the density restrictions and road systems that go with it. “There has never been a case [in San Diego] where the philosophical difference between developers and the city planning department has been so wide,” says Angeles Leira, the city’s principal planner for Mission Valley for the last three years.
The result, in a city that prides itself on growth management and carefully planned communities, is an embarrassment, a hodgepodge of flood-prone commercial development, “damn near” unrestricted, as former city manager Kimball Moore puts it. Streets, parking lots, tennis courts, and a golf course have been located in a river bed. Condominiums have sprung up across the street from gravel mining operations. Hotels and shopping centers have gone in without Fire stations, parks, schools, libraries.
Mission Valley is a good place to buy concrete or cars, but residents must drive to Linda Vista or Mission Hills to find a store that sells fresh vegetables.
The thirty-year battle over Mission Valley has pitted government against business, and the valley’s interests against those of downtown. It has been a battle fought with zoning permits and campaign contributions, and one of the principal casualties has been the downtown area. The decision in the late 1950s to allow commercial development in Mission Valley drew off business almost immediately from the center city, and led the area into a long decline. Today Mission Valley’s property owners seethe at the city’s costly effort to inject new life into downtown through redevelopment; they are not only afraid that what once happened to downtown could now happen to them, but that a revitalized downtown will thwart their own plans for growth.
Other casualties have been a flood control channel and the ideal of creating a parklike strip along the banks of the San Diego River. City officials want both, but for thirty years they have been unable to make either one a reality. That is because the valley’s property owners, who would like to have a flood control channel but not necessarily a park, have been unable to agree with each other or with the city on who would pay for a channel, what it would look like, and how much it would cost.
But all that is changing now. A coalition of property owners recently proposed to build a row of new high-rise office buildings and hotels along the river, and they sweetened their offer with a plan for a natural, tree-lined channel that would provide jogging paths and picnic areas as well as flood control. The proposal, rushed through planning commission hearings over the last few weeks and scheduled for a city council decision next Tuesday, would be the center-piece of the valley’s long overdue master plan, and would spark the biggest changes in Mission Valley since the decision was made to turn it from a placid river valley into a commercial center. The project has brought to light long-simmering differences among the valley’s largest property owners, between those who are upstream east of Highway 163 and those who are downstream to the west, those who are ready to develop their land and those who aren’t, those who want to strike a truce with the city and those who don’t. “We have an opportunity to provide some very needed public benefits, and derive some benefits for ourselves at the same time,’’ explains Steve Bieri of Sammis Properties, the principal partner in the proposed project. “It’s kind of an idea whose time has come.”
“The eastern [upstream] property owners are ready to move, and that will force things on everybody,’’ says Terry Brown, one of the most powerful and conservative property owners in the valley, and one whose Atlas Hotel holdings lie outside the scope of the new project. “The day of reckoning is here.”
Steve Bieri, a partner in Sammis Properties, is a stocky redhead with a neatly kempt red beard. He gives the impression of being a likable, compromise kind of guy. Among Mission Valley's conservative property owners, Bieri pronouncements such as “We think people should have the opportunity to enjoy the river,’’ or “Developers have a bad name; we hope we can show that developers have a civic responsibility’’ sound like gross heresies. Reminded that his company, which would build and own a major share of the new project along the river, surely has a great deal of self-interest in it, he leans back in his chair and says, “We believe all self-interest should be enlightened self-interest.’’
Actually, Sammis Properties really is a different kind of property owner in the valley. Unlike most of the other large owners, who have developed their property only as necessary for the expansion of their various businesses, Sammis Properties is a professional developer. The company has the most to gain from a well-designed project, and the most to lose; its reputation and future business are at stake.
Sammis Properties was born at the beginning of this year, when partners Doug Allred and Donald Sammis of Lion Properties decided to break up an eleven-year partnership. Donald Sammis remains a general partner and part-owner of a number of properties in eastern and western Mission Valley, including the Lion Building (west of the Cinema 21 theater), the Geico Building, Mission Center Park (an office complex on Mission Center Road where the former Houlihan’s restaurant was located), a small office park just west of Interstate 805, and “The Vault’’ — the company’s headquarters, tucked just inside the northeastern comer of the Highway 163-Interstate 8 interchange. But out of its total 120 acres of Mission Valley land, Sammis Properties’ current main focus is on about ninety undeveloped acres along the river between Highway 163 and Stadium Way. Until 1977 the river acreage was zoned by the city as a floodway, and was therefore undevelopable. But even then the value of land in Mission Valley was approaching nearly one million dollars an acre, and land that valuable doesn’t lie undeveloped for long. Five years ago a group of property owners in the valley convinced the city council to allow floodway land to be developed if adequate flood protection were provided, and then initiated a study to create a naturalistic flood control channel surrounded by hotels, offices, and other buildings. An all-star lineup of local consultants was hired to prepare an environmental impact report and detailed plans for the project, including ornithologist Joe Jehl of Hubbs/Sea World Research Institute, architect Homer Delawie, and the landscape architecture firm of Wimmer, Yamada and Associates. In time the project came to be known as the First San Diego River Improvement Project.
Bieri points out that his company and the other partners in the project — Doug Allred, Conrock, and May Centers, Inc. (owners and operators of Mission Valley Center) — have already spent more than a million dollars on various studies and plans. They would gain about fifty acres of developable land by constructing a $15 million flood control channel and surrounding roads, and “it is the fifty acres that will be used to support the costs of the channel," Bieri explains. “It’s not every day that a private developer offers to pay for $15 million worth of public improvements.’’ Still, when it is complete twenty years from now, the project will have cost several hundred million dollars, and it will probably be worth several hundred million more. Along both sides of the river between Highway 163 and Stadium Way, five office towers and three hotels will rise, as will nearly 1900 condominiums. The buildings currently housing the Akron, the Mavin delicatessen, and the Valley Circle theater will be knocked down and replaced by another high-rise office tower, with underground parking and a landscaped plaza. Camino de la Reina will grow from two lanes to six, and will run the length of the river between Highway 163 and Interstate 805. Stadium Way and Mission Center Road will be raised to reduce the threat of flooding (“Floods interrupt business,” Bieri says), and between them a new road will be laid across the river.
Eventually, people in and around the new buildings will “be looking out on forty- to fifty-foot trees, and a 300-foot-wide open water surface with bushes along the sides,” Bieri says. “There’ll be islands in the middle of the river for wildlife. It’ll be a rustic habitat, parklike but not manicured. There will be a jogging path, a nature path, designated areas for fishing and picnicking. . . . For the first time, we'll be focusing development on the river.”
It is not much of a river, as Bieri concedes. More a wide brown ditch lined with willows and reeds. Barely a million years old, give or take a couple of hundred thousand years. Sometimes it ran fast and hard, cutting through the soft earth on its way to the ocean. Other times it was inundated by the ocean, becoming a huge coastal lagoon. Whales swam in it, and their bones are still found on the slopes nearby.
People have lived in and around Mission Valley for thousands of years. They have been haggling over how to develop it only for the last thirty. But haggling or not, they have already done a pretty thorough job. At night, from the valley’s southern rim, you can sometimes see lights sparkling below from Mission Bay to Cowles Mountain, out near San Carlos. In that distance there are two major shopping centers, three freeway interchanges, eight movie theaters, a stadium, and uncounted stores, offices, and restaurants. As of 1980 the valley contained more hotel rooms than houses and condominiums — 3864 to 3581.
It was a different place thirty years ago. The memories of it are still strong among the residents here who saw it:
“Back in the 1950s, it really was a river valley.”
“It was so beautiful, and so green. . . . Cows grazed in it.”
“It was a place to walk.”
“We used to ride horses there.” Controversy first came to the area in 1958. That year the city council listened to the May Company argue its case for building a shopping center on ninety acres near the geographical center of the valley. According to May Company executives, no other location in San Diego would do. The shopping center’s opponents, who included architects, several downtown merchants, and city planning director Harry Haelsig, argued that the city should come up with a master plan for the valley before allowing the May Company to build. That way the valley’s value and character as open space would be preserved, and the inevitable development could be clustered and
orderly. But the members of the city council were fearful that if the May Company wasn’t accommodated in Mission Valley, it would take its shopping center elsewhere. They voted in favor of the development, and Mission Valley Center opened in 1961.
The project’s opponents had warned that once the city said yes to one developer, it would be impossible to say no to others, and they were right. Over the next few years the city council and the city planning commission (which advises the council) regularly received requests for zoning changes and subdivisions in the valley. Nearly all of them were approved, over the objections of the city planning department, which routinely gives its recommendations to the planning commission. “One thing just led to another,” former mayor Frank Curran said not long ago. “Somehow we just never called a halt [to the development].” Meanwhile, a community planning committee was formed and given the task of working out a comprehensive plan for the development of the valley. The committee was made up almost entirely of people who owned the vast majority of the valley, and they had a hard time agreeing on what compromises, if any, they would make with each other. No one warned to bear the cost of a flood control channel, and no one was willing to allow his property to be less profitably developed than his neighbor’s. One committee member told the planning commission flatly in 1962 that “the law of supply and demand should take care of land uses and zoning.”
The committee’s position hadn’t changed much by 1969, when Angeles Leira and a fellow planner presented the city’s version of a master plan to the valley’s property owners. (In the intervening years the Army Corps of Engineers had proposed building a huge concrete ditch to funnel flood waters through the valley, but environmentalists, led by the designconscious group Citizen’s Coordinate for Century III, raised serious questions about the channel’s effectiveness and cost, and the plan was scrapped.) Leira and other members of the planning department prepared a four-foot-long model that showed densely clustered buildings separated by wide spaces of green valley. A long, thin park ran along the river from the stadium to Morena Boulevard, and flood control was provided by a meandering natural river channel with inlets and lagoons. The model didn’t go over too well with the committee’s members. As Leira recalls it, “They nearly threw us out of the room. They felt they had to give up too much land, that it wasn’t worth the cost of the benefits they would receive.”.
Today that model hangs on the wall of Leira’s office, and the San Diego River is a forgotten, deserted place — except when it rains. A few ducks and lizards and coyotes make it home. Trash that the recent floods have carried down lies everywhere in the brush: old shoes, a bicycle inner tube, rotting cardboard and plastic. Not much of a river, but one of the few in the area, and one that could be turned into “an amenity [that] will help us lease our office space,” Bieri insists. Leira agrees. “Everything is relative. For San Diego, the river is a great asset.”
On a Friday morning in late October, Leira and Gene Lathrop, a senior planner in the planning department who is working with Leira on Mission Valley, take me for a tour of the valley. It is appropriate that we go by car, since it is the one thing that anyone considered before paving and developing the valley. The quintessential Mission Valley experience today is driving down a freeway at around sixty miles an hour, turning off on an off-ramp somewhere, and guiding your vehicle into a parking space. Walking from one point to another within the valley is almost unthinkable; there arc sidewalks here and there, but they rarely connect to each other or lead anywhere when they do connect, as Leira points out.
Lathrop drives, and I am a passenger in the front; Leira sits in the back. She is a big woman with a pleasant face framed by straight, medium-length blond hair. For fourteen years, off and on, she has worked on Mission Valley for the planning department. For the last three of those years she has been the area’s principal planner, a position that, considering the aversion most of the valley’s property owners have to planning in general, is roughly equivalent to hired gun. But Leira handles her charge well, and unlike many planners is outspoken about her views. When Lathrop begins to explain that there is both corrective medicine and preventive medicine in the science of city planning, Leira quickly adds that Mission Valley needs both. “It got sick,” she says, her rich Spanish accent, a legacy from her parents and a childhood in Madrid, rendering the phrase more like “Eet got seek.” “It’s a mess. But it’s the only region in [the City of] San Diego that has a riverbed. To me, the river could be like another San Diego Bay — a great amenity. But the Mission Valley property owners just don’t see it that way. Up to now, all their development has centered on the freeway. They turn their backs on the river.”
Lathrop pulls into a parking lot behind the Town and Country Hotel, and we get out of the car briefly to look around. Leira, pointing to one of the hotel’s ten-story room towers nearby, explains her last comment; the entire back wall of the building is windowless, and the balconies on each floor are patrolled only by maids going about their chores. “You can’t really blame the property owners for turning their backs on the river,” she comments. “For a long time they were thinking that there would be a concrete channel out here — really ugly.”
We get back into the car and drive eastward through the Fashion Valley parking lot. Like the rear parking lots at the Town and Country, it frequently floods when it rains, but was designed to pass the water quickly with minimum damage; these tracts of asphalt are the closest thing to a flood control channel Mission Valley has ever had. Soon we pass under Highway 163 and enter the area of the Sammis project. As we move eastward on Camino de la Reina between Mission Valley Center and the river, Lathrop and Leira point out where some of the project’s buildings could rise. Sammis is the first developer in the valley to consider the river a potential asset, they note, and the First to talk of creating a community rather than a jumble of buildings. But the planning department has been dickering for weeks with Bieri over the design of the Sammis project and its environmental effects. The department is concerned that the river could be hidden by “a wall of high-rise buildings,” and that the proposed restoration of river habitat after grading and dredging may not work. Perhaps the most serious reservation, however, has to do with the density and type of buildings that the project will introduce. Using a complex computer model, the department estimates future trafFic according to the size and type of building to be built (an ofFice building creates more traffic than a house, for example, and a twenty-story office tower creates more traffic than a fifteen-story one). The high rises of the Sammis project would not create an unreasonably heavy amount of traffic by themselves, but the department is concerned they might set a precedent; if every property owner in Mission Valley were to develop his property to the same density, traffic jams and heavy pollution would result. “Traffic circulation is the most critical thing controlling development in the valley — traffic and the river,” says Leira. “The property owners want as little constraint as possible on development, but unfortunately we see the valley as very limited geographically, and therefore it is necessary to constrain- [both traffic and] development.”
From Stadium Way we make our way to the San Diego Mission and the condominium complexes that surround it. The mission was the first building to appear in the valley when it was built in 1774, and, as Lathrop points out, the area around it is now one of the few places in the valley where people live. Most of the valley’s larger property owners are (and have been) far more interested in developing their property commercially, because that is currently what brings the highest profit. The Sammis project would increase the number of residences in the valley substantially, but most of its planned development would be offices, hotels, and stores, continuing the trend for the valley to become a huge commercial zone.
From the mission we cross over Interstate 8 on Murphy Canyon Road, and then follow Camino del Rio back toward Mission Valley Center. In spite of her reservations about the Sammis project, Leira says the plan is “basically a good one,” and she and the rest of the department staff have made an extra effort to accommodate Sammis’s request for all possible haste. The Sammis project is on an extremely fast and tight time schedule for city approval, a schedule Bieri claims is dictated by the fact that all the partners are currently in agreement on the project. “You have to move when you have the opportunity. All the parties are together today,” he says.
However, speculation has it that Bieri and the other partners in the project feel a majority of the current city council will be favorably disposed toward the project, and that they are trying to get final approval before the makeup of the council changes as a result of the recent election. And ^ome observers say there is more than just politics on the minds of those in the partnership led by Sammis. The city planning department is currently working on a new master plan for the entire valley, from Interstate 5 to the area around the San Diego Mission. (The Sammis project would form only one part, albeit an important one, of this overall plan. Although the Sammis project would be approved before the master plan is — in effect, putting the cart before the horse — it conforms in general to the development guidelines the planning department would like to see established throughout the valley.) A recently released draft of the department’s new master plan proposes restrictions on future commercial development, which has the property owners of Mission Valley more steamed than an order of clams. They have come up with an alternate master plan that would allow Mission Valley to be developed from one end to the other by densely packed high-rise buildings, but if the city wins this time, it could mean that property owners such as the Sammis partnership, who develop first, will use up the lion’s share of the density allotment the planning department is willing to concede. Those who wait to develop may find there is little they can legally build. The owners “are in an incredible footrace to see who [is able to develop their property] first,” says Lathrop, turning the car onto a freeway on-ramp. “The smarter ones know the valley can accommodate just so much. They don’t say so, but they know.”
Leira nods, and as Lathrop accelerates onto the freeway, she looks out through sunglasses at the buildings that seem to be racing by. “What they’re proposing is not all going to fit in there,” she says.
Two weeks before the planning commission is scheduled to make a final recommendation Sammis project, the Mission Valley Unified Planning Committee meets at noon in a conference room at National University to discuss alternatives to the city’s new master plan for the entire valley. Incorporated into the planning process in 1960 (partly as a result of the uproar over the original commercialization of Mission Valley), such committees have an advisory role only; they are usually composed of businessmen, activists, housewives, and other residents of the areas they are concerned with. The Mission Valley committee is open to employees and residents in the valley, but an overwhelming majority of its twenty-four members are representatives of the valley’s largest property owners and developers, including Tom Hazard of the Hazard contracting and gravel companies, and Ray Hoobler, a vice president of Terry Brown’s Atlas Hotels, Inc. Steve Bieri, a regular at the meetings, is unable to attend today, but Alvin Cushman, whose family owns the property on which is located the Stardust Hotel and golf course, is present, and so is Russell Grant, who has owned a twenty-two acre parcel at the corner of Stadium Way and Camino de la Reina for forty-five years. “There is no community planning group in the city with such a high percentage of developer interests,’’ Leira has noted.
Bill Walker, properties manager of Conrock and the current committee chairman, calls the meeting to order and leads the pledge of allegiance. A thin, silver-haired, dour man with a Texas accent. Walker is wearing glasses and a crisp white shirt and tie. He is one of the most conservative of the committee’s members, and one of its most outspoken; a few days earlier he told me no reporter could possibly understand the issues of Mission Valley after studying them for only a few weeks, and he declined to be interviewed unless he could maintain editorial control over the resulting article.
Also present at the meeting are Angeles Leira, Gene Lathrop, Larry Van Wey, and Deborah Warriner of the city planning department. Van Wey is a traffic expert, and Warriner is an associate planner assisting Lathrop; all have been asked to the meeting to update the committee members on the department’s position regarding the master plan for the valley. The planning department and the committee of property owners are so far apart on their respective ideas for the valley’s future development that when the department issued a draft of its master plan in May of this year, the committee issued its own master plan several months later, bound and printed exactly like the department’s but with different figures and projections inside.
There is good-natured kidding between the staff and the committee members before the meeting gets under way; everyone uses first names, but there is tension below the surface. This is a battle zone, and everyone knows it. Walker introduces Leira as “the lady in the red blouse, with brown eyes, or blue, or whatever.’’
“Brown!” Leira admonishes, standing up. She is a frequent topic of conversation among the valley’s property owners, many of whom feel she is too stubborn and precise about what the valley’s future should be:
“She's trying to plan everybody’s business.”
“I’m not sure Miss Leira knows as much about developing our property as we do.”
“She’s not the easiest person in the world to work with.”
“I have no problem with her.”
“She’s an intelligent woman, and she knows an awful lot, but there’s a lot more of Angeles Leira in the city’s plan than there would be with a more dispassionate planner. Naturally, the committee would rather have a more dispassionate planner.”
Leira and Van Wey quickly outline the department’s position. Much of the following debate centers around traffic, since traffic relates to density and density relates to the amount of profit a developer can make on a particular chunk of land. Leira explains that the density the owners have asked for in their plan would result in more than six million “vehicle trips” a day in the valley by the year 2000, and that simply translates into too much traffic congestion and air pollution. (If the committee’s plan were to be enacted, “it’s like Mission Valley would become three or four downtowns,” Leira had told me a few days earlier. “It’s a monumental scale.” Using another comparison, she likened the proposed density to Fashion Valley, if Fashion Valley’s buildings were doubled in height and extended throughout the valley from Interstate 5 to the stadium. “It’s mind boggling. It’s crazy,” she said.) “We could support a density like that on selected sites, but not on a valley-wide basis,” she says to the committee. Next, she tells them something they definitely do not want to hear: that in order to reduce future traffic and plan more orderly development, the department is considering creating more “single use” zones, where only one type of development — offices, for example, but not hotels or houses — could be built.
Walker immediately complains that the department is eliminating mixed-use zones. “You guys come in and blob it this way and that way, and it takes an act of Congress to change it. We don’t want that.” The property owners need mixed-use zoning in order to be able to respond to business conditions by building whatever is currently profitable, he says.
But different types of buildings create different amounts of traffic, Van Wey points out. “It’s chaos to try to plan traffic from that standpoint.”
Walker leans down hard on the speaker’s podium and tells Van Wey, “We don’t have any confidence in your traffic forecasts anyway — either the way you do them or what you do with them when you’re done.”
“If you’ve got a better model than we do, we’d like to see it,” Van Wey shoots back.
“You cannot have that much of an open door,” Leira tells Walker. “Different uses generate different traffic amounts.”
“Did you understand what I just said?’ ’ Walker nearly shouts. And so it goes. Heavy exchanges over environmental effects, potshots over a possible extension of the trolley through the valley. “If you come through my property with a light-rail transit system, you’re taking a great deal of property away from me. What is the benefit for me?” asks one committee member. Leira: more profit, since a light-rail system would reduce traffic volume in the valley and thereby allow higher-density development.
Inevitably, someone brings up downtown. There are no restrictions on traffic density or air pollution downtown; “Downtown San Diego is allowed to pollute more per square foot [of office space] than Mission Valley is. There’s no question about that.” True, Leira concedes, but the dense development downtown is confined to an area of twelve square blocks —-about the area of the Town and Country Hotel and Fashion Valley combined — whereas the committee members are proposing to create an area of high-density development over some 2000 acres. And downtown does not have Mission Valley’s high walls, she says, which hem in the area and limit the number of roads that can be built there. After an hour or more of acrimonious debate, Leira tells the committee members flatly, “It can’t be a free-for-all. It won’t work. The question is, how do we proceed from here?’’ There are a few parting salvos from both sides before she asks, “Now, are you through with us for today?’’ Walker looks around the room, and when no one speaks out, he nods resignedly. Leira smiles and adds, “Good. Because I am through with you."
Terry Brown’s office in the Town and Country Hotel seems miles away from the he nearby freeway and the bustle of hotel activity outside. Quiet, softly lit and spacious, its wood paneling and red carpets seem appropriate for the chairman of Atlas Hotels, Inc. Brown is forty-one, and in spite of his thinning hair maintains a boyish, fit appearance. He can be friendly and humorous in person, but one senses that his views are rock hard beneath his personable exterior, and he has a reputation for being a tough bargainer.
Brown inherited the Atlas chain from his father, Charles Brown, who built the first commercial development in Mission Valley, the Town and Country Hotel, in 1953. The business expanded steadily, first under father and then under son, and today Atlas Hotels owns not only the greatly expanded Town and Country but the King’s Inn, the Mission Valley Inn, the Hanalei Hotel (and a lot just east of it), and hotels and restaurants in Los Angeles and Arizona — a corporate chain worth more than $57 million.
Charles Brown was an outspoken proponent of free enterprise; in the late 1950s and early 1960s he championed the cause for more development in Mission Valley, and sponsored ballot propositions that would have created virtually unrestricted zoning there (the propositions were defeated at the polls). Terry Brown “basically believes everything his father did,’’ says one source who has known both Browns, “but he’s more diplomatic than his father was.’’ But Brown the younger sounds anything but diplomatic when asked what he thinks of the planning department’s draft of its new master plan for all of Mission Valley.
“I think it’s a bunch of bullshit. What’s her name, Leira, wants all the buildings to turn around and face the river. Wonderful. That’s just plain unreasonableness on [the planning department’s] part. They don’t have much reality in the situation. They don’t. . . .’’He sighs, and then makes the department’s position sound utterly unrealistic by exaggerating it. “It's like saying, ‘Oh sure, let’s just move these buildings, and fire all these people, and get rid of the tax base here.
Brown is less outspoken about the Sammis project, but he is clearly concerned that if the project is built, there will be pressure on property owners like himself to extend its roads and landscaped flood control channel. (The Sammis project's western boundary is Highway 163, which lies just upstream from Brown’s Town and Country property.) “I think it’s a fabulous plan, I really do, but we would have to pick up the road system,” he says. “We’re in agreement with the eastern property owners on that, but then we’re got to pick up the channel, too. We don’t have any property left for that. We’ve already built out; we’ve provided for a floodway by building parking lots there instead of ponds and channels and so forth. We just don’t have the property to accommodate a wide channel for flood control.”
Brown points out that the river is wider and flatter where it passes through his property than it is upstream, necessitating a wider channel to contain it. But he is even less enthusiastic about the parklike character of the channel Sammis and its partners have proposed. “I don’t have any problem with bike trails and paths [along the river], but I do have a problem with providing public access to the river [in the form of public parking lots and picnic areas on private property]. I don’t think the city should force that on us. Someone in the city who comes down to have a picnic might get some benefit out of it, but we don’t. There’s going to have to be some compromise, but so far, I don’t see anyone giving up anything but us.”
“The planning department has already compromised,” Leira responded when told of Brown’s comment. “We've given up a wide area between I-5 and I-15 as an area of nebulous commercial development. If we did a community plan for Mission Valley the way we usually do, we’d identify a core area [and outlying residential and recreational areas], not a large, nebulous development. We cannot compromise further. We cannot compromise on the river because it is part of the city's open space system. It's not just a little pond that is owned by developers.”
Leira insisted the river will ultimately enhance Mission Valley’s role as a regional center for hotels and stores. It is a very different role from the government and financial center that the planning department sees in downtown, and that is the way it must be if both areas are to flourish, Leira says. But Brown charges that talk like that is anti-free enterprise. “They're trying to protect downtown [development] by downzoning us. They’re trying to restrict competition. I hate to harp on it, but it's a continuing saga between Mission Valley and downtown.”
More than anyone else who owns property in Mission Valley, Brown is preoccupied with downtown and angered by the city’s current effort to redevelop it. While Leira and the planning department speak of trying to learn the lesson of the past — trying to avoid re-creating the competition between Mission Valley and downtown that led to downtown’s decline and eventually to the costly redevelopment effort there — Brown seeks to want the valley to develop into the city’s new regional core, as it has been threatening to do for some time. If that causes downtown to decline as it did twenty years ago, then it is a consequence of the free market, and that is the way it should be. “I don’t think we’re being unreasonable,” he says. “The density we’re proposing [in the committee’s version of the master plan] is still three-to-one behind downtown’s. And we’re not just going to be laying down asphalt. We’d be putting in trees. We can afford to do landscaping. . . .The land is at a point in value where I don’t think you’ll see any undesirable development come along. It’ll be thicker than it is today, but not much thicker. I don’t see anything wrong with that. I have no objections to the density proposed by the [property owners’] committee.”
But some observers feel that the density was engineered primarily by and for Brown’s Atlas interests. Brown has already made known his plans to expand greatly the Town and Country’s convention space and room capacity, but unless he is able to get the city to change his current zoning to allow high-density expansion, he would be unable to carry out his aim. Apparently in order to accommodate Brown, the committee of property owners has pressed for high-density development throughout the valley (the committee’s members have repeatedly told the planning department to treat them equally when it comes to zoning, and they undoubtedly would like to present a united front in hearings before both the planning commission and the city council). But at a recent meeting, several of the committee’s members complained heatedly that the high density proposed in their version of the master plan is causing needless problems with the planning department. It would be impractical to build to that density over most of the valley even if it were approved, they said. A motion by one property owner to lower the committee’s proposed density narrowly missed coming to a vote, partly, it seemed to me, to avoid the appearance of isolating the Atlas representatives and their few allies who were present.
Ironically, the committee’s plan for the valley may ultimately be defeated by the river itself. If the current wide disparity between the committee’s master plan and the city’s continues, it is conceivable that both will be sent to the city council for a decision sometime early next year. But the environmental legislation of the last decade has imposed stringent requirements on protecting wetlands, and any development affecting them requires the approval of the state department of fish and game and the federal fish and wildlife service. If the council were to approve the committee’s master plan as is, lawsuits could result over the failure of that plan to adequately address the environmental problems of increasing traffic and the destruction of wetlands along the San Diego River. “Private property or not, the valley’s major property owners don't have complete control over the river,” as Kimball Moore says. “I'm sure they all wish there were no fish and wildlife service, or state fish and game, or zoning either, for that matter. But there is.”
Moore’s tall frame and graying crewcut are a familiar sight at the multitude of recent meetings and hearings on Mission Valley. After serving as city manager for four years, he retired
in 1975, and he and his wife now live in a condominium in the valley, near the San Diego Mission. But Moore attends the meetings not only as a resident of Mission Valley but as a representative of Citizen’s Coordinate for Century III. The group is still looking after the issues of the valley after all these years, and Moore, a man who speaks in sparse, well-chosen phrases, frequently makes statements on the group’s preferences regarding specific proposals.
Moore and Citizen’s Coordinate are hoping that the public improvements that can be extracted from the valley’s property owners by federal, state, and city agencies in return for allowing them to develop along the river will include trails and park lands that would extend the length of the river, from Interstate 5 to the city’s Mission Trails Park near Lakeside. There they would link up to the county’s San Diego River Project, which has a long-term goal of creating flood control and open space along some sixteen miles of the upper river, from Old Mission dam to the El Capitan dam. The result would he a continuous park system from the mountains to the sea that could become one of the city’s great amenities, as is Balboa Park. Moore realizes that the Sammis project could be the first part of this vision to become reality, and though he has reservations about the project’s density, he seems supportive of it in general. “If the density could be scaled back, it could be the way to go,” he says. “When you consider-that there is absolutely no semblance of a park in Mission Valley, and the number of residences is growing all the time, I think the valley’s major property owners have at least a moral responsibility to provide access to the river, in lieu of acquiring and providing park land the way developers are required to do throughout the rest of the city. There’s no reason why these same requirements [for park land] shouldn’t be applied to Mission Valley as well.
“The San Diego River . . . has a lot of potential for being a great recreational resource, but it’s been badly abused in the past by galloping, half-assed development. It’s time we started taking care of it.’’
At 2:30 in the afternoon on November 4, the planning commission meets in the city council chambers for a final hearing on the Sammis project. As the hearing opens, Steve Bieri moves around the room conducting last-minute whispered consultations with representatives of various government agencies who are in attendance. Angeles Leira sits with other members of the planning department staff in the front of the room, and Kimball Moore is here, too, sitting in a back row in the audience. A number of property owners from Mission Valley have also come for the hearing, but noticeably absent among them is Terry Brown.
From the outset the partners in the Sammis project make it clear they want the commission to vote on the project, even if they vote against it. Any kind of a vote will send the project on for a hearing before the city council on November 16; what the Sammis partners fear most is that the commissioners will not vote at all, and will instead ask for more information to be presented at a later date. Such a delay would destroy the rapid schedule the developers have carefully put together, and would postpone a city council hearing until at least mid-December. On the other hand, the planning commission’s recommendation will not be binding on the city council and Bieri and the other partners in the project feel they can convince the council to approve the project even with a negative recommendation from the commission. One reason for their optimism is that councilman Ed Struiksma, whose district encompasses Mission Valley, has said he will personally fight for the Sammis project and will lobby other council members for their support.
But at first it looks as if the worst will come true for the developers. Over the last few weeks the Sammis partners and the city planning department have come close to ironing out their remaining differences on the project, but one sticky issue that is still unresolved is the density of the buildings that will rise. The department does not object to the proposed density per se, but is afraid that it will set a precedent that will be insisted upon in the future by all property owners throughout Mission Valley, resulting in unacceptably high levels of traffic and air pollution. A lower density would establish a better precedent, and after reviewing these details for the commissioners, the planning department staff recommends they vote “no” on the project.
After commenting that they support the overall concept of the Sammis project, nearly all of the commissioners express reservations about voting for or against a project that they have had so little time to study. Several seem inclined to delay approval until a later date. The debate gets under way in earnest, and as First supporters and then opponents of the project are called to make statements, Kimball Moore throws his support behind Sammis. Although he has publicly opposed the project in the past, the developers have made many concessions, he tells the commissioners, and the city has adequate means to see that they follow through on their promises.
Finally, after more than two and a half hours, a motion is made to continue the hearing in four weeks (the First available opening in the planning commission’s schedule). The developers make a desperate plea for a simple yes or no, but the motion is seconded and goes to a vote. The first vote is deadlocked three to three (one commissioner abstains), but on a second vote the motion is defeated four to three. A new motion is made to vote for or against the project — exactly what the Sammis partners want — and five out of the seven commissioners vote against it, ending the hearing dramatically.
“We’re happy to get out of the commission hearings,” Bieri tells me afterwards. “We’re not happy with a negative recommendation, but the differences between us and the planning department have been narrowed down to just a few issues. So after Five years, just a few issues remain, and we think we can resolve those in two weeks [before a presentation is made to the city council]. And we’re very optimistic that we’ll get a positive decision from the city council.”
That decision, and the subsequent one on the master plan for the entire valley, will be two of the most important decisions in the city’s history. In considering them the council “will have more information than ever before in the history of [San Diego’s] city planning,” as Leira has pointed out, and will have an opportunity to rescue Mission Valley from its lamentable boomtown past. Many would add that it is about time, too. A few hours before the planning commission hearing, the weather service noted that the first storm of the winter season was expected to bring rain to San Diego within a few days.