“It’s the next Pruitt-Igoe,” pronounced Patrick Dwyer, who’d just read a piece in the Union-Tribune. He was talking about Casa Mira View, the humongous apartment complex that has, over the past several years, overtaken the horizon just west of the 15 freeway where Mira Mesa and Scripps Ranch collide. When Dwyer and others posted their online comments in early 2013, Casa Mira View had already been years in creation.
Fast forward to mid-2015, and the high-density project, with row upon row of hulking, five-story blocks, has been years in construction, and it’s still not finished. At over 2100 units, and slated to balloon to 2300 or so after a final build-out phase, it’s a behemoth in the San Diego landscape of apartment complexes. Even in a nationwide context, it’s a formidable nest of high-density residential structures. But is it a forward-looking standard-bearer of urban infill — or a future slum in the mold of, as some contend, the ill-fated Pruitt-Igoe (late of St. Louis) or even Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green?
Shortly after the redundantly monikered megaplex opened in December 2012, certain local media folks were quick to sing its praises, issuing dispatches that seemed, to some, cut ’n’ paste jobs from the developer, Garden Communities. Roger Showley of the Union-Tribune wrote that “visitors to the first phase… will likely let out some oohs and ahs when they get a look at the amenity package.” Showley went on to list such things as a mini-carousel, a bowling alley, and hair and nail salon, all presumably to keep the residents on-site.
But the view from the (albeit not inexpensive) trenches has been tinged a bit less by rose-colored lenses. Yelp reviews are a mixed bag, a three-star average punctuated by complaints by tenants and ex-tenants. While some Casa denizens purport to adore the place, others complain vociferously about shoddy construction, drug deals on the premises, a nightmarish parking structure, and regular visits by the gendarmes.
To be fair, Garden Communities’ point man in San Diego, Stuart Posnock, gets rave reviews from neighborhood planning honchos. Posnock, the outfit’s chief, has been praised roundly not only by the Mira Mesa Town Council, but by folks across the way in Scripps Ranch, where a proposed Walmart was axed due to strident opposition from locals. Bob Ilko, president of the Scripps Ranch Civic Association and former chair of the Scripps Ranch Planning Group (an advisory body that reports to San Diego City Council) isn’t concerned about the reports. Despite its propinquity to the genteel Ranch, Casa Mira View, with its inner-city-styled mural facing east, isn’t causing any sleepless nights among the gatekeepers.
“We never took a stance for or against the Casa Mira View project,” says Ilko. “Our planning group never formally addressed it.” But Ilko admits, “We came late to the party; by the time we spoke with Posnock, the San Diego City Council had already approved it.”
But what about the “Section 8” subsidized residents?
“This is not a low-cost operation.” (Rent currently starts at $1875 for a one-bedroom, one bathroom unit and can top $3000 for some three bedroom, two bathroom models.) Ilko concedes that Garden Communities wasn’t forced to include them. “The developer can pay a fee and not build them, or get a bonus to do high-density housing.” But Ilko says that the presence of an underclass kitty-corner to Scripps is of scant concern. “There’s no demarcation between full-priced units and subsidized; if you walk down the hall, you can’t tell who’s subsidized.”
[The colloquial “Section 8” refers to federal law enacted in 1937 that authorizes the payment of rental housing assistance to private landlords on behalf of low-income households. In project-based rental assistance programs, e.g., Casa Mira View, the landlord reserves some units in a building for low-income tenants, in return for which the federal government makes up the difference between the tenant’s (rather modest) payment and the actual, fair market rent. Section 8 housing is managed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.]
Ilko also downplays concerns that Casa Mira View will cause Scripps Ranch High School, one of the County’s highest ranked high schools, to deteriorate. “I don’t think they can attend Scripps.”
Brushing aside worries about changing neighborhood demographics, Ilko waxes poetic about Stuart Posnock. “He’s a very unique developer; I’ve never seen anything like it. Posnock could’ve slow-rolled it, but even before he was asked, he kicked in $1,000,000 for improvements. According to the City, the developer didn’t have an obligation to mitigate effects east of the freeway, but he reached out and did it anyway. He commissioned a Mira Mesa artist to paint the mural (which was widely derided) as a gift to the community. Did it even knowing that later construction would cover it up. So we’ve got Caltrans improvements including the signal light at the intersection of Scripps Ranch Boulevard and Mira Mesa Boulevard, and the widening of Scripps Ranch Boulevard. Eventually, of course, Casa Mira View will still make traffic worse.”
Ted Brengel, chairman of the Mira Mesa Town Council, which had direct input on the project prior to its approval, states, “No community gets by without some high-density housing.” He adds, “It’s consistent with the Mira Mesa Community Plan enacted in 1992. The City of San Diego really wants to pack people in: They call it the ‘city of villages’ concept, and it’s embodied in the City’s general plan. Casa Mira View is next to the highway so that people can take a shuttle for nearby trips and then hop on the freeway if they need to go farther.” As for Garden Communities’ interaction with Mira Mesa planners, “As early as 2005, the developer approached us with a presentation, and in 2008, there was a traffic study. He bent over backwards to mitigate, started immediately to fund ($13.5 million total) improvements. People would look at things like the extra lane on Mira Mesa Boulevard and say, ‘that’s nice.’ Ultimately, the point of the mitigation is really to do no harm — so that, by the time a large project is finished, traffic is no worse than it was before. People will criticize Casa Mira View, because as sure as God made little green apples and day follows night, traffic will get worse than it is right now, though not worse than it was before the project started. But still, I believe in the plan and think it will all work out.”
Brengel concedes that the jury is still out on Casa Mira View. “There are probably only 600 or 700 residents there now; it will be another three or four years before it’s done. In fact, the developer bought another lot, the one next to Best Buy.” (According to some sources, the final build-out phase might not be completed until 2020.)
As for high school eligibility, Brengel states, “Some people get very emotional about schools. Technically, Casa Mira View is within the Mira Mesa boundaries, but it’s up to the San Diego Unified School District. (Casa Mira View spokesman Ernest Johnson states that students will have the choice of either Mira Mesa High School or Scripps Ranch High School.)
When I ask Brengel about the Pruitt-Igoe prediction, he opines that the specter of a Pruitt-Igoe, even an Igoe-lite, is a remote prospect here in San Diego because of the intrinsically different patterns of housing. “I don’t know how projects go that way; I don’t see Casa Mira View becoming a mecca for crime. The project has low-income units but they’re not clustered. We call it ‘inclusionary housing.’” He notes, “If you get enough subsidized people in a project, you’ll end up with a slum, so you have to spread it out carefully. I haven’t seen it here in San Diego; I think we’re safe.”
Subsequent to the publication of the story, a demographer for the San Diego Unified School District has stated that although Casa Mira View residents had previously been given a choice of high schools, the District policy has since been changed to specify Mira Mesa High School for students living at the complex.