ON A HOT AUGUST AFTERNOON in Mission Valley, 47 men, women, and children stand on newly laid squares of sod at the temporary park inside San Diego’s largest mixed-use, environmentally sustainable communities, Civita. It sits north of Friars Road between Highway 163 and Interstate 805, closer to the latter.
The earliest arrivals huddle under the meager canopy of a recently planted sapling.
This is San Diego’s new wave of urban dwellers, residents who purchased homes in Civita, marketed by developer Suberry Properties as a “perfectly walkable and inherently green” community, “with parks and open spaces, nearby transit and car-sharing.”
In 2008, when the San Diego City Council approved the 230-acre, two-billion-dollar project, elected officials touted Civita as a beacon of light for the future of development. Featuring energy-efficient buildings, rain water stations, and shuttles to and from trolley stops, Civita fit perfectly into the City of San Diego’s “city of villages” planning strategy, a land-use planning approach aimed at steering residents away from their cars and toward mass transit and other pedestrian-friendly options.
These 47 people have opted to forgo the quiet calm of the suburbs for a dense urban lifestyle in one of San Diego’s fastest-growing communities. In the coming decades, Mission Valley is targeted to take the brunt of the city’s population growth.
Marketing brochures feature painted pictures of moms and dads pushing strollers and couples walking through the 14.5- acre park next to recycled streams on their way to nearby restaurants.
But what wasn’t mentioned in any brochure are the two freeway connector roads from Friars Road to Interstate 805, which, if a city proposal is approved, will bring 35,000 cars a day directly through the heart of the development.
Opposition to the freeway connectors is what brought the 47 people, members of Save Civita, to the temporary park at the corner of Via Alta Road and Civita Boulevard on a hot August afternoon.
It’s unusual to see dozens of people gather in the middle of a construction site. To the west, modern and sleek-looking condominiums line Via Alta. Directly to the east, a few hundred feet from the park, large earth-movers sit poised to turn the sand hills into that lush 14.5- acre park.
These people are lobbying to save a community less than six years old, where half of the homes have not yet been built. But Civita residents say the time to act is now, or their pedestrian-friendly community will be a costly joke. Or, as one Civita resident says, it could be a death blow to the community.
“How often does Mission Valley have the chance to have a wonderful, planned, walkable, public-transit oriented community built? Civita is that chance to get it right,” says resident Ron Yardley. “Bringing a connector road into this community would be tantamount to thrusting a sword through the heart of Civita and its current and future residents. We need to save Civita from this fate.”
The threat arrived in April of this year, when, to the surprise of residents, city planners released a draft environmental report to build a freeway connector road linking Mission Valley to Serra Mesa. For Civita residents, that would mean allowing traffic to travel north into Serra Mesa on either Via Alta or via Franklin Ridge Road, located on the east side of Civita. The two roads would meet at the top of Civita, cut through and end at the intersection of Phyllis Place in Serra Mesa.
If constructed, the average number of daily vehicle trips through Civita is estimated to jump from 2480 to 34,000, according to a city planning department environmental impact report.
Civita residents say the heavy flow of traffic will cut them off from the amenities they were promised, such as walking trails, their community park, dog park, free shuttle service to and from trolley stations, kiosks where residents can obtain filtered storm water, and easy access to retail stores.
“We chose to move to Civita because of its walkability and community- friendly design,” says Albert Villanueva. “We could have moved to other neighborhoods, but we felt this would be another classic neighborhood like North Park or Bankers Hill. My wife and I are expecting a little one this December and we want a place where we can feel safe walking. This connector would disrupt our vision of this quaint neighborhood and open up so much more traffic. Mission Center Road is so close, we do not need to open up this road to invite people to use our community as a shortcut.”
The long and lingering road
This story goes back much further than 2004, when developer Thomas Sudberry purchased the former rock pit, formerly known as Quarry Falls, from the descendants of Franklin and Alta Grant.
Sudberry announced his plans to transform the 230-acre quarry into an environmentally sound and densely populated urban community. The development includes construction of 4780 residential units (nearly 600 of which are single-family homes), 900,000 square feet of commercial and office space, a potential elementary school, and over 14 acres of open space and parks.
But along with the project was knowledge that city planners had long desired to build a road through the quarry, from Friars Road north into Serra Mesa. The road, thought planners, would relieve traffic congestion at Friars Road and State Route 163, as well as at Mission Center Drive.
City planners mentioned possible construction of a connector road in 1985 when drafting Mission Valley’s community plan.
But construction of the connector road had to wait until the fate of Quarry Falls was decided.
After Sudberry submitted his proposal for Civita, city staff got to work trying to push the road plan through. The task proved difficult. While Mission Valley residents generally were in support of a connector road to Interstate 805, residents in Serra Mesa were staunchly opposed.
To get the road built, the city needed to persuade Serra Mesa residents and with their support amend Serra Mesa’s community plan.
It was easier said than done. In December 2004, the city’s planning commission declined to initiate an amendment to Serra Mesa’s community plan. That same month, Thomas Sudberry filed an appeal, requesting the city council overturn the planning commission’s decision. In March 2005, city councilmembers denied Sudberry’s appeal.
With the fate of the road undecided, Sudberry moved forward with the design. Per the agreement with the city, Sudberry promised to remain neutral on the road decision, and if or when the city was ready to proceed, was ready to proceed, Sudberry would pay to build the road.
In 2008, Sudberry released his master plan to the City of San Diego. As far as the connector road was concerned, the design included a version with the connection and one without.
Franklin Ridge Road was located on the eastern edge of the development, while Via Alta was placed on the western edge. The two roads met at a cul-de-sac abutting a park just south of Phyllis Place in Serra Mesa. The design, while not including the connection, made it easy for Sudberry to change plans and cut a hole through the park to Phyllis Place.
In September 2008, San Diego’s planning commissioners approved Civita. A separate vote on whether to amend Serra Mesa’s community plan failed to pass. The project moved to the city council for approval. In October 2008, councilmembers voted 7 to 1 to approve Civita’s master plan.
Because of the size and density of the plan, Sudberry agreed to perform $50 million in road improvements throughout Mission Valley. As for the connector road, the site development permit stated that “the project has been designed so as to not preclude a road connection from Qualcomm Way to Phyllis Place should it be desired to construct the improvement at a future time.”
Construction on Civita began shortly thereafter. In a 2009 New York Times article, former mayor Jerry Sanders echoed Sudberry’s excitement for the transformation of a desolate rock quarry into a state-of-theart sustainable community. The sound of dynamite blasts, said Sudberry, would be replaced by the calm of “‘waterfalls, song birds, wind in the trees, and children playing.”
In 2011, the first available units in Civita went on the market. When buying their homes — which now sell for between $650,000 and $800,000 — prospective owners were provided documentation that a road leading into Serra Mesa was a possibility. Five years rolled by, and the possibility seemed increasingly remote. Then, in April 2016, residents of Mission Valley, Serra Mesa, and hundreds of new homeowners in Civita were surprised when city planners released a draft environmental impact report for the connector road. While needed to proceed with construction, the report was a change in strategy for city planners. Instead of going through the community plan, as the city had done in the past, planners introduced the connector road as a stand-alone project.
Serra Mesa residents blasted the environmental report for failing to address issues of parking, increased traffic congestion, and pedestrian hazards that would be created. But there was opposition in another part of Mission Valley as well. In June 2016, Mission Valley’s community planning group failed to get enough votes to support the road.
The group joined the 384 residents of Civita who have gone on record as opposed to the road.
Sudberry’s marketing campaigns over the past five years — presenting an urban village with the trolley-station shuttles, the pedestrian and bike paths, the energy-efficient recreation centers, the recycled water stations — have accomplished what they intended, attracting buyers to a densely populated community, one without the price tag found in San Diego’s older communities such as North Park, Little Italy, South Park, Hillcrest, and downtown.
Meanwhile, the City of San Diego was also getting what it wanted in Civita, a massive mixed-use development that fit in to their “city of villages” strategy.
But now the city and Sudberry appear to be changing their course, angering the residents who bought in to the marketing campaigns. The residents standing in the temporary park say if the road is approved, it amounts to false advertising.
Larry Wenell is one of the residents protesting the road. He and his wife moved to San Diego to be closer to family. The retired couple was drawn to the walking paths and pedestrian-friendly design.
“We were dismayed to hear that the city is proposing this connecting road that in our opinion would destroy the very essence of what the community has sold in its marketing.
“I can understand the logic of the Mission Valley Community Plan in showing a connector from Friars to the 805. If it would have been done years ago when this was a rock quarry is one thing, but to propose it now, running through residential streets, is frankly city planning at its worst. In my career as a professional architect I have come up against city planners and traffic engineers who are sometimes tone deaf to reality; this is a prime example.”
Engineer Michael Hubbard and his wife moved to Civita so they could abandon their car, at least some of the time, and walk to work and nearby shopping. Hubbard calls the proposal “ridiculous.”
“We are familiar with the City of Villages approach to city planning. That’s why we are so upset that the village of Civita will essentially be ruined if this plan is approved. We love the concept of our community. We walk everywhere.... If this connector is approved, Via Alta will become unusable for us to walk our dog and walk to our parks. Our community center is being built across Via Alta from us. The road will be incredibly dangerous and loud. Cars from the 805 coming and going all hours of the day — it’s ridiculous!
“I really have no idea why the city is even considering this. To now approve it with so many families with children and pets is highly irresponsible.”
Sue Buell purchased her house in Civita’s “Origen” community in 2012. Buell says she, too, was drawn to Civita for the walkability and urban lifestyle.
“We have become a community of people who gather for holidays to celebrate in the park, at each other’s homes, meet in the evenings at the dog park, and take walks and bike together on weekends. We walk our kids and dogs up and down Via Alta or through the park. My guests talk about how they wish a community like Civita existed in their city. In spite of the large number of homes, the sense of community and interactions among the people who live there is unfounded. We live and work together. We feel safe. This sense of community has become a reality that is now being threatened by this connector.”
On a sunny Thursday afternoon, Sudberry’s vice president of development, Marco Sessa, stands at the large map at the corner of Civita Boulevard and Via Alta, just feet from where Save Civita members stood a few days prior to protest the road.
Sessa does his best to remain neutral on building the road. He believes that the city’s draft environmental report has flaws. On July 1, Sessa submitted a letter to city planner Seth Litchney explaining his concerns about the environmental document. Sessa says the report fails to analyze the total cumulative impacts on all communities.
Despite the flaws, and contrary to what Save Civita residents believe, Sessa contends the road would not destroy the community. He says he’s heard from other Civita residents who support the connection.
Most importantly, Sessa says that all residents were given disclosures that Via Alta and Franklin Ridge Road could potentially be a link to Serra Mesa.
“First off, I do not share the belief that Civita would not be walkable and would not be sustainable if the road connection was to go in. During the planning phase, we said that we would remain neutral on Franklin Ridge. That was over a decade ago and we have kept our word. That said, we are anxious for a decision for a number of reasons. On a personal level, regarding support and opposition from the neighborhoods surrounding and within Civita, I can see both sides. If I lived in Mission Valley, I would likely see the need for an additional access point to the interstate; whereas, if I lived on one of the streets adjacent to the proposed connection in Serra Mesa or Civita, I probably wouldn’t want it either. But in the end, it’s a decision the city has to make.
“I’m aware that some of the residents would like us to reverse the commitment and promises we made to stakeholders in Mission Valley and the planning folks at the city. But how would the same residents feel if we flipflopped on something we promised them? Lots of stakeholders in Mission Valley as well as city planners would have a hard time trusting us in the future if we changed our position. I am truly sorry some residents are frustrated, but I’m uncomfortable not doing what we promised we would do.”
On September 27, a senior planner for the city notified residents that the city stands by the project and will recirculate the environmental impact report, which is the final step before construction can begin. The city’s decision, however, will likely result in a lawsuit. The residents have hired legal representation.