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.