"We chose to move to Civita because of its walkability and community-friendly design."
  • "We chose to move to Civita because of its walkability and community-friendly design."
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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.

Civita homes alongside I-805

Civita homes alongside I-805

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.”

“Save Civita” flyer posted on walking trail closure sign

“Save Civita” flyer posted on walking trail closure sign

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.

Recent construction at Civita

Recent construction at Civita

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.

Albert Villanueva

Albert Villanueva

“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.

Don’t tread on us

Don’t tread on us

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.

New urbanites

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

Larry Wenell

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.”

Sudberry

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.

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Comments

johninsd1 Oct. 12, 2016 @ 2:06 p.m.

Mr. Sessa must be a politician given the seeming ease with which he talks out of both sides of his mouth. In one paragraph he claims to have remained neutral about the road and in the next he refers to promises made to Mission Valley "stakeholders" (who are they exactly - other developers?) that he would do what he could to destroy the ambiance of not only the older community of Serra Mesa but also of the new community of Civita. He can't possibly believe what he says when he makes statements implying that a tenfold or more increase in traffic won't prevent people from enjoying their new homes in peace and quiet or that it will be safe for children to move around the community.

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jelula Oct. 23, 2016 @ 5:24 p.m.

Actually, Marco Sessa is a Sr. Vice President of Sudberry Properties. He sees everything through a developer's perspective and not the perspectives of the real people whose homes and lives will be affected so negatively.

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Nic Oct. 12, 2016 @ 2:24 p.m.

Thank you to the Reader for publishing this important article. Why do we need a connector road through Civita when Mission Center Rd (with limited residential units) exists for this purpose? Save Civita as a walkable, urban community!

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AdamGardner Oct. 12, 2016 @ 5:55 p.m.

It's surprising anyone would still think this is a good idea given that the PEIR study done by the city shows significantly increased congestion on most of the roads studied. If that wasn't enough the delay at the I805 freeway entrances that it connects to are slated to increase to a 43 minute delay up from an almost non-existent delay currently. All this connector will do is grid-lock Serra Mesa and Civita in order to use both residential communities as a pass through for the Mission Valley commercial traffic. San Diego city planners and mission valley developers seem to be unable drop this idea even when the facts from their own study shows that it is an overwhelmingly bad idea and neither communities at large support it.

I think we should put our tax money into improving the 163 and 8 freeway entrances and public transportation options in Mission Valley rather than beating this dead horse that has been rejected multiple times and proven to be a bad idea...

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Hammyjunebug Oct. 13, 2016 @ 1:04 a.m.

If the possibility of having the freeway connector was always there, the Civita developer/city planners should have chosen a more appropriate layout than one with open residential areas right on the main thoroughfare. With more traffic comes more speeders down that hill at all hours of the day. While they try to get to that red light at Civita Blvd as fast as they can, I can only imagine the chances of someone eventually ramming right into one of those residences toward the bottom of the hill is inevitable.
If Sudberry and whoever else assisted in this community planning had even the slightest possibility of opening the connector, they should've placed more open green space, maybe a commercial or office building or two along the road instead. Oh wait, would that have meant less profits for the developers/planners/builders? Yet another example of where money rules all...over ethics, environment, health, etc. Instead of building a connector, how about something to match the much touted "walkable factor" such as a safe pathway over Friars Rd so that residents could get to a trolley station or existing shopping areas without having to depend on a car in the first place? Even better, since nothing's built as far as Franklin Ridge Rd goes, how about forego all the planned residences for the east side of Civita and just make it all that about the connector to/fro the commercial/office buildings and Friars Rd? (But oh, the missed profits!) It's clear what is of priority here and it's not the health and safety of residents, nor it is a real solution to reduce SD's traffic issues.

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Cindy Moore Oct. 14, 2016 @ 6:05 a.m.

Excellent article! The concerns of Mission Valley residents support the statement that Serra Mesa representatives expressed to City decision makers in 2004 that the “Connecting road is inconsistent with Village Walkability concept, minimizing through traffic.”

I visited Apex, a single-family dwelling project in Civita, when it first opened in 2015. When I asked the real estate agent about the road connection, she didn’t know anything about it. I had asked because I was curious about what prospective owners were being told.

There are numerous questions about this road connection project and the answers are important because there could be city-wide implications: • General funds are being used to pay for the environmental documents. How much money is being spent? • If the road connection is approved, Sudberry Properties indicates they will pay for the road connection but who will pay for the other mitigations that are needed? Will taxpayer dollars be used? What will it cost taxpayers? • If the road connection isn’t approved, could the funds be used to make road improvements in Mission Valley? • Who is supporting and lobbying for this project? Will this project benefit other Mission Valley developers (e.g., reduction in amount that they need to pay for road improvements within Mission Valley)? • Does this project conform to the principles of the City’s Climate Action Plan and the Bicycle Master Plan? There is an existing bicycle and pedestrian access at Kaplan and Aperture Circle. Additionally, the Civita development plans include a trail for pedestrians and bikers from Civita to Serra Mesa. • Would traffic congestion on I-805 increase with the road connection and create a regional impact? • The 2008 City Council initiated a Serra Mesa community plan amendment for the road connection directing staff to analyze primarily safety issues (e.g., police and fire response times, emergency evacuation, and improvement in pedestrian and bicycle access). Staff is responsible for the environmental document (e.g., what is studied and who conducts the studies) and provides the City Council, the decision maker, with a report. If staff has already taken a position (“stands by the project”), how objective can they be? Is this a flawed process that’s not unique to Serra Mesa and Mission Valley?

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jelula Oct. 23, 2016 @ 5:46 p.m.

I would suggest that failure of the real estate agent to know about this proposed connector road would constitute a failure to disclose to potential buyers that a major road might be built right through the residential area of Civita (with widening to 4 lanes as indicated in the PEIR). I've been aware of the proposed connector for a number of years. I'm not involved in real estate, but I do pay attention to major project proposals of this scale, mainly because it was presented as a walkable, bike-able and sustainable (supposed to build a water reclamation facility for irrigation of landscaping) residential area that would reduce the degree of traffic that a huge residential project like this would ordinarily produce because of the school and shopping like a grocery store which are supposed to be built. The agent failed in her duty to disclose a major potential impact on a buyer in Civita.

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Visduh Oct. 15, 2016 @ 8:08 a.m.

In the past two to three decades, the city allowed over-development of Mission Valley. Parts of it now seem gridlocked at any time of day. Rather than plan for the traffic loads, the city did its usual thing and allowed the building to take place, and now there are too few streets and roads to handle all the traffic that was generated.

In a typical manner, now the city is trying to add some traffic-carrying capacity by adding streets, or adding to existing streets. This one will just create more gridlock where it tries to put cars onto I-805, which is itself overloaded. But it gets some of it off the valley floor. There has been no real vision of managed growth by the city or the city council in recent years (if there ever was.) This all just occurs willy-nilly, and then after it becomes a mess, the city might come along and try to fix it.

I feel for these residents, who it seems bought a bill of goods about an urban village that now will be sacrificed to handle more traffic generated outside.

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Ponzi Oct. 15, 2016 @ 10:45 p.m.

You and I both know why, this city is still controlled by developers. Up in Carlsbad they said NO to an unpopular development. But San Diego plays by their own, corrupt rules.

In 1981 I lived in Mission Valley in a development called "Fashion Hills." It overlooks Fashion Valley Mall. Back then there were very few condos in the valley. Christmas time was hell for traffic. Nowadays, when I am in the area, the traffic reminds me of the Christmastime of the 80's, but now it's every freakin' day.

I looked at those condos at Civita. Laughing to myself that I had a much more spacious place, 1955 sq ft. in Fashions Hills for $145,000 in 1982. When interest rates were 15%.

I'm glad I don't live in Mission Valley anymore. What a dump it has become no matter how new the building. Civita? Give me a break, 4 story box condo where you have to run up and down stairs all freakin day? What are you going to do with children? Or elderly people. That whole development is a sham that knew the roads were going to go through. Mark my words. I've lived in Scam Diego for 58 years. I've seen it all.

Civita was a definite P.T. Barnum development... a sucker born every minute. Except now they seem to be born every nano-second.

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