Column: Mira Mesa’s 'urban villages' promise a future far removed from early suburban dysfunction - The San Diego Union-Tribune

2022-08-13 21:14:11 By : Ms. Anbby Zhang

Cheers for Mira Mesa becoming San Diego’s next potential target for a transformation to “urban villages.”

To borrow a familiar phrase, if this idea can make it there, it can make it anywhere.

Mira Mesa is as suburban as it gets, both the good and not so good: lots of single-family homes with garages and yards that were once affordable to middle-income residents, commercial strip development and traffic congestion.

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It also has fire stations, parks and schools, and a variety of shopping and other commercial options like communities elsewhere. But early on, it didn’t — or at least had far too few of them.

In the early 1970s, Mira Mesa’s explosive growth so outpaced services it became a national poster child for suburban development gone wrong, even featured in Time magazine. It was not uncommon to see the word “nightmare” associated with the cookie-cutter neighborhoods. The lack of schools was a particular problem.

When a young state Assembly member named Pete Wilson ran for San Diego mayor in 1971, he campaigned in part on the slogan “No more Mira Mesas” and called for a better planning process and slowed-down development. Residents were in an uproar over the mess and argued for a building moratorium until adequate services could be put in place. The city gave that serious consideration, but backed down. Further, the community was ridiculed for the monotony of look-alike tract housing on street after street.

Mira Mesa has lived down that history, and the community saw vast improvements with a lot of hard work and policy changes over the intervening decades. It’s a diverse area, with a large Filipino community — which runs counter to the homogeneous image of Mira Mesa. Some modern neighborhoods look nothing like the original development.

Mira Mesa has become a jobs center and a hotbed of one of San Diego’s high-profile industries: Several craft beer breweries and adjoining pubs are in and around the area.

Still, that history is partly why the notion of creating eight “urban villages” in Mira Mesa may seem an odd juxtaposition. Back in the day, it would have been hard to imagine transforming car-centric neighborhoods into areas with stores and other amenities within walking distance and easy access to public transportation.

The mixed-use, dense projects are the favored planning mode today, not unlike suburban tract-home development was decades ago. San Diego’s gold standard for urban villages is Little Italy, where the community’s unique ethnic history and innercity layout lent itself to vibrant, populated streetscapes. Other communities aspire to replicate that, though attempting to create a Little Italy-like vibe will be a challenge even with the best of efforts.

Nevertheless, hopes are high for transforming the Asian-centric Convoy District in Kearny Mesa and a stretch of multi-ethnic El Cajon Boulevard into what was envisioned when San Diego launched the “City of Villages” concept decades ago. Add Mira Mesa to the list.

The Mira Mesa plan, which would unfold over a three-decade period, is expected to go to the City Council for approval by the end of the year, according to David Garrick of The San Diego Union-Tribune.

With its new growth blueprint, the city proposes major changes to a community built when strip malls and suburban office parks were king

Mira Mesa is bordered on the east by Interstate 15, on the west by I-805, on the south by Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and on the north by Los Peñasquitos Canyon, Torrey Hills and Carmel Valley. The population grew from 1,180 in 1970 to 34,600 by the end of 1977.

The proposal would break up long blocks and create mixed-use development, while shifting some vehicle lanes on roads for use by buses and bicycles. New parks and infrastructure, in theory, would help accommodate an increase in the number of residents from the current 76,000 to 130,000.

Some community leaders are skeptical of the plan. They have balked at the size of projected population growth, as well as shrinking car lanes on some already congested major roads, Garrick wrote. And the promise that adequate infrastructure will be in place is, for now, just that: a promise.

Perhaps the biggest buzz in the plan is a proposed a skyway linking the community to the Blue Line trolley to the west. A word of caution here: For years, aerial gondolas have been talked about for various locations, mostly in central San Diego. The proposals have gone nowhere so far.

The plan calls for increasing accessibility to other transportation alternatives and encouraging residents to use them — bikes, buses and the skyway. Currently, about 10 percent of commuters travel by means other than a private car, according to the city, which expects that figure eventually to triple.

In Mira Mesa’s early days, mass transit hadn’t yet reached the community, so cars were pretty much it. Mira Mesa Boulevard was the only road in or out and the backups to get onto I-15 were a daily source of frustration.

The lack of schools arguably was a greater concern. Mira Mesa homes were pitched for families but there weren’t enough classrooms for the children. Many of those that existed were substandard.

Past media coverage mentioned the school deficiency, among other shortcomings, including a 1980 piece in the San Diego Reader, which called Mira Mesa “San Diego’s most wretched neighborhood.”

Children in kindergarten through sixth grade attended school in temporary portable structures “or in houses converted for classroom use,” the Reader said.

Students in higher grades went to schools in Clairemont or Kearny Mesa. Because of the lack of bus service, parents had to drive 10 to 14 miles “at their own expense.”

“The junior and senior high students had to forgo extracurricular activities unless they had a parent willing to make the lengthy drive to pick them up at irregular hours,” the Reader said.

Most current Mira Mesa residents probably didn’t experience the rigors of those trying days, and many may not know much about them.

While some people living there may be wary of the impact of future growth in the area, the anticipated physical changes in Mira Mesa likely would be unrecognizable to residents who first moved there.

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