August 5, 2005

Commentary:

Chula Vista at a Crossroad, which road will they choose?

By Patricia Aguilar

The debate over building heights in Chula Vista is really representative of a difference in visions for our city. We see two roads ahead of us. One road leads toward Oakland. Like Chula Vista, Oakland is a satellite city to a larger metropolitan center. The median age of its population is 33, exactly the same as Chula Vista. Both have roughly the same median household income (about $45,000). (All data based on the 2000 census.) Years ago Oakland took the road Chula Vista city officials seem to want to take now. They went about trying to attract pretty much any development developers wanted to build. Decades later, Oakland’s new downtown is mostly a collection of modern glassy buildings that bear no relationship to Oakland’s rich cultural heritage. And the world continues to view Oakland as a back-office, second fiddle to San Francisco.

Pasadena took a different approach. Pasadena is also a satellite city to a major metropolitan center. The median age is 34 compared to Chula Vista’s 33. It is also ethnically diverse and its median household income is virtually the same as Chula Vista’s. Like both Chula Vista and Oakland, it is also linked to its metropolitan center by a rail line.

But Pasadena’s downtown shares something in common with today’s Chula Vista that Oakland doesn’t…charm. Instead of being a second banana, Pasadena succeeds by offering an alternative to L.A. Of course we do not want Chula Vista to be a replica of Pasadena. However, like Pasadena, we think Chula Vista should take advantage of its charm and character to market itself as a friendly, human scale, livable place….to offer an alternative to San Diego.

How is Pasadena’s vision different from Oakland’s, and what has this to do with height limits? Like Chula Vista and Oakland, Pasadena has an aging downtown it is trying to rejuvenate. But Pasadena has diligently guarded its uniqueness and independent identity. Pasadena’s General Plan includes a principle called “Harmonizing Change.” Their Plan says, “The principle of harmonizing change…is of tremendous importance to Pasadena residents. Harmonizing change requires that new development and other physical alteration respect the existing [emphasis added] character and scale of the city. Change and development must be accomplished in a fashion that enhances and blends with Pasadena’s existing qualities, both physical and social.” We couldn’t have said it better.

The Pasadena Central District Specific Plan has a maximum building height of 90 ft., equivalent to about seven stories. Why? Because good urban designers know that at about 90 ft. a perceptual shift in one’s understanding of a place’s character occurs. It is no accident that Chula Vista planners set seven stories as the cut-off between mid- and high-rise. It is no accident the city’s own Environmental Impact Report prepared for the draft General Plan Update states that allowing buildings over seven stories has the potential to destroy the character of our downtown. That is why the EIR provides an alternative called the “community character” alternative. This alternative permits just as much density as the city’s preferred plan, but limits building heights to seven stories, and concludes that this will preserve the existing character of the community. This is the same conclusion that renowned urban designer Mike Stepner has come to in his work for the Roosevelt Street Coalition. And the good citizens of Chula Vista know this instinctively. Survey after survey, including the results of the city’s own workshops, show 70-75% of Chula Vistans don’t want high-rise development. They understand that intrusion of high-rises will undermine the reason they chose to call Chula Vista their home…its small-town appeal.

And let’s not raise the bugaboo of economic viability. Pasadena has had great success with its downtown redevelopment, having attracted several large projects. The problem with high-rise buildings is that such buildings will change the character of our city. Two-hundred and ten ft. buildings in Chula Vista (the limit suggested by the Urban Core Specific Plan) violate the principle of “harmonizing change.” It represents change, but not harmony. Instead of allowing our city center to become a second rate version of San Diego, lets make our city center an interesting, unique place where new development reflects the values of the community. That is our vision. Chula Vista’s new plan must give our traditional urban form and character the very highest priority when considering future development – higher than tax-increment revenues, higher than “signature” architecture. The solution is a 7-story (90 ft.) height limit in western Chula Vista. That is the solution that is both economically viable and preserves what it is about our city we hold dear.

Pat Aguilar is President of Crossroads II.

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