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UnSprawl Case Study:  San Diego's Uptown District

By Simmons B. Buntin

“This project is like a quilt," says Dave Lorimer, principle architect behind San Diego's mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented redevelopment called Uptown District.  "There's a variety, yet everything is tied together.  Uptown District has a city texture all its own."

"Hillcrest is an urban community that encourages people to get out and explore on foot," he continues.  "To keep that feeling at Uptown District, we were intent on making the residences orient toward the streets and walkways within and around the perimeter of the project.  This encourages the residents to interact with the street activities.  It makes for a lively and vital community."

Indeed, with 318 residential units (townhomes, flats, and artist's lofts ranging from 652 to 1,249 square feet), 145,000 square feet of commercial and retail space, one of Southern California's most successful Ralph's grocery stores, and a neighborhood community center, Uptown District is a unique and lively community.

Uptown District Site Plan
Uptown District Site Plan.
Graphic courtesy of World Ideas Network.

In September 1986, the City of San Diego purchased a 14-acre abandoned Sears store and surrounding parking lot for $9 million.  Though the site was originally intended to house the city's new central library, the City Council—with input from citizens groups such as Uptown Community Planners and the Hillcrest Business Association—decided instead to issue a request for proposals for the acquisition and development of the site.  Stringent land use and design criteria were written into the RFP, including ground floor neighborhood-oriented retail uses and limited upper level commercial uses, as well as a 3,000-square-foot community center. 

A development team, Oliver McMillan/Odmark and Thelan, assembled design themes based on photos from the surrounding neighborhoods of Hillcrest, Mission Hills, University Heights, and North Park and utilized a community-participation process called "Project Head Start" that involved local residents in the planning even before the proposal was drafted.  The team's proposal won, and in 1988 the property was purchased for $10.5 million.

Uptown District's design is notably European, "Mediterranean" some have said, with 318 different elevations (towers and up-and-down elevations), brightly colored awnings and banners, manicured public plazas and landscaped parks (including a central park as residential focal point), and public artwork throughout the site. 

Uptown District's European-like architecture
Uptown District's "Mediterranean" architecture.
Photo by S. Buntin.

"What we tried to achieve," said Michael Labarre, principle architect primarily responsible for the commercial segment, "was the creation of a series of architectural images that worked together but do not give the sense that this was just one giant project built at the same time.  We tried to provide a sense of streetscapes and a sense that the project is a diverse gathering of architectural images built over a number of years."

The local community and professional associations liked what they saw.  Uptown District has greatly spurred development and redevelopment in the surrounding Hillcrest neighborhood, especially adjacent to the site along University Avenue, the main arterial road, according to the San Diego Daily Transcript.  Uptown District was named the Project of the Year by the National Association of Home Builders in October 1991, and was awarded the Urban Design Award by the California Council of the American Institute of Architects the following month.

In addition to the urban orientation and architecture, Uptown District is unique for many reasons.  The project places all residential parking underground, using a network of pedestrian-only streets around a central park.  The redevelopment is anchored by a large supermarket, yet the grocery story has only a minimal sign on the arterial road, is not adjacent to a large parking lot (most parking is underground, thanks to a cart-moving escalator system), and is "designed to be inconspicuous," according to the City of San Diego Planning Department.  Because home ownership was a goal of involved community groups, residents who rented during the first two phases were additionally given right of first refusal when the units came up for sale.

"I saw the model and fell in love with it immediately," praises Ron Hill, a resident and college literature professor.  "There are very few places I've seen that have the same spirit, movement, atmosphere, and openness of this center."

Uptown District's pedestrian-only residential level
Uptown District's pedestrian-only residential
level, with lush parks and landscaping.

Photo by S. Buntin.

Other items of interest:  An artfully decorated pedestrian bridge was built between the project and the adjacent neighborhood, University Heights, spanning a busy multilane street many feet below.  Now residents of that historic neighborhood have access to the grocery store, boutique retail shops, and the community center, while residents of Uptown District have access to other neighborhood parks and facilities.  Parking is limited, further enhancing pedestrian access.  Ratios are 2.0 spaces per townhouse, 1.7 per apartment, and 1 space for every 270 square feet of commercial floor area.  The vicinity average is 2.25 spaces per residential unit and 1 space for every 250 square feet of commercial floor area.  Higher density in Uptown District equates to more efficient land use.  There are nearly 23,000 people per square mile at the project (about 500 live there), while the average in the City of San Diego is only 3,200. 

But the mixed-use community is not without its criticisms.  "This is a center that should have made it because it's very well designed," laments George Munger, owner of a restaurant located in Uptown District that was forced to close its doors for a lack of business.  "It seemed like an exciting center, with its European flavor, but this part of the center now looks like south Beirut without the bullet holes."

Many of the retail and small office uses have failed from a lack of business in the project's commercial area.  While Ralph's has been hugely successful, it hasn't anchored the entire commercial area as many had hoped.  The relatively recent addition of Trader Joe's may help bring business in.  Since Uptown District opened, a yogurt shop, women's clothing store, coffeehouse, Italian restaurant, chicken rotisserie restaurant, local clothing designers' store, evening gown rental shop, and travel agency have gone out of business.

"University Avenue [where much of the retail is located] desperately wants to return to more of a pedestrian orientation," explains Peter Katz, author of The New Urbanism:  Toward an Architecture of Community, "but the dynamics there are still mainly auto-driven, and as a result the side streets will feel like a backwater.  Although it's an uphill fight, things are turning in a direction that supports new urbanism, but the retail component has been the most problematic to pull off.  The bottom line for these kinds of projects is that success requires a lot of tinkering over a lot of years."

Uptown District's street-level retail
Street-level retail has been a struggle for some business owners.
Photo by S. Buntin.

Steve Mazlin, owner of Uptown Pharmacy, believes the problem is not so much design, but incorrect expectations of retailers.  "The failings of some retailers may have had more to do with a lack of entrepreneurial savvy than anything else," he said.  "Most of the people in the beginning didn't have serious retail experience for this environment, and we made our decisions based more on dreams than reality."

"I don't believe it's the center that's at fault," added Jeanett Saia, owner of the recently-expanded Uptown Pets.  "I think the economy hurt a lot of the businesses.  And I never counted on the center to promote my business.  If you go in there thinking management will help make your business successful, you won't make it."

Still, the retail portion of Uptown District—with the exception of Ralph's and a few others—has faltered as much as the residential portioned has thrived.  And Doug Hogan, one of the original leasing agents, does believe it's a design issue:  "It's like an Indy 500 car, but you don't have any freeways to drive it on.  It's a terrific car, but it's just too much car for the road.  This was a case where the developer bent over backwards to fit what the planners really wanted, and they paid a price for that.  Planners have great ideas, but that doesn't mean they're always functional."

The community center at Uptown District
Uptown District's community center gathers a crowd (in this case, it's all American Planning Association conference attendees, but still).
Photo by S. Buntin.

Even with the struggling retail, the project is an outstanding example of good urban development, and in this case redevelopment, that is "UnSprawl" in nature.  The project's neotraditional design, according to Juan Carlos Cenzano's undergraduate thesis at the University of California at San Diego, has even been proven to increase resident walking trips while reducing trips by automobile. 

Designed with the community in mind and community participation in pocket, Uptown District blends the built and natural environments into a new urban landscape that coexists well with current neighborhoods, working subtly through positive example to enhance those neighborhoods, as well.

For more information, visit the Uptown District (West Coast TND) website at www.tndwest.com/uptown.html.

While you're in San Diego, check out the city's calendar for San Diego entertainment events that will be taking place during your stay and see if you can attend any of them.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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Just the Facts.

Uptown District in San Diego, California

  • 14 acres total
  • 318 housing units (304,000 square feet)
  • 145,000 square feet of retail and commercial
  • 3,000-square-foot community center
  • Residential density of 52 units/acre
  • Average walk from residences to retail/office is 1.5 minutes
  • Developed by Oliver McMillan/Odmark & Thelan
  • Design by SGPA Architecture and Planning, Lorimar-Case, Psomas & Associates, and Barton-Aschman Associates, Inc.



Center for Livable Communities.  1995.  Model Projects:  Uptown District.  Local Government Commission:  Sacramento, California.  Pp. 14.

Cenzano, Juan Carlos.  June 1, 1994.  Uptown District:  Land Use Planning as a Transportation Demand Management Strategy.  University of California at San Diego:  San Diego, California.  Excerpt provided by City of San Diego Planning Department.

City of San Diego Planning Department.  May 5, 1998.  Planning Reports:  Proposed Hillcrest Mixed-Use Complex/Sears Planned Commercial Development.  Report No. 88183.  San Diego, California.  Pp. 18.

Editors.  January 5, 1989.  "Uptown District to Reflect Nearby, European Design," San Diego Daily Transcript.  Vol. 103, No. 201.  San Diego, California.  Pp. 12B.

Editors.  November 18, 1991.  "Uptown District Wins California AIA Urban Design Award," San Diego Daily Transcript. San Diego, California.

Editors.  October 11, 1991.  "Uptown District Wins Major Development Award," San Diego Daily Transcript.  San Diego, California.

Editors.  March 30, 1990.  "Uptown, Hillcrest:  Towers, awnings, banners accent this urban village," The San Diego Union-Tribune.  San Diego, California.  Pp. F1, F8.

Energy Outreach Center, Washington State Energy Office, Washington State Department of Transportation, and Department of Ecology.  June 1996.  Redevelopment for Livable Communities.  Olympia, Washington.  Pp. 4546.

Weisberg, Lori.  June 23, 1996.  "An Urban Odyssey in Uptown," The San Diego Union-Tribune.  San Diego, California.  Pp. H1, H6.

World Ideas Network.  Undated.  Case Study Library:  Uptown District.  San Francisco, California (now Washington, DC).  Pp. 12.




Uptown District (West Coast TND)

Smart Growth Illustrated: Uptown District

City of San Diego

San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau

County of San Diego



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