Kearny Mesa: The next Little Italy?
Its aerospace origins now history, San Diego’s original industrial powerhouse centers wants to be the next Little Italy in a post-car world.
Kearny Mesa enters a new phase of its development history with a new community plan in the works.
- More office and industrial space would be allowed.
- More housing in mixed-use developments could be built.
- Montgomery Field would remain but autonomous cars might change the nature of the local car business.
Here’s the full story:
Kearny Mesa, San Diego’s post-World War II industrial powerhouse, pines to be the next Little Italy.
It would swap narrow sidewalks with tree-lined streets for walking, add mixed-use, transit-oriented developments and build on its current Asian thematic district along Convoy Street with centers of innovation in the shadow of Montgomery Field.
The focus in 2018 will be a new community plan for the 3,607-acre community bounded by four freeways. The overriding goal is to allow more commercial buildings and encourage more housing to make it easier to live, work and play in the same ZIP code.
“This is definitely a community plan, more so than others, that will be very much transformational and visionary in what this area can become over the long-term,” said Councilman Chris Cate, the neighborhood’s representative.
City planner Lisa Lind circulated three land-use concepts last month and mobility and urban design options this month.
Various technical reports will be produced during the year that will feed into an environmental impact report. Together with public comments and a public facilities financing report, the final plan is headed for City Council action next year.
“I think the potential is huge,” Lind said. “No matter what the ultimate alternative we get in the plan, the community has expressed a strong vision and we want to do our part to put urban design policies into place for a more vibrant corridor,” Lind said.
Big picture: Only about 10,000 people call Kearny Mesa home, whereas nearly 4,500 businesses employing 88,000 people are located there. About a quarter of them are owned by Asian-Americans.
The relatively high jobs-to-housing ratio is one of the things planners hope to right as they retool the community for its next development spurt.
A subcommittee of the Kearny Mesa Planning Group is overseeing the new plan, an update from the 1992 edition, and striking out in several directions.
Its chairman, Buzz Gibbs, whose father developed the precursor to Montgomery Field in 1937, said Kearny Mesa’s largely nonresidential present is likely to look different in coming decades.
“This is an employment area for the city of San Diego and there was a change in employment going on in the last 30 years — from people making things to people sitting in offices designing things,” he said.
Big idea No. 1: More and bigger buildings for high-tech jobs
Key to the future in adapting to this new high-tech imperative is allowing more development — what planners call the “floor area ratio,” FAR for short.
Currently, much of Kearny Mesa is set at a FAR of 0.5. For example, the buildings on a 50,000-square-foot site can only include 25,000 square feet inside. The cap was instituted to encourage and preserve industrial businesses that churned out nuts, bolts and nuclear missiles — and provided space for big trucks and employee parking.
The new plan envisions quadrupling the FAR to 2, so on that same 50,000-square-foot lot, 100,000 square feet of space in multistory buildings could be built.
The best example of such upzoning is the 11-story, 273,764-square-foot Sunroad Centrum office tower on a 64,033-square-foot lot east of state Route 163 and south of Clairemont Mesa Boulevard.
That project with an FAR of 4.3, along with hundreds of apartments and condos, replaced the General Dynamics missile plant that operated there from 1957 to 1992.
Products, software and systems are now designed in former warehouses and industrial buildings by innovative entrepreneurs and largely built elsewhere where land prices are lower and labor is cheaper.
“That’s what the city wants, the jobs they want — they want more employment, ” Gibbs said.
Big idea No. 2: ‘City of Villages’ district
The second big idea is to turn Kearny Mesa into one of San Diego’s “city of villages” districts.
“They’re trying to get more residential areas that maybe have retail underneath, so people don’t have to get on the freeway and drive here,” Gibb said.
The commuting patterns tell the story. Kearny Mesa companies employ about 94,000 workers and all but 803 commute in from elsewhere.
The current residential population totals 10,513 in 4,290 housing units, according to the latest estimates by the San Diego Association of Governments. Three-fourths of them commute outside Kearny Mesa to work.
Planners have not yet projected what the new plan might call for future growth but under the three scenarios, some areas might be rezoned to allow as many as 109 dwelling units per acre.
Royal Highlands, a 133-unit single-family-home community built in the 1960s at the southwest corner of Kearny Mesa, covers 33 acres — a density of 4 units per acre.
There is one restriction looming over Kearny Mesa. Montgomery Field’s safety and noise zones limit where housing can be built — generally north of Engineer Road on the west and south of Aero Road on the east.
One of the target areas for a mixed-use project is the 10-acre Zion Market site at 7655 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., just west of Convoy Street and north of the flight zone.
Joe Skrysak, vice president of McGrath Development, which has owned the site since the 1940s, said the lease on the 94,000-square-foot market expires in 2023.
The company is waiting for the outcome of the new planning effort to see what redevelopment makes sense.
“I think the push is to develop something like Little Italy,” he said.
Big idea No. 3: Little Italy North
That’s the third big idea for Kearny Mesa — to turn Convoy Street into a version of Little Italy’s India Street, where diners and residents fill the sidewalks in a daily festive mood.
Randy LaChance, a Voit Real Estate Services broker who represents McGrath and Kearny Mesa property owners, said the result could be a vibrant retail, restaurant and residential scene interspersed by high-tech industrial and office job sites.
“I think that’s where Kearny Mesa needs to go,” he said.
Some property owners are eager to see that future, others not so much.
George Misleh, 54, whose father and uncles bought land on the 4600-block of Convoy in the 1970s, said the area has already gone through a remarkable transformation.
He manages the 10,000-square-foot Convoy Villa strip center with eight tenants, anchored by the popular Chopstix restaurant.
“I remember what Convoy was like — a lot of dead lots, mom-and-pop strip centers and alignment shops,” he said. “It was always a good location, thriving, but it’s come a long way. It’s now become a destination for restaurants. You have Fortune 500 companies, Carmax, Costco, 7-11s, car dealers.”
He favors beautification, a landscape maintenance district, traffic-calming measures to protect pedestrians, and bike lanes.
Jim Moxham, CEO of Cameron Brothers that owns the property where Carmax sits, as well as other dealerships’ sites, said his tenants are concerned that some of these changes might impede their business. Parking restrictions could drive away customers, medians could reduce left-turn lanes, and landscape maintenance assessments could erode monthly profits.
But Moxham also saw the potential for change, when he oversaw the replanning of the General Dynamics site — now a combination of upscale apartments and condos, businesses and locally serving retail.
“I fully support the higher FARs and promoting mixed use,” Moxham said. “Putting more residential into that neighborhood would be a positive ... It allows it to be not just an employment zone that is abandoned into the evening.”
Bonus big ideas: Montgomery Field upgraded and autonomous vehicles accommodated
Montgomery Field’s future is undergoing a parallel replanning effort. But closing the airport is not one of the options under consideration, said Wayne Reiter, the city planner overseeing that update.
Attracting new businesses around its perimeter is one goal, as is allowing landings on the eastern 1,200-foot apron to attract more users.
Back on the ground, the future of Kearny Mesa’s car businesses and the car itself remains to be seen.
The new plan will take note of the advent of autonomous cars but citywide policies will dictate revised parking standards, transportation infrastructure and other elements of the changing car culture.
“This community plan will be outdated in five years because the basic plan is based on old technology,” said planning consultant Tom Story at a community forum in Balboa Park last fall, sponsored by Citizens Coordinate for Century 3.
He said autonomous cars, not mass transit, will likely change the way people get from home to work, and for many it won’t be via a car you drive alone.
“Insurance companies are going to make you give it up,” Story said. “They will price you out of that market, because autonomous cars are so much safer.”
The dealerships in turn could turn into transportation companies and car-rental centers.
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