CHULA VISTA — This city is at a critical juncture. In the months ahead, its leaders will decide whether it is going to grow up gradually, with a mix of developments that would retain its homey, small-town character, or whether it will become a totally different city during the next 20 years, with the new high-rise waterfront development now being proposed by Chula Vista Investors.
Chula Vista is still a relatively small town, with a population of 135,000. Its waterfront is a mixture of shipyards, industry and expanses of marshland, with a few new tourist-oriented uses. Its downtown, only a few blocks to the east, consists mostly of one- and two-story buildings, with only a handful of taller structures.
The proposed 20-year, $500-million bayfront development would radically transform the western end of the city with apartment and hotel towers ranging from 9 to 22 stories, retail shops, offices, a 36-court tennis center, a 250-seat theater, an ice skating rink, landscaped parks and two man-made lagoons on 130 acres at the edge of San Diego Bay between E and F Streets.
To accommodate the intense development the city would have to approve a new Local Coastal Plan and an amendment to the city's General Plan.
There's a lot going for the project: Architects from the Jerde Partnership, the Los Angeles company that designed the new Del Mar Plaza shopping center as well as Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego, have created a preliminary scheme that looks like a winner in terms of design and planning.
But, assuming the developers can get past the many hurdles being placed in front of them by environmentalists concerned with the quality of water in San Diego Bay and the welfare of a variety of birds and sea animals, the question is whether such a large project is appropriate on this bayfront site.
If the project is approved, will Chula Vistans look back with regret in 10 years, as some San Diegans already do over their own intensely developed waterfront?
William Barkett, 32, executive vice president of Chula Vista Investors, is spearheading the bayfront proposal. In the past, the company has developed hotels, apartments, offices and retail projects in a variety of California cities. Barkett is confident this project, his company's first major mixed-use effort, addresses the important issues of environmental impact, public access to the waterfront, traffic flow and preservation of bayfront views.
"Nothing's being destroyed, everything's being enhanced," he said during an interview in his La Jolla office.
By phone from Los Angeles, architect Carl Worthington of the Jerde Partnership elaborated on the design.
"If you think about Chula Vista as a city, it has, say, 400 acres of contiguous land along the bay in this location. What we're trying to do is create a waterfront community by using only a small portion of it, and preserving precious wetlands.
"A typical neighborhood east of Interstate 5 on 400 acres has one- and two-story buildings that cover 21% of the land, with maybe 5,000 people. What we're doing is putting about 5,000 people in this small, pedestrian-oriented village. The density isn't much different, it's just clustered in a much smaller area (the high-rises).
"Most of the developments done these days are only single use--residential, shopping, office, entertainment. More and more, we're finding we have lost the fabric in our cities, because we've taken the pieces that want to be together and pulled them apart."
Worthington gave some sense of the architectural flavor the project would have.
"We want a stucco appearance on the towers. The windows would probably be smaller than full window walls, reducing the amount of glass and reflectivity so the project has maximum compatibility with the wildlife preserves nearby.
"The architecture would give a very soft, Mediterranean kind of ambience, with warm, pastel tones on the buildings, probably tile roofs, arcades, arches. It would be like going into an old European village, with entertainment streets, restaurant streets and a market, in addition to the residential neighborhood."
The bayfront project would have significant benefits to the citizens of Chula Vista: access to new waterfront parks on land that is now unusable, new shops, restaurants, a theater, an ice-skating rink and a tennis center.
In exchange for such intense development, the developers also promise to restore the marshlands surrounding their project that have been damaged by both agricultural and industrial abuse. They would dredge them, replant and remove assorted debris. Pedestrians and bicyclists would travel past the scenery on new paths that would include educational kiosks describing the marsh habitat.
In addition to the 47.8 acres of parkland and open space the project would include, Chula Vista Investors already donated 300 acres of marsh land north of the site to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.