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ARCHITECTURE / DIRK SUTRO

A Blueprint to Live By at Riverwalk? : Design: The massive Mission Valley project still has some hurdles to overcome, but it could point the way to the future.

August 06, 1992|DIRK SUTRO

SAN DIEGO — A progressive transit-oriented, mixed-use development called Riverwalk may point the way toward a livable San Diego in the next century, although it would also wipe out one of the few remaining substantial patches of open space in Mission Valley.

City planners and environmentalists alike view dense, transit-oriented developments (TODs) such as Riverwalk as the wave of the future, a way to make efficient use of mass transit, reduce auto use and slow development in the outer reaches of the county.

Riverwalk would occupy the existing site of the Stardust Country Club's golf course on 200 acres between Friars Road and the San Diego River, west of Fashion Valley. (The project is unrelated to other recent large developments in the area.) Development would begin in 1995 and take 20 years.

Originally approved by the City Council in 1988 as an awkward collection of isolated apartments, condominiums, offices, retail and hotels, Riverwalk is in the process of being redesigned as a true mixed-use development, interconnected by tree-lined streets and sidewalks.

In the original plan, the trolley station would have been underground and not central to the project. In the new plan, submitted to city planners last month, it is above-ground and the focus of Riverwalk's town center.

Chevron Land & Development Co., Riverwalk's developer, decided to redesign the project in 1989, when the recession hit and there was a growing oversupply of office space in San Diego. The company decided to reduce Riverwalk's office space and add residential. It hired SGPA Architecture & Planning of San Diego to rewrite the Riverwalk "specific plan," the guiding development document approved by the city.

SGPA helped design the Uptown District, the Hillcrest project that has been praised for its sensitive blending of retail, office and residential uses. When architects Mike LaBarre and Mark Fehlman left SGPA 10 months ago to start their own company, Fehlman LaBarre Architecture Planning, they kept the Riverwalk project.

At the same time, plans for a Mission Valley San Diego Trolley line moved forward. With the line scheduled to begin service in 1997, Chevron decided a trolley station should be the energizing feature of Riverwalk's town center.

On Tuesday, the City Council approved new "transit-oriented development guidelines," drafted for the city by San Francisco planner Peter Calthorpe, a well-known advocate of TODs. Although Calthorpe hasn't worked on Riverwalk, Chevron and its planning architects agree with his ideas.

After more than a year of hearing Calthorpe's ideas about TODs as he drafted the new guidelines, city planners will undoubtedly keep his suggestions in mind in the months ahead as they review the new Riverwalk specific plan.

The Sierra Club endorsed the original specific plan, but it has not yet taken a position on the new one, which should be presented to the City Council for consideration early next year. Citizens Coordinate for Century III, another San Diego environmental group, has not taken a position on the new plan either, but generally supports the TOD concept.

The City Council approved the original specific plan for Riverwalk after the developers promised to install a trolley stop and tracks at a cost of about $10 million, as well as public improvements such as parks, flood control and landscaping, at an additional $10 million.

With the flood control system, the San Diego River would always have some water in it. With its parks and pedestrian and bike paths, the river would become a visual and recreational asset. With adjacent landscaped areas, it could also supply usable new habitat for wildlife species, according to Chevron, which says it will preserve more than 70 acres of the site as open space.

But these financial commitments and public improvements are not yet guaranteed. Chevron's obligation will be renegotiated as part of the new specific plan.

The key to Riverwalk's ultimate success is not only the TOD concept, but the architecture, which would adhere to design guidelines to be drafted by well known New York architect Robert A. M. Stern with Fehlman LaBarre.

The project would include 6.3 million square feet of development--2,500 apartments and condominiums, 1,000 hotel rooms, 2.1 million square feet of office space and about 150,000 square feet of retail space. Its residential neighborhoods would be roughly twice as dense as typical suburban apartment and condo developments.

As yet, there's no telling what Riverwalk's buildings would look like. Chevron plans to get the project's new specific plan approved, install essential infrastructure (roads, parks, river improvements, trolley station) beginning in 1994 (when the golf course's lease expires), then sell off parcels to individual developers to build the many buildings.

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