Learning from Other Cities: San Diego

September 7, 2006 3 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The view of the What Jacksonville can learn from San Diego, California? San Diego Skyline from the top of Horton Plaza, a five story outdoor mall which is anchored by Macy's and Nordstrom.


2005 city population: 1,255,540 (8th largest US city)
2005 metro population: 2,933,462 (17th largest US metro)

In comparison - Jacksonville, Florida

2005 city population: 782,623 (13th largest US city)
2005 metro population: 1,248,371 (42nd largest US metro)

City Description (from InfoPlease.com)

San Diego is the second-largest city in California. It is located in the southwest part of the state, on San Diego Bay. Portuguese navigator Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo claimed the bay for Spain in 1542. In 1769, Franciscan father Junípero Serra established the first California mission there—San Diego del Alcala. In 1822, Mexico won control of the town after declaring its independence from Spain. In 1846, during the Mexican War, San Diego was seized by the U.S., and it was incorporated as a city in 1850, just after California joined the Union. Today, San Diego's excellent natural harbor is a busy commercial port and a hub of U.S. naval operations (although the naval training center at San Diego has closed due to defense cutbacks). Other leading industries are electronics, aerospace and missiles, medical and scientific research, oceanography, and agriculture. Its magnificent climate and proximity to Mexico have made tourism a significant part of the city's economy.

Learning from San Diego

When urban planning majors begin their college careers, their first semester's textbook should be a plane ticket to San Diego. Downtown San Diego is a model that many cities (including Jacksonville) should learn from. This is not to say that their downtown is perfect; however they certainly don't need any gimmicks to get people to come downtown in the evening for dining and entertainment. The downtown is laid out in a typical grid street system. In the core, north-south streets are numbered 1st Avenue, 2nd Avenue, etc. East-West Streets are lettered (A Street, B Street, etc), so it's pretty difficult to get completely lost. Nearly all of the downtown streets are one way, yet in three days downtown, I only saw one person going the wrong way down a street (this may be a good time to mention that nearly 40% of San Diego residents have a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to about 25% in Jacksonville).

The core of the vibrant San Diego downtown is the Gaslamp Quarter. The Gaslamp Quarter is bordered on two sides by Petco Park (home of the San Diego Padres), and Horton Plaza (a vertical, open air mall that includes department stores Macy's and Nordstrom), San Diego has no problem filling the sidewalks on any night of the week (especially the weekends), and there is plenty to do, whether you want to see a movie (there are two major theatres with 29 screens between them, and it's only $9.75 for admission), get a bite to eat (there are restaurants in any price range) or get drinks late at night. Some notable things that San Diego did well include:

1. Transit (not just buses)

San Diego has both a light rail system (the San Diego Trolley), and a commuter rail system (the Coaster). Both are very well received by the people. According to the Center City Development Corporation (San Diego's version of Downtown Vision), 25% of downtown workers use public transit on a regular basis). Between the two systems, they cover the San Diego area well including a stop at the Mexico border for those looking to go to Tijuana. The only notable place that the system does not go is the Airport, which is odd because the airport is so close to downtown they have 500 foot height restrictions on downtown buildings. As an added bonus, parking is available at many of the stations, and at all but two, it is free.

2. Parking (both availability and signage)

If you just have to drive to downtown San Diego, parking is not an issue. There are tons of parking garages, and nearly all of them are well marked, with rates posted outside the garage and signage that extends from the building so one can see it from blocks away. Even the meters are pretty good - while they don't employ the smart meter technology, the single space meters have clearly posted time limits (by clearly posted I mean where one can see it without getting out of their car), and accept Quarters, Dimes, Nickels and Prepaid Parking Cards). Rates are not exactly cheap, but it is California, and there is plenty to take your mind off of parking once you get out of your car.

3. Lighting & Sidewalks

While the Gaslamp Quarter is known for it's ornate, historic light fixtures, the lighting doesn't end there. With nearly every storefront both occupied and open for business at night, it creates a very bright, and comforting streetscape at night. The sidewalks themselves are pleasant to walk down, and there isn't a tree or planter every 20 feet in your way. All of the trees have relatively skinny trunks, and all of them had grating around them, so they they didn't take up more room then necessary and they could still get water (during all three rainstorms each year). The sidewalks were lined with tables from all of the restaurants, and small fencing separated the sidewalks from the dining areas. As a nice touch, the dining area narrowed around trees and light posts, as to not block the main walkway.


By no means is San Diego perfect. They do many things well, but there are some things that were found to be unfriendly, such as:

1. C Street (one of the streets that the trolley goes down).

While mass transit is definitely a positive of any city, part of this street is transit only, and it shows in the storefronts. Many of them are boarded up, and the ones that aren't were typically check cashing places or bail bonds offices. I'm definitely not bashing rail transit (rail transit is a big factor in the downtown vibrancy), but rail only streets just doesn't work in this case.

2. Downtown District Divisions

The downtown areas were pretty divided. Along the San Diego Bay, there is the San Diego Maritime Museum (which is great, and another article by itself) the USS Midway Museum, the Cruise Ship Terminal and a few other water-based attractions, making the area quite enjoyable (if not a little too touristy). About six blocks to the west is the Gaslamp Quarter. The area between the two is not quite as enjoyable. The two blocks off the San Diego Bay were surface parking lots and a large government building (apparently Jacksonville's decision makers from the 1960's decided they liked what they did with the riverfront, they decided to try it on the west coast). The final four blocks on your way to the Gaslamp Quarter were mostly commercial buildings without ground level retail. Needless to say, there is absolutely no activity on a Sunday Afternoon, except for the people walking between the two entertainment areas. In every downtown, there are office buildings, but would some ground level retail hurt?

3. Broadway

On Broadway, one of the main East-West streets and a rare two way street, left turns were prohibited, meaning if you wanted to get to something to the left, you had to make three rights, go down two blocks, and then navigate the two way streets to find your destination. From a traffic engineers perspective, the no left turn thing is because there are no turn lanes, and traffic would back up. However, this just made driving on Broadway a nightmare.

4. Brick Pavers

This isn't a negative as much as it is a simple waste of money. In the Gaslamp Quarter, every square inch of sidewalk (except for the curb) is brick pavers. Now, this isn't just pavers like Jacksonville has on the northbank riverwalk, these bricks actually have grout in between them, so they weren't just placed down, they had to be professionally layed. I don't know if the politicians in office at the time were in bed with someone from the bricklayers union, but this must have cost a tremendous amount of money to construct. Yes, it was nice and I'm sure the people of San Diego appreciate this, but I think in Jacksonville standard cement would be fine, with some brick accents if we have to.

For the most part, the negatives of Downtown San Diego were minor annoyances, and overall the downtown area was excellent. Check out the photos below:

The Gaslamp Quarter is made up mostly of older buildings that have been renovated

Ajacent to the Gaslamp Quarter, new condominiums are being constructed on seemingly every available lot, like this one.  Notice the ground level retail at the corner.

This is just one of many restaurants to feature sidewalk dining

Notice how the sidewalk dining here narrows to accommodate the trees and light fixtures, and the grating around the trees so the the trees take up a little room as possible. Also - In the Gaslamp Quarter, there was not a sidewalk planter to be found anywhere.


This is a model of downtown San Diego done by the Center City Development Corporation (San Diego's version of Downtown Vision).  Their office is very open and inviting for anyone to come in and check out new developments, get rail maps, and the like.

Parking is available off-street in the parking garage here (notice the excellent signage and facade) . Pay no attention to the picketers out front....

...and on street at meters like this (notice how I can see the time limit of 2 hours BEFORE I leave my car)

For entertainment, this is the Pacific Theatres Gaslamp 15 movie theatre, one of two downtown movie theatres (the other is within four blocks of this)

Downtown San Diego's 26,000 residents don't have to leave downtown to go grocery shopping. This Supermarket even has 2 hour parking validation below ground.

Looking for someplace to go tonight? Look no further than these wayfinding signs!