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VOL. 4, NO. 1 -- DECEMBER 2001/JANUARY 2002

Once Upon A Parking Lot

By Lee Sobel

This morning I'm sitting in front of the computer. I've been staring at the monitor for the past half-hour looking at the title of what will be my latest article. I'm waiting to see what will happen next. I have Writer's Block. Suddenly my wife walks by. I need to look busy. I type my name under the title. I can feel her eyes reading the screen over my shoulder.

"Are you writing a play?" she asks. She has a particular wit about her.

"No," I tell her, in a tone that sounds as if she's holding up my progress. "I'm writing about the Uptown District in San Diego."

"Oh," she says. "That was a fun place."

That's it! Uptown District is a fun place. Plain and simple. At last, I can write my article. Let me explain.

The Uptown District is a little urban village within San Diego's Hillcrest neighborhood. Located off Highway 163 and fronting University Avenue, Uptown District is a 14-acre, mixed-use development. Uptown wasn't always a village. Once it was a department store with plentiful parking ...

Fifteen years ago Uptown District was home to a freestanding Sears surrounded by a vast parking lot. When the department store closed, the building stood empty. New urbanists call this type of underutilized location a greyfield. A greyfield site is an abandoned or struggling commercial property located in a suburban or urban setting that contains an abundance of excess parking. A greyfield site might have an old shopping mall, retail building, office park or any other single-use building on it, accompanied by excessive parking. The term greyfield was coined from the color of the faded asphalt parking lot that dominates these properties.

Greyfield sites are important places for new urbanists. They represent opportunities for high-density, mixed-use, infill redevelopment. Infill projects allow new urbanists to reconnect a particular site to its surrounding environment, thereby creating a uniform whole. Where there was once a greyfield in Hillcrest, today there is the Uptown District, one of the neighborhood's primary urban focal centers.

Built in 1989, Uptown has 318 housing units (some owner occupied, some rentals), 145,000 square feet of retail and commercial space, a 3,000-square foot community center, and a swimming pool. A new pedestrian bridge was erected near the community center. It extends over Washington Street, linking the existing University Heights neighborhood to Uptown and University Avenue for the first time. In 1991, Uptown District won Project of the Year by the National Association of Home Builders and the Urban Design Award by the California Council of the American Institutes of Architects.

Uptown's strength lies in its traditional design. Small commercial buildings are placed fronting the neighborhood's main street, University Avenue. Automobiles parallel park in front of the shops while pedestrians walk on generous sidewalks. The buildings are similar in size and architectural style to the buildings located on the other side of the street. The residential units also front narrow streets. Neighborhood stores are conveniently located below apartments. In between the residential units is a pedestrian path with several interior greens shaded by California palm trees. The pedestrian path terminates at a small public plaza next to the Joyce Beers Uptown Community Center.

The center of Uptown has an enclosed square surrounded by Ralph's Supermarket (a large, regional grocery chain), and retail buildings with offices located above. In the square people enjoy coffee, read the paper, socialize and unwind.

Ralph's Supermarket is the picture of urbanity. It designates the bulk of its parking at the rear of the building. Its fašade and building height are evenly aligned with the other buildings around the square that front the street. Even more noteworthy, Ralph's has no visibility from University Avenue, the neighborhood's main street. A small, wood-shingle sign with the company logo hangs from another building on University notifying people of the grocer's presence. And still, this is one of the retailer's best performing stores in California.

On the Sunday my wife and I visited friends at Uptown, we strolled through the small, pedestrian parks and had an extended brunch in the central square. While we ate, a group of hikers slowly assembled in front of Trader Joe's for an all-day expedition. Locals converged on Diedrich's Coffee for their morning cup and scone. People went in and out of the supermarket endlessly, only to return again, treating it like a neighborhood refrigerator. We played our part, eating and conversing under a cloudless California sky. My wife was right; Uptown District is a fun place. Even though once it was a parking lot.