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
"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
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.