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Carmel Valley’s Identity Crisis

With all the new retail, will 92130 finally stop living in the shadow of Del Mar?


In 1971, a city planning commission began studying the area just east of Del Mar that they designated “North City West.” By 1975, a plan was in place for a residential community, but in 1979, the city of Del Mar filed a lawsuit against the city of San Diego, hoping to stop it. They said 40,000 residents would increase traffic and parking problems, and would require them to hire more lifeguards. The lawsuit made it to the state Supreme Court but it was dismissed.

By 1984, 11 families had moved in to the tract homes just east of I-5. My family moved to the area in 1985. At the time, North City West had a few houses, Torrey Pines High School, and a lot of graded land. My mom drove to Del Mar for groceries and schlepped to La Jolla Country Day where my sister and I attended school. When Solana Highlands Elementary opened nearby with the same reading list, we went there. I became a dolphin.

The necessary businesses came in rapid succession: a Ralphs, Wells Fargo, a Shell station, a fire station. A Starbucks opened—we did not yet know this was necessary—and we were complete.

San Diego, 92130, was known as North City West until 1990, when the North City West Community Planning Board came up with a “Name This Town” campaign. Ballots were available at the McDonald’s and 400 residents came up with 130 different names.

The San Diego Evening Tribune listed some of the rejects: “The People’s Republic of Del Mar Heights,” “New Scottsdale,” “Brooklyn West,” “Rancho La Costa Mucho,” “Ram Led” (Del Mar backwards), “Rancho Easto-by-the-Freeway,” “Carmel Lot,” and “Rancho Desert Sea Breeze Forest Brook Estates.”

Finalists were “Torrey Pines,” “Tierra Marisa,” “Carmel Del Mar,” “Carmel Highlands,” and other variants. The final decision: “Carmel Valley.” We had an identity. Shortly after, we had our own newspaper, the Carmel Valley News. Then, more homes, schools, a library, a VONS.

Yet size and self-sufficiency doesn’t earn respect in these parts. Now more than ever, what I’m finding among all these stucco complexes is one big inferiority complex. Everyone keeps calling it Del Mar.

During a hard hat tour of Burlap, the restaurant that opened in late July, I felt like my old suburban self, staring open-mouthed at Moroccan lanterns and giant Chinese dragon heads hanging over the bar. Chef Brian Malarkey called the location Del Mar. On the tour, explaining the eclectic décor and his “Asian Cowboy” fare (i.e. “fun” Asian fusion, and heavy on the protein), he said, “[At Burlap], we’re not authentic, we’re a melting pot.” At least he had the description right.

I wonder if a trendy resto can survive in a strip mall, sandwiched between an IHOP and a car wash. Hard to picture my parents sipping sake in that space.

Why is everyone embarrassed to call it Carmel Valley? We came up with the name ourselves, but people don’t want to use it. Some businesses and residents will tell you they’re located in Del Mar, but the address they’re describing is San Diego, 92130. It seems silly when we’ve got a lot going for us, including a nationally-recognized high school.

At the Highlands Town Center, we’ve graduated from the necessary. Security guards travel via Segway, diners tell chefs how to custom-make their burgers (Counter), a salon offers blowouts but doesn’t cut hair (Drybar), and a “luxury” movie theater serves alcohol via call-button service to filmgoers lounging in seven-foot leather recliners (Cinépolis).

I’d be happy if we stopped there. In June, the Kilroy Realty Corporation mailed residents a two-page letter and a 20-page color brochure asking for the community’s blessing on a mixed commercial/residential, walkable plaza. “A Main Street for Carmel Valley,” they promise, with a high-rise commercial building, a boutique hotel, “urban” housing, a park, parking, and upscale shopping, restaurants, and entertainment.

The reason? “Carmel Valley lacks a true defining gathering place for local residents,” writes Kilroy. At least they got the name right.

A Main Street might anchor the community and help “define” its residents, but is a collective identity so crucial? This is the burbs. By purchasing a tract home, residents have elected uniformity from the outset. Can we all just agree to own it?

Meantime, I do love the reclining chairs at the new Cinépolis. They definitely don’t have that in Del Mar. 

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