CONSIDER THE CONCEPT: a City of Villages. Urban communities where residents walk to neighborhood stores and catch trolleys and buses to work. That's one vision for preserving the paradise we call San Diego-employing the principles of smart growth.

Five years ago, faced with the prospect of 177,500 more housing units needed in San Diego by 2020 and only 13 percent (now 10 percent) of city land left undeveloped, a 40-member citizens committee crafted the City of Villages proposal. It was subsequently integrated into the San Diego City Council's Five-Year Action Plan, and Mayor Dick Murphy made it the third of his 10 goals: creating neighborhoods to be proud of.

The program is championed as a working model for exploring the possibilities and benefits of village-like development in San Diego's communities. Proponents say the village centers will revitalize neighborhoods, provide more affordable housing, reduce traffic congestion and discourage urban sprawl.

The concept combines apartments and town houses, commercial development, employment centers, schools, civic uses and public transit for more efficient land use and to reduce congestion on overcrowded streets and freeways. It's designed to eliminate blight and the jumble of used-car lots, dingy apartments, carrepair shops and convenience stores strung along many of the city's major thoroughfares.

To help the villages reach their full potential, they are linked to an improved transit system through the city's Transit First initiative. The villages program also has a 20 percent affordable housing goal.

Last year, the City Council selected five proposals as pilot village demonstration projects and put them on an 18-month approval process:

  • Mi Pueblo in San Ysidro-1,143 residential units (25 percent of them affordable housing); the design theme builds upon Latino New Urbanism.
  • Boulevard Marketplace/Mid-City Transit Interchanges Project within the Normal Heights, Kensington and Talmadge planning areas-366 residential units (20 percent affordable housing); the design reflects consideration and respect for the older neighborhood fabric.
  • The Paseo, adjacent to the San Diego State University campus -461 student-housing units (25 percent of beds set aside for low-income students); contiguous to the SDSU trolley station and bus transit center, a major component of the Transit First Demonstration Project.
  • Village Center at Euclid and Market, adjacent to the Encanto trolley station-850 condominiums and apartment units (at least 20 percent affordable housing).
  • North Park at University Avenue and 30th Street-483 existing and proposed residential units with commercial retail, art and artisan galleries.

These projects have target completion dates of 2007 to 2009, except for North Park, which is expected to be completed between 2009 and 2014. The Paseo project at SDSU is the farthest along, with the new trolley station nearing completion. "All projects are on different paths, but we hope to be done with the permitting by August, and that's when we would hope to see some construction begin," says Coleen Clementson, general plan program manager for the city's planning department.

Although not officially under the umbrella of the City of Villages program, examples of the village concept have already sprouted up: the revitalization of Little Italy and downtown San Diego, as well as a redevelopment project under way in the Bird Rock neighborhood of La Jolla.

Not everyone embraces the village concept. Some residents in the immediate neighborhoods have said, "Not in my backyard." They express fears of increased traffic congestion, insufficient parking, decline in property values and further taxing of an aging infrastructure that needs upgrading just to support the existing residents, let alone hundreds more.

Councilmember Scott Peters (District 1) faced such opposition when he backed the Bird Rock project. "I think people have a fear of density; they don't have a sense in their minds how it could be good for them," he says. "But it will bring in some quality investment for that neighborhood. It's helped make the street prettier and better for pedestrians.

"We need one village project completed to show people it works," he says.

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