What will Uptown look like in the future?

Posted: January 27th, 2017 | Feature, Top Story | 3 Comments

By Ken Williams | Editor

What will Uptown look like in the future?

Local leaders and social media influencers have been asked to peer into the future and predict what the Uptown communities will look like in 2037 — 20 years from now.

Already forecast, according to Uptown’s recently approved Community Plan Update (CPU):

  • By 2020 — Streetcar service is planned along Park Boulevard and University, Fourth and Fifth avenues, serving Balboa Park, Hillcrest, Park West and Bankers Hill, connecting Uptown to Downtown. 
  • By 2035 — San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) is expected to have completed the Mid-City Trolley Extension from City College to San Diego State University, via Park and El Cajon boulevards.
  • By 2035 — San Diego’s Climate Action Plan vows to have eliminated half of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions and the city will be generating all of its electricity by renewable sources.

    If the Uptown Gateway District project ever goes forward, Hillcrest will be transformed dramatically as this image illustrates. The view is looking south as Gateway would dominate Fourth through Sixth streets from University to Pennsylvania. (

During the many years of debate over the CPU, some residents advocated for more density and taller buildings to create active communities where they can live, work, play, dine and shop in neighborhoods that offer multiple modes of transportation. Other residents urged keeping the status quo to preserve what currently exists for those who already live here.

The Uptown Gateway District concept (

Also, a group of 15 commercial property owners in Hillcrest is hoping to get the massive Uptown Gateway District project off the drawing boards to transform the area roughly between Fourth and Seventh avenues and Washington Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Meanwhile, Mission Hills Heritage (MHH) and Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) have sued the city, challenging the environmental analysis done for the CPU concerning the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Here are the visions from community leaders:

A dramatic difference

—By Chris Ward, San Diego City Councilmember representing District 3, which includes the Uptown communities

As San Diego commits to provide the resources, economic opportunities and housing options for all to have a real chance to thrive in our communities, I’m excited for a future where our experience on the streets of Uptown will improve dramatically. As part of that transition, I see vibrant corridors with better infrastructure for bikes, pedestrians, transit and public facilities to accommodate moderated growth and active streetscapes supporting our local shopping, dining and recreating interests. I see them joined by those living in our single-family home areas preserving unique architecture and tranquil streets for quiet strolls, and by tourists who can both explore Balboa Park during the day and easily experience our restaurants in the evening.

Even more exciting is our opportunity to celebrate both our past and our future. We can protect the historic structures that help make communities so unique, and be a showcase of what careful density, combined with improved transit, green infrastructure, and strategically managed parking can do as these core communities work to meet and exceed the benchmarks of our Climate Action Plan. Diverse neighbors can mix together and support each other, and no person on our streets would be left without shelter or the health and support services they need. But it doesn’t need to be a vision 20 years out — by working toward our commitments, we can enjoy better communities each and every year.

Hillcrest will be vibrant

—By James Frost, a Park West resident and an architect and planner

By 2037, Hillcrest is transformed into the enviable destination it always could be. Hillcrest residents, businesses, developers and the city finally share a common vision. The entire multifaceted Hillcrest community realizes that diverse development, low/medium-rise buildings, increased density and smart growth principles result in a vibrant, focused, viable civic and commercial center. The tree-lined Normal Street Promenade — a linear urban park along the revitalized, transit-oriented University Avenue stretching from First Avenue to Park Boulevard — is the heart of the new Hillcrest.

A new regional transit center next to state Route 163 between Washington and University links Hillcrest to Downtown and points beyond. The transit corridor on Park Boulevard and associated adjacent developments provide a critical anchor to eastern Hillcrest. Concentrated development, with a range of housing options in the western portion around the intersections of University Avenue with Fifth and Sixth avenues, provides the population necessary to support a 24/7 level of activity. Autonomous vehicles (both cars and public transit) free up large areas of streets previously devoted to parking for use as parks and public spaces.

The outdated 2016 concepts of car-centric, random strip development have been replaced by a forward-looking Hillcrest that prioritizes people, walkable public places, and vibrant commercial activities all linked to the historic Hillcrest neighborhood character and reflected in new innovative ways that respond to future needs of residents, visitors and businesses.

Extension of Bankers Hill

—By Leo Wilson, a Bankers Hill resident and chair of Uptown Planners and the Metro San Diego Community Development Corp.

There will be more residential development in Uptown, particularly along the transportation corridors along Fourth, Fifth and Sixth avenues, and University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard. It will resemble what is already taking place in Bankers Hill with a mix of high-rise and mid-rise buildings. I see the single-family neighborhoods and areas along canyons and sensitive lands in Uptown staying substantially the same. In Hillcrest, some sort of Gateway district-type project will be built; however, I believe the historic storefront areas along University/Fourth/Fifth avenues will be preserved as part of the Gateway project. Hoping the vision of having a park on top of an underground parking garage at the Rite Aid site becomes a reality. A park in central Hillcrest would greatly enhance the community. Also believe Normal Street and adjacent areas north of Washington Street in University Heights can become a greenbelt-type park. Hopefully residential unit development incentives will be focused on increasing affordable housing; so it will be the major component of new development in the next 20 years;

By 2037, self-driving cars will become common, and a lot of people will not have private cars. Services like Uber and car share “co-ops” will exist. It will lessen the need for parking, and some existing parking lots could be turned into residential units or even park space. Automobiles will still be the main source of transportation, but the car as we know it will use cleaner forms of fuel — electric cars, or cars fueled by hydrogen or bio methane will predominate. I once was a strong supporter of light rail/streetcars, but now believe mass transit in the next 20 years will instead consist of wheeled people movers. Bicycle use will increase, but not as much as hoped. In biking to City Council meetings, on most occasions my bike is the only one in the administrative building bicycle rack — I am not seeing biking increasing to become a significant transportation mode. Still is beneficial and would encourage people to do it. By contrast, I see a major increase in walking; and pedestrian amenities will be substantially improved by 2037. I think it will become a major focus of future planning in Uptown.

Two possible outcomes

—By Mat Wahlstrom, a member of the Uptown Planners and a local businessman

I see two futures depending on whether the SOHO/MHH lawsuit against the developer-giveaway CPU is successful:

  1. If the lawsuit is successful, then I see an Uptown that maintains its livability and increases affordability by keeping the height limits from 50 feet to 65 feet. This will allow new buildings three to six times what’s already on the ground and ensure that zoning and more expensive construction materials don’t price out homeowners and businesses.
  1. Otherwise, Uptown will be cluttered with projects like the Uptown Gateway project that are literally gated enclaves. Almost everyone will be turned into renters, as REITs gobble up the overzoned property on behalf of global investors, creating a vicious circle that keeps individuals from ownership and disposable income to support local businesses.

More of the same? 

—By Sharon Gehl, a Mission Hills resident and a board member of the Hillcrest Community Development Corp.

We can expect the future of Uptown to be much like the past, because the amount of housing that the city will allow to be built in the future will be the same as they’ve allowed in the past. Since the city did not allow enough housing in the old Community Plan to keep up with normal growth in demand, the cost to buy and rent housing in Uptown has gotten worse year by year. With the same restrictions in the new plan, the housing shortage will worsen, people will be forced to pay too much, and the number of people living on the streets and in canyons will skyrocket.

There are things we don’t know about the future that could change this prognosis. For instance, how will the internet continue to change our lives? Will a large portion of the population adopt a form of transportation for traveling short distances that is faster than walking, but slower than driving; perhaps e-bikes? But most important, will the city fight climate change by allowing increases in the amount of housing that can be built close to public transit and jobs? And will they allow people to replace old energy-guzzling buildings at the end of their life expectancy, with new energy-efficient buildings that meet modern code?

We can still choose to make the future better than the past by allowing people to build enough safe and energy-efficient housing in Uptown to meet the needs of everyone.

Mission Hills unchanged 

—By Barry Hager, a 20-year resident of Mission Hills and a board member of Mission Hills Heritage

I predict that in 20 years’ time, Mission Hills will still be a thriving, vibrant neighborhood, filled with families and people of all ages who enjoy a good quality of life and are engaged in their community. We will still have our beautiful, quaint homes built in various early-20th century architectural styles, protected by historical districts and caring residents. We will still have our mixed-use commercial core, anchored by turn-of-the-last-century buildings and enhanced with newer buildings that add housing and businesses while honoring the roots of the community. And we will still have our blocks of bungalows and cottages, where younger people from various backgrounds can still afford a smaller home with a yard, raise a family and walk to schools and parks as did generations before them.

Why am I confident that the above will come to pass? Because our community is already filled with residents and business owners who deeply care for their neighborhood and are willing to stand up and fight to ensure that we save the best from the past and demand the best for the future. People who will take time out of their busy lives to attend public meetings and even turn to the courts when necessary to safeguard their community. I predict that in 20 years, we will still love our neighborhood as much as we do now!

Growth to be minimal

—By Tom Mullaney, a Mission Hills resident and a board member of Uptown Planners and Uptown United

To understand the future of Uptown, we need to understand the trends in the city of San Diego. Our public officials are saying that something is wrong with the housing market, and that they can fix it. Yet a local economist explained a simple truth several years ago: San Diego is expensive because it’s a nice place to live. In the larger picture, all of the major coastal cities in the U.S. have higher prices than the interior.

With these larger market forces at work, major changes in Uptown are unlikely. Uptown is likely to grow in an incremental manner, with population increase about 1 percent to 1.5 percent. There’s no reason to believe that the city government can induce developers to build large numbers of new housing units, with a supply so abundant that they drive down selling prices and rents.

Coming out of its slump

—By Benny Cartwright, a University Heights resident and vice chair of the Hillcrest Town Council and director of community outreach at the San Diego LGBT Community Center

As someone who has now hung out and/or lived in Uptown for 20 years now, I’ve been able to witness how two decades can change a vibrant community like this one. I grew up in San Diego’s suburban Allied Gardens neighborhood and lived there until I was 26 years old; hardly anything changed there in that time, and even today, the neighborhood looks much like it did when I was a kid. But Uptown and Hillcrest are different. The area is full of creative, innovative people, and I predict that new ideas will emerge to reshape the area with the adoption of the new Community Plan. I am hopeful that many elements of the neighborhood’s charm will remain, while utilizing the parts of the plan that allow for some smarter development, and community amenities (a park, the new library, etc). I believe Uptown will still be a diverse, vibrant area that comes out of the slump it’s in and gets it spark back!

Big changes ahead

—By Elizabeth Hannon, Chief Operating Officer of the Uptown Community Parking District

Uptown and Hillcrest, in particular, being the heart of the LGBT community in San Diego, will likely be more blended with a greater acceptance of all identities and a harmonious co-existence of all colors, creeds and orientations. One can always hold out hope for this anyway!

I think 2037 will find a more dense urban core that is more walk-able (think public art at transit stops, landscaping and safety lighting, sidewalks that don’t trip us …) with greater reliance on other transit options besides our personal automobiles. Just this week, San Diego was selected to receive federal funds to serve as a testing ground for self-driving vehicles. Twenty years from now, we could find a more vibrant economy as on-street parking would be less in demand because riders will be dropped off in front of the “Coolest Hardware Store on Earth” or to do their furniture and grocery shopping … while the car is “parked” in a remote lot and summoned back to the pick-up/drop-off zone. Think of the impact of Uber or Lyft, many of us choose these services today instead of circling blocks looking for parking. Self-driving cars, connected autonomous vehicles, ride-share, bike commuters, perhaps a gondola and one can hold out hope for improvements to our Uptown transit options (yes, SANDAG, please bring us a trolley line!) will all create new uses for our public right of ways. Together we will see and in the meantime, we’ll continue to work on a future that is bright and bustling in Uptown.

What are your thoughts?

Send your vision for Uptown’s future to

—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and can be reached at or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.


  1. Ron May says:

    Uptown is actually the gateway between the early 20th century “Downtown” commercial district and the higher elevation mixed residential use Banker’s Hill and lower density Hillcrest and Mission Hills residential communities. These areas declined in the post war 1950s-70s of suburban flight, then rose in popularity as affordable housing for young start-up Middle Class, retired, and fixed income elderly. But as the large scale building industry completed their final high density condo and townhouse project at the northern City boundaries around 2000, the Building Industry Association took aim at Uptown and initiated a lobbying campaign to change the General and Community Plans to maximize density and height for their industry’s financial benefit. And as we have seen, developers flocked to Uptown in the last five years. The result was the 11th Hour changes to the Uptown Community Plan and Draft Environmental Impact Report by then-council representative Todd Gloria and his friends at City Hall. I predict the SOHO/Mission Hills Heritage lawsuit will be decided at the Appellate Court, where three judges are beyond the reach of San Diego’s all powerful BIA lobby. What indeed, will be the future of Uptown?

    I foresee higher density in the traditional commercial and moderate high rise mixed use communities and a great many significant historical buildings demolished or dramatically altered to accommodate this new density. There probably will be FAA lawsuits challenging the safety of some of those high rise structures, but in the end the area closes to Balboa Park will someday resemble Miami Beach, Florida. But the areas where historical neighborhoods will prevail will be the traditional residential areas that did not already transition into mixed commercial and 50-65 foot high buildings. And although electric cars were popular before 1949, I do not believe residents, restaurants, and commercial businesses will find noisy trolley lines to be compatible with their quality of life in the 21st Century.

  2. Paul Jamason says:

    Barry Hager said, “younger people from various backgrounds can still afford a smaller home with a yard” in Mission Hills. San Diego is already the fourth most unaffordable city in the nation for millennials, based on a median home price of $500K, and the median single family home price in Mission Hills is $1.1 million dollars. Perhaps Mr. Hager meant to say, “younger people from various trust fund backgrounds”.

    Meanwhile Hager’s Mission Hills Heritage is suing the city to overturn the Uptown Community Plan Update, which simply retains the same density as the 1988 Plan. Their lawsuit isn’t about historic preservation, but rather excluding others from Uptown to further boost their massive property value profits.

  3. Private Hillcrest Citizen says:

    With market forces shamefully being the sole pricing mechanism for the cost of housing and business, the only thing that depresses skyrocketing costs is lower demand. That condition does NOT exist in Hillcrest, nor will it ever, even by increasing supply. Over the last few decades there has been a significant increase in supply, with single homes and small businesses being replaced by large higher density multi-family residential projects and small business retail outlets. The result? Per square footage costs have soared, for apartments, condominiums and commercial space. Long-time residents and businesses were displaced, replaced by transplants from around the nation and the world. Uptown is upscale, la dee dah. And despite being a walking neighborhood, as well as having many major bus routes, traffic congestion has become a serious and nagging problem. Parking is a nightmare, much like in the eastern corridor cities. Local businesses are patronized more by outsiders than locals, adding to the congestion and parking problems.

    In the late 80’s one could rent a 2 BR 2 BA apartment, with 2 parking spaces for $650. Today, that space costs $2,000 or more. Starbucks is on every corner, Chicken Pie Shop, Golden Dragon (the original, less expensive and much better one) are gone. Market forces along with assistance from our mindlessly self-interested planning officials, and without enforceable local input have wreaked havoc in Hillcrest. An increase in public transportation supply requires significant government investment. Stabilizing the skyrocketing residential and retail market requires government involvement and intervention. Measures such as zoning requirements should be thoroughly vetted and extensively researched, with the goal of desired outcome matching empirical results. Such planning mandates public fiscal investment. Developers need public incentives such as subsidies and credits to lower expenses, with enforceable conditions of reasonable and affordable pricing of their “products.” To create a “micro-community,” local wages must match the cost of local housing. Presently, most Hillcrest residents are commuters, hence significant rush-hour congestion.

    Hillcrest has grown substantially over the last few decades. However, that growth has largely been dominated by decisions made by parties seeking immediate gratification, without forethought, planning and research. Such preparation should be carried out with measurable, not just advisory, local input. Civic San Diego, SANDAG and the developer friendly City Council should NOT determine our local growth and development policies.

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