San Diego Hopes To Shed Its Military Town Image

With a diverse economy no longer dependent on military spending, the city is trying to lessen Uncle Sam's influence in its affairs and exert more control over its own destiny.

Back in 1850, when San Diego was a small village located at the mouth of Mission Valley, entrepreneur William Heath Davis set out to reestablish a new civic center closer to the bay.

He bought a 160-acre parcel of bayfront land in the heart of what would become modern downtown and, in hopes of attracting a permanent engine to drive commerce and attract settlers from Old Town, donated a swath of land to the U.S. Army.

Although a lack of interest caused Davis' "New Town" to quickly fail, the Army, which built a barracks and supply depot, remained there through the Civil War and Davis' idea of using the military to drive the city's development never died.

As San Diego military presence grew throughout the decades, so too did its economic dependence on defense budgets, a position that allowed the armed forces to exercise mounting influence over the city's growth, politics and civic identity.

That relationship branded San Diego as a "martial metropolis" -- a personality it continues to carry today -- and the military's financial impact helped germinate a burgeoning West Coast city. As such, it became a major city devoid of the traditional pains of urbanization -- the pollution of heavy industry, dense housing, and labor struggles -- that others had to bear.

Full Story: San Diego Wrestles with Military Past as It Looks to Future

Comments

Comments

Clarification to Summary of Post

Actually, my post was intended to underscore the LACK of diversity of San Diego's economy, due to several factors. One of which is the continued dominance of military spending in all sectors of the economy, making the region at least partially dependent on the U.S. government, with respect to fiscal and land use decisions.

Secondly, the city has a checkered history in terms of dealing with its public image and what direction it wants to take. Specifically, the elite ruling class including the Speckles, Horton, Scripps families have dictated that the city must become a "City Beautiful", hiring John Nolan to create two visionary plans for the city.

Therefore, the city has always been seen as a haven for the wealthy ruling class from the midwest and south and has really never developed the type of industries which foster diverse economic activity and prosperity, contraty to what the media reports.

As of late, biotech and R&D have been much lauded by the city's boosters as a way to promote the diverse economy, however the region has ended up taking a second seat to similar activities taking place in Silicon Valley.

More notably, San Diego has enveloped much of its economic activities in the buying and selling of real estate, which is now turing out to be the hole in the bubble for the region's pseudo-economy, as prices rapidly decline before our very eyes.

A tad bit critical

As they say...geography is destiny (or is it demographics?). Unfortunately for San Diego, it's location limits the cities economic potential and it's geographic limitation have a lot to do with the cities history. To the south is Mexico, to the west the Pacific Ocean and to the east lies a large mountain range and desert. San Diego Bay was shallow, sandy and full of shoals, not exactly the ideal west coast harbor when you have to compete with San Francisco Bay. Los Angeles did develop an artificial harbor, but this was moslty with railroad money which San Diego never had (and never will have) because of the enormous cost of going through a mountain range which have no natural passes (unlike Los Angeles where the Cajon pass provides relatively easy rail access). Geography was really the major limitation to developing any substantial "industries which foster diverse economic activity and properity" (whatever that means). So the city did what it could and made a bargain with the government to become a navy base so the fed would pay for developing the harbor...perhaps a faustian bargain, but it did benefit the city immensely (although the tradeoff was a lot of military control of land use decisions...which has major implications for the city today).

Over the last twenty years the cities ecnomic base has diversified greatly, but it will always be limited by the nature of the places geography and past decisions...what would you suggest they do?

Brutally honest, actually...

Actually, it has much more to due with politics and culture than it has to do with geography. What would I suggest they do? Stop being a "good old boy town", grow up (as Kevin Starr and Mike Davis say), and face the reality that a city of 1.3 million people (7th largest in US) needs to decide what kind of economic, social, and political direction it wants to take for the future and stop acting like an oversized beach town.

Unfortunately, most of the

Unfortunately, most of the people who move to San Diego do so precisely because it does feel like an oversized beach town...so you get a lot of inertia from folks who think San Diego was perfect the moment they moved there and has gone down hill ever since (a California wide phenomenon).

As a native, I agree with you on the fact that the city needs to grow up, but I can see the inherent limitations to certain avenues of development given the city's geography...and I can sense a cetain hesitancy from other natives to listen to a bunch of out of town pikers who want to impose whatever their vision dujour might be, even if what they say might be beneficial. What I don't want to see is the place become another San Francisco...a city of rich lifestyle tourists with no room for regular folks. So if growing up means becoming more like SF, then I'll stick with oversized beach town anyday.

I'm definitely pro-development and pro-economic growth for San Diego and I really would be curios to hear your vision/thoughts...

Good Point

I agree with San Diego being a classic case of environmental deteminism, with regards to climate and the type of people who choose to settle there specifically for the "beach lifestyle".

However, I live in the Bay Area, after having lived in San Diego for close to a decade, I would disagree with your comment that San Diego could "become another San Francisco...a city of rich lifestyle tourists with no room for regular folks". In all actuality, what has been happening in "America's Finest City" for the past five years is that due to political and development decisions on the part of CCDC, homebuilding industry, military, city, county, and other parties, the region as a whole has already become just what you stated about San Francisco, "a city of rich lifestyle with no room for regular folks" This especially holds true for East Village/Little Italy/Centre City San Diego. The area has becoma haven for out of town investors looking to make a quick profit on a new high rise condo without building a true sense of community (which in fact CAN be found in countless neighborhoods in San Francisco).

I am actually a smart growth advocate, but feel City of Villages was an absolute joke due to classic San Diego Community Planning Area NIMBYism and lack of public/private sector collboration.

However, I would suggest that if San Diego (city and region) could get its act together fiscally (pension scandal), stop being a one horse town to developers such as Doug Manchester, show more concern for affordable housing, build a REAL airport, stop depending on the military, expand the regional transportation BRT/LRT network and related infrastructure, develop a regional park system and provide more open space downtown, expand rail connections, and start behaving like a mature, civic-minded metropolis, then the region as a whole could compete with other locales in which in covets and become a bigger player on the global scene (which in fact most San Diegan civic boosters support).

Otherwise, you will always have this never-ending cycle of locals and newcomers who want their cake and eat it to (none of the problems of a real metropolis with all of the amenities). Unfortunately, reality is much different.

Agree mostly

The funny part is that I live in San Francisco now and totally disagree with you about San Francisco having a "true sense of community"...at least in San Francisco anyways, the rest of the Bay Area is a completely different story though....maybe it takes a newcomer to tell what's really going on to those with blinders (both ways here).

I am patiently holding my breath on downtown San Diego as what you said about all the flippers rings true...but as many of them get stuck holding the bag during this downturn some residents who actually would like to be there may benefit from there losses (plus, only about 30% were sold to "speculators", so that other 70% must have gone to actual residents)...so more of a "community" may develop given some time...Rome wasn't built in a day as they say.

I also do think many of the problems (in SF, SD and CA as whole) stem from the current generation in power mortgaging the future economic viability of the state for higher real estate values today...thereby shutting out all but the very richest of the up and coming generation. Couple that with a lack of political leadership and the future looks dimmer for anyone under 30....but of course, that's just my opinion.

Community and Cost of Living

You don't agree that the Richmond, Noe Valley, the Castro, the Mission, the Sunset, and numerous other neighborhoods hold a true sense of community? Where can you find the same in San Diego? Downtown is a ghost town (except for the the Gaslamp), Bankers Hill, North Park, Normal Heights, Hillcrest, and City Heights (first ring suburbs) could possibly be considered "neighborhoods", but they do not generate nearly the amount of density, vitality, or pedestrian activity to be considered on the level of San Francisco, not by a long shot (due to their being so auto-oriented). Jane Jacobs would be sad to see what San Diego has become.

As for "power mortgaging the future economic viability of the state" I do agree, this is actually a national phenomenon. However, at least the salaries are quite competitive int he Bay Area, as compared to San Diego, which at least somewhat make up for the exorbinant real estate values. For example, we have a friend working for the San Diego PD who is in the process of transferring to SFPD specifically because of the pension crisis, lack of overtime, salary cuts, and for the mere fact that he can make $40K/year more simply by moving to the Bay Area. Heck, I am an Urban Planner in the private sector and I got a $30k/year raise to work in the Bay Area. And given the fact that real estate in the Bay Area as a whole is about at the same level as San Diego nowadays, it makes the Bay Area MUCH more affordable to live in than San Diego, despite what the media reports (except for perhaps Voice of San Diego).

The cost of living in San Diego when comparing wages to real estate values is one of the worst (of not THE worst) in the nation. The salaries never kept up with the rising real estate market. Unfortunately, the military influence does play a large part in this as most salaries in San Diego are tied to local government salary indices.

Re: Community and Cost of Living

Honestly, San Francisco is really just lucky....lucky that it has the beautiful natural setting that is does, lucky that it has the architecutre it does and lucky that it used to be the economic center of the western US. Otherwise, the way the place has been run, it would be Detroit. However, because it is still a beautiful place with beautiful houses, people will still move there (myself included). The City's economy is based on tourism, the dot-com/tech/biotech industries are all centered in other parts of the Bay Area, most of the SF's major homegrown corporations have decamped (and no new one's are coming up to take their place), and few young entreprenuers would ever/could ever start a new business here (other than a restaurant) because of the City's fervently anti-business climate. On the social side, the City's high housing costs have pushed out virtually all of the (non trust fund) artists, any remnant of a middle class, and many of the young activists that could have started the next forefront of social movements that once made San Francisco famous (because the old activists are stuck fighting the old battles or infighting for more power and living high of their built up home equity). Everyone that moves here now is either a) a highly educated professional that earns enough to be able to afford to live the San Francisco lifestyle, b) a dissaffected midwesterner that doesn't like their parents and still thinks communism is the answer and can work for a non-profit to pay the bills in their rent-controlled flat or c) an illegal immigrant that works wherever the service industries prop-up to serve all of the new a)'s….with some minor exceptions like your PO friend (90/10 he won’t actually live in SF though) Everyone that grows up here usually ends up leaving unless their parents owned a house/business that they could pass onto them. So, my point being here that many of the niehgborhoods you point out are vital, dense and pedestrian-oriented (and people like them a lot), but that’s only because they happened to be built in an era when people actually built neighborhoods like that and San Francisco was an entirely different place. Nowadays, when every storefront is a café, restaurant or over-priced boutique clothing store, where you can only meet a type a) or b) (with c)’s wokring behind the scenes), that hardly constitutes a “true community” in my eyes (but it still looks nice because of the simple fact that the buildings are old). You can still get a true sense of San Francisco’s past glory in some of the outer, western neighborhoods that you mention (Richmond, Sunset, Exelsior, etc…) but even those are fading fast as they become more popular. They’ll soon be Castro’s North Beach’s or Mission’s soon…where only tourist guidebooks and old people remember how it used to be and everyone else just moved there from out of town and thinks it’s so cool they can meet other people with graduate degrees that just moved here too while plucking down $6 for a latte in their “neighborhood” coffee shop.

This is still not to say that I don’t enjoy it here as I am one of the very people I just described, but I can at least see San Francisco for what it is…a formerly vital economic center being turned into a musuem piece for over-educated…a modern day Venice or Vienna. Nobody I know that has moved here plans to stay in San Francisco more than a decade…even if they’re going to stay in the Bay Area. The place is just resting on it’s past laurels and has ceased to be relevant, and given the lack of political leadership in the City I don’t see it turning around anytime soon…which does not mean that I won’t enjoy it for what it is, but I have to scoff when I hear others say the place has a true sense of community (other than a community of homogenous temporary residents). I also recognize that I am somewhat cynical and this just an opinion that you are free to disagree with. I will also stop here because going on about San Diego would just add another page…and everything you said is about the place is true to some degree, but the above is what I am talking about when I say I don’t want San Diego to become another San Francisco (even if some of it already has).

Relevance, compared...

San Francisco is more than lucky. The Bay Area as a whole is and always will be the heart of a thriving cultural scene, political and social innovator, economic engine for the west coast of the United States. Dot-com, tech , and biotech are all dispersed, regional industries, look at 128 Hub in Boston, Sorrento Valley in San Diego, Tech Coast in Orange County, so the fact that these industries are not located within the city boundaries on SF is irrelevant. The point is, as a region, the Bay Area outperforms the San Diego region in every economic activity known to man, and compensates generously for it. Biotech has become a joke in San Diego, it really hasn't provided much of anything for an economic sustenance for the region (which is playing out before our very eyes in the real estate crash right now in San Diego). The main R&D and contracting activies are all based on the military, see SAIC, which takes us back to the original point of this article.

Anti-business? How about too pro-corporation in San Diego. There is virtually no grass-roots, civic minded movement (like in the freeway revolts of SF) to counter the ever-present corporate influence of Doug Manchester and John Moores and their sranglehold on the CCDC.

Socially, middle-class is San Diego is non-existant as well, unless you count the ex-Navy servicemen living in their WWII-era ranch homes in Allied Gradens or Lemon Grove. Mission Valley, Hillcrest, PB, and most other neighborhoods north of downtown are crawling with restless trust-fund kids, lower-income families, and struggling college kids who are up to their eyes in student loans. No middle class there! And on top of it, they are paying similar mortgages and/or rents than their counterparts in SF and making much less income at their jobs in San Diego.

San Francisco really needs to be thought of in terms of regionally, not just within the city boundaries itself. Therefore, one will get a sense for the continued dominance and relevance of the Bay Area as a whole in the global economy, which San Diego doesn't even hold a candle to.

San Francisco may cling on to past glories and revel in its history (which I am all for!), but at least it has a sense of place, something which San Diego utterly lacks. Heck, downtown San Diego isn't even the original center, Alonzo Horton decided to arbitrarily "move" the city from it's historic heart along the San Diego River to the Bay in the 1860's, which for the first 30 years proved to be a land use and real estate failure.

Prepare for the AICP Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245
Planetizen Courses image ad

Planetizen Courses

Advance your career with subscription-based online courses tailored to the urban planning professional.
Starting at $16.95 a month
Book cover of Where Things Are from Near to Far

Where Things Are From Near to Far

This engaging children's book about planning illustrates that "every building has its place."
$19.95
Wood necklace with city map

City Necklaces

These sweet pendants are engraved on a cedar charm with a mini map of selected cities. The perfect gift for friends and family or yourself!
$28.00