California's Best and Worst Downtowns

San Francisco and San Diego are the No. 1 downtowns in California, according to California Planning & Development Report. L.A. is #4, behind Long Beach. Last? Fresno, Fresno, Fresno.

What are the best big-city downtowns in California? What are the worst? Here's one highly subjective take from a publication that covers California planning all the time.

"Within most states, there is little competition among big city downtowns because most states have only one or two big cities. California has no fewer than 11 cities of at least 300,000 people. (From north to south: Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Fresno, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Anaheim, Santa Ana and San Diego.) Some of these are world-class cities with dynamic downtowns. Some of these are the butts of many jokes. Some are both."

"Determining the "best" downtowns is, of course, entirely subjective. Sure, you could count the number of jobs or museums or nightclubs with live music. But simply selecting the quantifier is a subjective exercise. Determining the "best" downtown is more of a seat-of-the-pants exercise. What does it feel like to be there?"

Thanks to Bill Fulton

Full Story: California's Best and Worst Big City Downtowns



San Diego Downtown

is great, if you like to walk amongst block after block of shiny, new high rise condos that are virtually empty and are becoming foreclosed at a fast rate.

Downtown San Diego (other than the Gaslamp Quarter) has NONE of the qualities that make a downtown/CBD truly vital (i.e. pedestrian activity, mix of uses, diversity, architectural landmarks, open space, public plazas, world class transit, etc, etc). Outside of the Gaslamp, Downtown San Diego is a ghost town.

To compare Downtown San Diego with Downtown San Francisco is an utter joke. San Francisco has a living, breathing, high density urban fabric, with intense pedestrian activity and transit ridership. San Diego has a "glorified" city center primarily for suburbanites from Rancho Bernardo and Del Mar who want to dabble in an urban experience on the weekend, but not live in a dense urban core 24/7.

You have to remember, San Diego consists primarily of a sprawling, horizontal, auto-oriented, single-family home, surburban landscape, that happens to have a downtown that it is attempting to "rediscover".

This is primarily for the benefit of real estate speculators and the business-elite "boosters' who claim that "America's Finest City" is now a world class place, which in reality it will never be.

San Diego is ultimately ONLY a military/tourist/service sector-based city, and it's downtown (which has for the past six years strongly emphasized high-end residential) is a manifestation of that shaky, narrow-focused economic base, which is now beginning to hit a steady decline.

Not saying much

How many big city downtowns are there in California anyway? I'd say three - SF, LA and SD.

So San Diego beat out LA?

San Francisco has the only real downtown in California, and LA is slowly catching up.

I agree that San Diego has much more of a suburban than a city feel right now. It also lacks the immigrant neighborhoods found in downtown SF.

Maybe one or two more.

Sacto, Oakland, Long Beach, San Jose. They would all be considered big-city downtowns in much of the rest of the country. Although none of them really hold a candle to SF.

San Francisco Wasn't Built in a Day

Rather than deriding San Diego as an ersatz city in the midst of suburban wilderness, I choose to celebrate the City's efforts to create a vibrant, diverse and integrated downtown. Indeed, I think San Diego's metamorphosis is all the more impressive considering that it's happening after nearly 70 years of sprawling development and economic dependency on the military and the defense industry. It's just plain snobbery to suggest that San Diego cannot (or hasn't already) evolve(d) into a "world-class" city like San Francisco. The unique urban fabric of San Francisco has been coming together for more than 150 years, with the forces of urbanization greatly concentrated by the City's physical boundedness. As an urbanized area, San Diego is less than half as old as San Francisco, and with much more readily developable land, it has spread itself widely. It has taken some time to find its center, and it will take more time to fortify and refine that center, but there is now considerable momentum in this direction.

What would the San Diego naysayers have had the City do over the past 15 years to revive its moribund downtown, wait around for more "organic" redevelopment to occur? Had the City followed that kind of ivory tower rhetoric, the naysayers wouldn't even have to offer the Gaslamp caveat in their diatribes, since that thriving corner of downtown would still be full of pawn shops and abandoned warehouses.

Russ Cunningham
Schoolhouse Services
405 South Myers Street #3
Oceanside, CA 92054

It's elitist and

ignorant to think that San Diego offers the same kind of world-class, urbane experience that New York, San Francisco and Paris have. San Diego doesn't even come close to being mentioned in academic literature or business publications as a "global city".

San Diego is a town built and promoted solely by "good old fashioned Sunbelt boosterism" as seen in the San Diego Metropolitan Magazine

This has been going on since the late 1800's.

To compare San Diego to San Francisco in the same sentence is an utter insult to serious enthusiasts and practicioners of urban planning and development.

The unique urban fabric of San Francisco developed over 150 years, but it has ALWAYS been geared towards the pedestrian and urban linkages, even from it's days as a gold rush settlement. This vitally-urban development typology was merely duplicated and perfected over the decades on a city-wide basis. However, the "building blocks" for successful urbanism in San Francisco were set into place from the start, NOT over 150 years as the above commented has falsly suggested.

San Diego's artifical "renaissance" over the past 15 years is completely tied to the tourist-based, business-elite interests of CCDC, which got it's start with Pete Wilson and Ernest Hahn in the 1970's. This type of mega-scaled redevelopment metamorphosis does not lend itself to the type of urbanity required to make downtowns truly vital.

Although San Diego has seen much development activity in its urban core over the past few decades, San Diego is (and will always be) primarily a dispersed, post WWII, auto-oriented, mega-suburban conglomeration (which is now physically joining Orange County and LA at it's northern boundaries.

No matter how hard San Diego trys to "retrofit" its transportation networks and encourage more higher-density, transit-oriented development, it will ALWAYS be inextricably dependent on the automobile (which ultimately makes its downtown less vital and successful) due to the mega-sprawling development that took place from the 1940s'-1990s' and consumed millions of acres of prime agricultural land for short-sighted real estate speculation and profit.

It's kinda hard to undue that anti-urban damage now, don't ya think?

Silly comparison

I think its ridiculous to put cities like SF and LA in the same "big city" category as Fresno. Laughable even. We're comparing apples and oranges here. Was this done for the shock of contrast only? I think so. To define a city by its city limits only is to ignore the fact (in this case) that while SF has a metro area of around 7 million and LA around 15 million, a "city" like Fresno has only about 500,000 and really no metro area at all. These cities are in such different places in terms of population alone that to compare them on a level field in any category (but particularly in that of their "urbanness") is virtually impossible and silly to even attempt in my opinion. If you really want to compare "big city" downtowns then lets be fair in our definition of what constitutes such a place. 300,000 or more in population does not alone make a place a big city. Looking past sheer numbers, you should also compare the purpose each city serves. In Fresno's case it is all about agriculture. The state gets its food from there so why does it NEED to have a vibrant downtown?

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