Why Building a Giant Park on the Qualcomm Site Is a Bad Idea

Yesterday, Donna Frye wrote an op-ed for the Voice of San Diego website suggesting that when the Chargers leave, the best use for the site is not more "boring development" of condos with a "measly" 20-acre river park, but rather a humongous 166-acre river park on the entire site.  Ms. Frye sums up by saying "For once, how about working on a plan that provides more of what we don’t have, and less of what we do have?"  In other words, she ask that we work "on a plan that provides more [giant parks] and less [condos]."  Although it's somewhat hard to see because it is hidden behind the ever-beloved idea of parks, it's just another form of NIMBYism.

With all due respect to Donna Frye, a new massive river park is NOT a good idea.  I'm generally supportive of parks and it's easy to think that if some park is good, a LOT of park is GREAT.  Unfortunately, this isn't really the case. Let me count the ways.

1.  Who is going to use this park?  Look at a map of the stadium.  Although it is in relatively dense Mission Valley, it is pretty isolated from actual residential developments.  If we built a massive park at this site, nearly everyone in San Diego would have to travel to use the park.  Sure, there is a trolley station on site, but how many people live within walking distance of the trolley?  Instead, most people will be driving to this park.  Which means we need a massive parking lot.  Given its isolated location, in reality it is more likely that few will visit.

2. We already have massive parks in San Diego.  As Ms. Frye mentions, we already have Balboa Park and Mission Bay Park.  We also have Mission Trails Regional Park and all the beaches.  Each serves a unique purpose, and they are already serving us in terms of giant parks.  To be clear, a new 166-acre park is massive.  That's about 130 football fields.  It's not like we are out of room at Balboa Park.  And massive parks, although nice in theory, are really not the best way to design parks.  Frye seems to be arguing for building some natural areas, but also a lot of ball fields.  If we do this, we would basically be building San Diego's entire supply of fields at one location.  The result?  No more neighborhood ball fields.  Rather than sending your kid down the street to play at the local lot, you have to pile everyone in the minivan for afternoon baseball practice down at the Mission Valley Sports Complex.  It's far better to decentralize our parks, spreading small pieces throughout the fabric of our city.

That last point is one that Jane Jacobs made back in 1961 when she published The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  One of Jacobs' arguments is that parks should not be treated differently than any other land use: the idea of large swaths of land devoted to one use is not ideal.  It is far better to mix the uses to create lively neighborhoods.  By building a massive park, we are also excluding other uses.  The result is a large dead zone, frequented by some on the weekends, but dead at night and lightly used during the week.  It's sad to say, but the most likely outcome is that this new, isolated park would become a homeless encampment.

3.  We need more housing.  Frye seems to suggest that Mission Valley, and by extension San Diego, has plenty of condos.  This is nowhere close to the truth.  Housing in San Diego, especially in the coveted areas along the trolley lines, is in short supply.  If we want to achieve our Climate Action Plan goals as a city, we need more housing on public transit lines.  Moreover, addressing the cost of housing is critical to lessening the growing inequality in our society.  Moreover, if we don't build on transit lines, the housing is going to end up even farther out, causing more problems. 

4.  We don't have the money.  If we build a new park on the entire site, that means we need funding for the park to come from some other source because we can't sell the land.  In San Diego, we don't even have enough money to maintain our current giant park, Balboa Park.  Just as we should stop building more roads when we can't afford to maintain our current ones, we should shift focus to a new large park in San Diego when we can't even afford to maintain our current park.  Rather than devoting hundreds of millions to build a new park AND lose out on the lost revenue from being unable to sell the land, let's just sell it and use the money more appropriately.

5.  "Boring Condos" vs. "Beautiful Park" is a false dichotomy.  Donna Frye seems to suggest that condos are boring and parks are great.  But it doesn't have to be this way.  We can still built a beautiful 20-acre or so park along the river AND a lively, new, mixed-use neighborhood.  Mission Valley's boring, walled-off condo developments are the result of poor planning, not inevitability.  If done right, we could build an amazing development on the site that is far from boring.  As an added plus, selling the land for development would raise money to improve our current central park, including providing a connection to public transit.  That way, we get the best of both worlds: a new river park, a new mixed use development on the trolley line, and money to revitalize our "crown jewel," Balboa Park.  In the end, it's not that a new giant River Park is a bad idea, but rather it's not the best use of the land.  We can do a lot better with a little imagination.