San Diego High School has been in its current location in the Northeast corner of downtown since 1882. It actually sits on land belonging to Balboa Park and, as a result, its future is in jeopardy: the current lease ends in 2024 and if the school wants to stay, the voters will have to approve the use of the site for a school with a two-thirds vote. The City Council Charter Review Committee recently rejected requests to fix the problem by amending the City Charter and avoiding a direct vote on the school issue.
The City Charter is the source of the problem: the school is on parkland and the Charter requires that parkland be used for park and recreation purposes. Makes sense! Understandably, some are arguing that the school should be razed and new parkland built on the site. I can empathize with those people.
The problem is we have no money for new parkland. As currently built, Balboa Park cannot be maintained by the City. The to-do list would cost about $300 million to complete. If we decide to add even more park, that means money isn't being spent on maintaining the current park and will only add to the future maintenance costs. Unless we can magically find a spare $300 million, I don't see how we can justify spending park money elsewhere. Even if we had enough money, there is still a lot of Balboa Park that is being underutilized. When structures in the heart of the park are crumbling, it's hard to rationally decide to add more to the park. These two concerns are why I suggested selling some of the land to fix up the core of Balboa Park.
Given the history of the school and the lack of funds to expand the park, I think we need to keep San Diego High. If we want to be a truly urban city, we need a public high school downtown. That being said, SDHS currently sits at the interface between downtown and Balboa Park, effectively creating part of a wall between the city and the park. The best outcome would be to find a way to save the high school and somehow connect downtown to the park.
Let's dream a little bit. The current school site is in a prime location that many companies would die for. Additionally, on the other side of the freeway, the City is using a part of Powerhouse Canyon mainly for a parking lot and supply depot. That site is immediately adjacent to Pershing Drive, which will soon connect downtown to North Park with an awesome protected bike lane. Considered together or separately, these are two huge parcels in the heart of our City that are underutilized.
Here is my idea: let's sell the land to whichever company (or companies) can give us the best proposal for a tech corporate campus on the school and Powerhouse Canyon land. If the land is fully developed and urbanized, the campus could contain a huge amount of custom office space and create a new tech center downtown. By providing a slight discount from market rate, we can ensure that the sites are used in a way that benefits the residents of San Diego.
Most importantly, let's require that the company build a true urban campus and devote a few floors or building to the high school. The school would be intermingled with the corporate campus, just like the E3 Civic High Charter in the downtown library. The school district is sitting on bond money to fix up San Diego High. If we require the developer to give the school enough space, then the District can build a showcase campus that would be a model for the entire country.
Imagine going to high school on a campus shared with Qualcomm, Illumina, Google, or Tesla. By integrating the two, and San Diego City College, the high school will be able to offer one-of-a-kind internships and lectures from the region's most brilliant minds. By better integrating the site with downtown, the students will become a key addition to the downtown atmosphere.
Why would a company buy this land? Because, in the words of a commercial real estate agent, the current downtown office space is outdated and "there has been incredible demand for unique, high-quality environments and spaces Downtown, and users are willing to pay top dollar because of the lack of these top-tier options." It is rare for such a large parcel of land to become available in a major downtown area and this would present an opportunity for a campus like the one Amazon is building in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle. San Diego's young, educated millennials want to live downtown and it's only a matter of time before they refuse to commute to Sorrento Valley or UTC. Combined with the upcoming IDEA District immediately to the south, this could transform downtown San Diego into a tech hub. Moving jobs from the suburbs to downtown will also help with the City's Climate Action Plan goals. Although the goal would be to have the workers live downtown, the campus could have its own on-ramp to the freeway, avoiding adding much traffic to the surrounding neighborhood streets.
If we sold both the high school site and Powerhouse Canyon, we could probably raise at least $800 million. So what do we do with this money? Since we are giving up parkland, all of it should go towards Balboa Park and the goal of connecting the park to downtown. $60-100 million could be spent to build a streetcar line from downtown to Balboa Park and beyond, up Park Boulevard. This would provide the best connection yet between downtown and Balboa Park. Additional money could be spent to create a linear park from B Street north, put a cap over the 5 freeway, and continue up the hill along Presidents Way. For those that want to stroll, this would create another connection to the park. The rest of the money can be spent on fixing up our current park infrastructure, preserving it for the next generation. If we need a little philanthropic help, it's worth mentioning that Sol Price, a major San Diego philanthropist, went to San Diego High.
This is a problem that needs to be solved by a vote of a people. This would present a plan that should make everyone happy: preserving a high school, adding a connection to Balboa Park and providing funds for rejuvenating the park, adding public transit, and building a new high-tech employer in our downtown core.
Add this to the mix: the current lease on Balboa Stadium ends at the same time in 2024. The City Attorney has said that the stadium can stay. Imagine if we could get an MLS team in there too. If we could sell the Sports Arena site and build a new arena on the north side of the freeway, the sites the hottest part of downtown. If Powerhouse Canyon is also developed and linked to downtown, it could extend the downtown revitalization into Golden Hill.
This would quickly become every young tech worker's dream: a brand new corporate campus in a downtown location with the best weather in the country, adjacent to public transit and a historic park, and connected to the hippest residential neighborhood with an amazing protected bike lane. Also, what high school student wouldn't want to be at that school? I know I would want to be there.
If this worked, it would vastly improve our downtown with no cost to the taxpayer. I'm in.