"Your feet, taking one step at a time at a studiously slow pace, know the land better than the heads of any elected officials. Insert into those heads what your feet know." – Harvey Manning
By Tommy Hough
If you've been to the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, if you've felt the breeze on your face and seen the expansive views from the mesa tops, you can understand why someone would want to build something there. Even an office park. That desirability is, in part, why the city wisely made the area off limits to development, and instead made it part of its natural preserve system.
That preservation is something the city of San Diego should be proud of. That someone had the humility to say no. That someone had the humility to say the wildflowers bloom and the winds blow and the birds sing here. Any time humanity is capable of putting the brakes on development, of pouring less concrete, less asphalt, from adding more rebar into this world, the nervous systems of all living things win.
So while I'm dismayed at the volume of development that continues along the south side of State Route 56, I'm particularly unhappy with the council's vote to approve the construction of a 420,000 square foot office park on an inward facing "notch" surrounded on three sides by city and state land of the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, much further to the south than any of the other development that has regrettably occurred along the south side of the 56.
Cisterra Development bought this 11-acre parcel on the east side of the preserve from the Catholic church. It was never intended or envisioned to be an employment center. A visit to the site will impress upon anyone why this development is in the entirely wrong place. With a little bit of leadership and foresight, this area could have been incorporated into the city's mitigation matrix in its current state. Now, it will be flattened by bulldozers and earth movers.
In between wild, rudderless claims from opponents that made it sound as though our coalition was made up of gated community fanatics opposing an affordable housing proposal, proponents of the project noted that it is not being built on the preserve itself. But only a fool would deny that the construction alongside the preserve, and the daily volume of thousands of cars going in and out of the area, will not have a detrimental effect on the preserve. It certainly does not compliment the site, or the area.
This project will result in a loss of habitat that will directly affect the preserve and its role as a wildlife corridor, enable an increase in invasive species, and further "bite" into the vanishing wildlands in our city. The construction and daily use of multi-story structures, including a five-story parking garage, is no match for a few trees serving as "natural barriers" between it and the preserve. The very proposal of this office park is an affront to reasonable obligations of stewardship. It is needless.
Yes, the view from the office park will be tremendous – a view of preserved, public land. The location and proximity to preserved public land, in fact, is what will give this office park its "added value." But consider the view from within the preserve, or to wildlife having more obstacles to navigate to access what is becoming an even more isolated island of conservation.
And allow me to add an additional consideration for those who may feel the only thing affected by the project's approval is the "notch" surrounded by conservation lands, instead of the preserve itself: The preserve is already being impacted by surrounding development, and like all islands of conservation, is experiencing death by many thousands of cuts.
If you go to into the canyon of the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, you can look right up to the mesa where this office park will be built. Within the canyon itself, you're in some of the oldest surviving coastal woodlands remaining in our city. The tangle is thick and remarkable. It feels primeval. Humans are only visitors here.
At the base of the canyon is a creekbed. If you go there, even today, it is likely flowing. And while flowing water in a place as notoriously dry as San Diego is typically welcome, the water flowing there today isn't natural drainage from a spring or snowmelt in higher elevations, but runoff from the watering of yards. Runoff from other office developments. It is, in fact, an artificial creek of treated water running through one of the wildest remaining areas in the city, carrying with it chemicals, toxins, detergents, bug and rodent repellants, fertilizers, and poisons, all through a largely pristine site. That's a shame. And that has an effect.
And this office park won't be the punctuation mark at the end of the sentence. It's the beginning of more bites into these wildlands, like the Meridian office project, and Merge 56, which at least has the passable benefit of being "mixed use."
Everyone agrees we have a housing crisis in this city. I spoke about this crisis non-stop on my campaign for District 6 last year. If there are ways to add to our housing stock in sensible places so people who work for a living can afford a home, in which developers work at the public's discretion, and which won't be lost to short term vacation rentals (STVRs) in the process, environmentalists like me will applaud it. We'll support it. We'll help get the project labor agreements, or PLAs, to build it.
But this isn't even about housing. It's office space. As others testified on Monday, we have an abundance of brand new, vacant office space along the 56 corridor, and even more vacant, but perhaps less sexy office space in Kearny Mesa and Miramar. At those locales, the concrete has already been poured within our current development footprint. The roads, water, sewer lines and electricity are all there.
As I said before council in my testimony, voting against this should not have been a difficult decision. The area along the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, where Cisterra's cruelly-named "Preserve at Torrey Highlands" will be built, was not only never intended as an employment center, but was considered so critical for mitigation that even the 56 freeway was routed around it in the early 2000s. No one was going to be put out if a project of this size along a city-owned preserve wasn't approved. In fact, it turns out the Sierra Club had been communicating with the developer about another potential area for the site at the Rose Canyon Operations Yard on Morena Blvd.
But apparently, that option would've been just too hard for the developer, though they admitted they were "intrigued." It would've taken too much time. It wasn't worth the cost of doing business to do the painful work with the city, or anyone else, to get it right. Instead of building an office park in an area that would've been a clear asset by being near the new Balboa Ave. station for the San Diego Trolley, along an established business corridor, and out of a wildfire zone, Cisterra opted to make no one happy by ignoring the opposition of neighbors and the more than justified environmental concerns.
Some developers may balk at the idea of being dictated to over the concerns I've listed. They may balk – and then they may then know how the rest of us feel when being dictated to by them. I said throughout my campaign we need the expertise and capability of developers. They need a seat at the table. But we, the citizenry, must wrest control of our of future, and our city, from the hands of developers who have run the table on this town for decades, and who will shapeshift into whatever form they need in order to work with whatever the prevailing civic trends are.
I applaud Council President Georgette Gómez (D-9), Council President Pro Tem Barbara Bry (D-1), and Councilmember Monica Montgomery (D-4) for having the courage to vote against this project. They should be praised for doing so, and they should be abundantly thanked. Please take a moment to extend your thanks to them.
So now the developer's "preserve" will be built at the people's preserve, with the size and scope of a small airport – an obscene affront in the face of one of the city's most revered conservation areas.
Where humility once reigned and someone once had the foresight to say no, when there was an opportunity to consider building the project somewhere else, the Orwellian "Preserve at Torrey Highlands" will be a legacy of this council. Looming over the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, it will stand as a monument to business as usual, bad planning, bad decision-making, bad faith, smashed coalitions, a dismissal of the obligation of stewardship, and a willingness to desecrate what those before us worked so hard to preserve.
It will be another San Diego environmental cautionary tale, all the more bitter in the face of the 6-3 Democratic majority on city council that approved it. It will be something we look at, 10 or 20 years from now, and shake our heads at in disgust.
Tommy Hough is the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He and his wife live in Mira Mesa.
A San Diego broadcast and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He ran as the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in 2018.