It was a question that I handled frequently last summer, regarding my meandering twenty mile journey to work every day.
“Seriously, you’ve never heard of the San Diego River Park ?! “ I would exclaim passionately.
Stretching from the western end of El Capitan Reservoir to the Pacific Ocean just south of Mission Bay, the river area is filled with traditional Spanish architecture overlooking on goers in its austerity to egrets snapping up fish at the estuary, it’s easy to find beauty and something magical on the river park. I would describe the park majestically, describing the historic missions, green valleys, and art space (take a look for yourself). However, the reality is vastly different from the picture I painted. Highlighting the best aspects of the park, I tended to downplay the poorly lit areas and nice hideaways giving the park a very lived-in aesthetic by the local homeless community. I neglected to mention that even though my origin and destination were basically alongside the river, I still spent almost half of my journey on bike lanes, forgetting the river even exists, cyclists are transported to commercial areas where shopping reins supreme and Interstate-8 (I-8) feeds the car dominant aesthetic
Taking a backseat to the beaches and to Balboa Park, the river park used to make headlines from sewage leaks and environmental cases, not as a park but as a means of pollutant collection. However small of a presence the river park has, it’s neighbors are widely known and attended (i.e. the Pechanga Arena for a concert, SDSU stadium, and SeaWorld) It is amazing how many destinations are adjacent to this river (the SDSU stadium is right on the river!), and yet most of my friends still did not know of its existence.
The Current State of the RIver Park Represents Its Place in the Community: An Afterthought
Poorly maintained asphalt strips, graffiti and trash line the park in stretches. The ocean estuary view quickly gives way to the humming of vehicles and labyrinth of entry and exit ramps. Construction laden areas, freeways and the upcoming trolley-line bridge extension serve as a constant reminder that infrastructure investments prioritize the person in an automobile, not being made for people of “my kind”. I dive into my music to avoid the hum of the adjacent highways, soaking up the scenic riverside view, lasting a short while then succumbing to a bike lane immediately adjacent to I-8. For four months, I used the river park as my main form of commuting. Weighing the most scenic route and ease of use given the consistent barriers present (pathways dead ending to sidewalks, metal pedestrian barriers blocking my exit onto the bike lane, long waits at intersections to safely cross the ped signal, dodging homeless people on the trails) it seems as if this pathway was planned to make someone’s commute across Mission Valley more difficult.
Eventually I found the route with the least perceived nuisances, finding the optimal passageways to quickly avoid traffic, make myself seen through the light-controlled intersections, and keep from sitting at lights. Just adjacent to the freeway, I routinely looked to my side and see people frantically getting to their early morning meeting. Noticing that bikers and pedestrians were the least of their worries, I became adept at finding my way around these road pests, trying to not breathe in their killing vehicle fumes. I was constantly trying to escape the urban blight to remain closer to the river, immersing myself in nature, and away from messy conflict points at intersections. These exact reasons are what prompted “complete streets” policy initiatives and have tried to switch the engineering mindset for simply moving vehicles, but marrying land development and the movement of “person-trips.”
Our work was located on the banks of the river. However, you would have no idea of its whereabouts, the site design and adjacent areas made the river appear as an afterthought (or just a big stormwater drain).
When development began in the 1940s and largely replaced the dairy farms in Mission Valley in the 1960s, lots of commercial development, hotels, and even the San Diego Padres (then a minor league team) began occupying Mission Valley. However, these developments came at a cost to the river, no longer housing scores of Native Americans, the river became the site for leaking fuel tank farms, the largest sewer spill in California’s history and hotel sites. The impervious cover in the form of surface-street parking, and the adjacent industrial uses became the new neighbors for the river.
Rendering (from Schmidt Design Group) of the river park where the current SDSU stadium is located (found here).
Update: The San Diego River is Not An Afterthought Anymore
Thanks to advocacy groups like the San Diego River Park Foundation, the river has been seen as more of an asset to the region and less the confluence of debris and waste that it can carry. In 2003, the City of San Diego kicked-off a study to develop a master plan for the river and a plan has since been approved by the City of San Diego commission in 2013.
The current master plan calls for an almost 18 mile connected pathway for cyclist and river enthusiasts as well as plants and animals. Citing the river as Mission Valley’s best natural asset, their planning document approved in September 2019 calls on developers to plan with the river as a focal point, provide increased cycling facilities and to prioritize active transportation facilities. This will be essential for preventing traffic on roadways as an additional 50,000 residents will be expected within the next thirty years. (San Diego Tribune).
Principle 2 of the master plan calls for unifying fragmented lands, but doesn't call for unifying a fragmented trail system. (visual from the City of San Diego adopted plan in 2013)
If San Diego is going to crack the top 10, let alone top 50 biking cities in America, it will require the San Diego River as a REGIONAL focal point, with active transportation connections as well as connecting to public transportation.
The Current Master Plans for Mission Valley and the San Diego RIver Park are ambitious and forward thinking, but here’s why it is not enough
Utilizing the river as a thoroughfare for downtown citizens and tourists from Balboa Park to the beaches could relieve pinch points into those crowded beach towns with an already limited amount of parking. The planning document even highlights one of the missing links enabling a more successful long range river plan, a connected and protected cycle system:
“The proposed San Diego River Park does not exist in isolation. It will be an important piece of a regional system of trails, parks and open spaces serving the San Diego region. Its relationships with and connections to existing facilities can greatly enhance its functioning." -San Diego River Master Plan
So how can the San Diego River Park become more than just a facility utilized by the homeless and 230 people a day? (traffic counts - SANDAG). How can the river park become a San Diego destination, as well as serve commuters, create more active transportation interlocal traffic and provide sustainable alternatives to driving? This will require its citizens to become more aware of its existence and give them a reason to return to the river, all of which has been done successfully across the US (something similar to the Waterloo Greenway Creek Annual Show). Utilizing activation areas for community engagement, showcasing local art, "grammable" experiences, and pulling best practices from the Atlanta Beltline as well as the Waller Creek plan and engagement (Austin, TX) will create more supporters for this project, helping to enable ambitious active transportation projects that are being met with opposition currently.
The concept project, The San Diego Riverline will provide protected bicycle connections from Balboa to the beach and will feature the river as a focal point. It will provide added active transportation facilities surrounding the San Diego River to provide a safer means of conveyance for cyclists and people. Utilizing Sea World, Pechanga arena, the redeveloped golf course and the SDSU stadium as activation centers, we will explore how the citizens and land owners of San Diego can support the river. Taking a closer look at the Mission Valley master plan, we will look at designing a city-wide network to compliment those facilities. Pulling best practices from premier projects such as a the Highline and the Beltline and create a profound connected bike network in addition to offering added walking and transit capabilities to enhance the quality of life for San Diegans.
So my mode choice last summer has prompted more than just volunteer time with the River Park RAFT (River Assessment Field Team - documenting homeless encampment and debris activity along the river) team, it fueled my desire as an urban planner to create more engagement with this river. Seeing the history of the Missions and the Spanish architecture and the wildlife on the estuary is what made my mode choice my most enjoyable part of my day. I am writing this so more people within San Diego can enjoy the wonders with which this river has to offer.