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USC Price students give a diverse San Diego neighborhood a redesign

An urban planning class tackled a dense area in need of a community revitalization

Cristy Lytalby Cristy Lytal

During the spring semester, Master of Planning (MPL) students from the USC Price School of Public Policy came up with ideas to improve the urban landscape in City Heights, one of San Diego’s densest and most diverse neighborhoods. The community is also home to a large population of refugees hailing from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Syria, Lebanon, Vietnam and other countries.

Taught by San Diego planning director William Fulton, the course challenged five teams of students to think about how to transform a main corridor in City Heights on behalf of their client Price Charities, which has focused its community revitalization efforts there since the 1980s.

“The students were a tremendously broad-ranging and skilled class,” said Fulton, professor of the practice of urban planning at USC Price. “I wanted them to not only come up with the game plan, but also show me the general designs of the buildings, do a market analysis to determine what the rents would be and run real estate pro formas on the projects so we could see how they were going to pay for everything. They managed to nail it and do a terrific job.”

Building a better neighborhood, by design

The corridor assigned to the students comprised the stretch of Fairmont Avenue from University Avenue to just north of El Cajon Boulevard.

“We want to take this corridor and create a nice place, a pleasant place that really gives residents an opportunity to improve their lives — and part of that can be done through architectural planning and redevelopment projects,” said Matthew Hervey from Price Charities Community Development. “We have this big canvas, and the students have the colors and the palette in order to be able to paint what that outcome should look like.”

Because Price Charities already owns much of the northern section of the corridor, the students approached it as a short-term redevelopment project. For the parcel north of El Cajon Boulevard, called the “East Block,” one student group proposed the construction of a “bazaar” where local artisans and entrepreneurs could make and sell goods ranging from ethnic food to art. To complement an adjacent YMCA, the group also included plans for retail such as a nutritional store or juice bar and market-rate housing.

On the “Third Block” of Fairmount Avenue between El Cajon Boulevard and Orange Avenue, another student group suggested a mixed-use development with retail, including a hardware store and a coffee shop as well as housing.

For the southern section, which consists of the “Second Block” and “Fourth Corner,” the student groups recommended a more long-term land assemblage and development strategy because Price Charities only owns scattered parcels. They suggested a consolidation of existing nonprofit services into one or two buildings, freeing up the rest of the space for retail or affordable housing mixed with open space.

“We want to take this corridor and create a nice place, a pleasant place that really gives residents an opportunity to improve their lives — and part of that can be done through architectural planning and redevelopment projects.”  Matthew Hervey, Price Charities Community Development

A fifth student group devoted its efforts to a comprehensive market analysis of the corridor to determine factors such as demographics, rents and retail leakages.

“We have a unique opportunity to do something that matters,” said MPL student Nicholas Busalacchi. “We have the ear of the city planning director, who’s the teacher, but we also have the ear of Price Charities and a number of nonprofits … there’s a very high probability that components of this will get adopted in some strategy down the road, so that’s valuable.”

In addition to offering value to City Heights and Price Charities, the project provided value to the students as they approach graduation and embark on their future careers.

“A lot of us want to work in the intersection of economic development and real estate development, and that’s exactly what this class is,” noted MPL student Andrew Odom.

Becky Modesto, director of university relations for Price Charities, said that there may be further opportunity for student collaboration through a summer internship at Price Charities.

“Last year, we had one of the students from the studio become an intern in the summer, and it would be wonderful if that could occur again,” she said. “We enjoy working with USC and the planning studio. It’s a great partnership.”

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