Major Campus Project Near Stadium Signals Key Development Struggle Across the US West

San Diego Officials Wrestle With Traffic Concerns, Mirroring Other Cities


Plans for San Diego State University's new western campus include office, retail, apartment, hotel and civic elements, along with a new stadium. (SDSU, Carrier Johnson + Culture)
Plans for San Diego State University’s new western campus include office, retail, apartment, hotel and civic elements, along with a new stadium. (SDSU, Carrier Johnson + Culture)

San Diego State University officials are searching for ways to overcome one of the biggest obstacles to major redevelopments in city centers across the U.S. West: increased car traffic.

The university is planning a much-needed new western campus on 130 acres at the site of the 52-year-old stadium that formerly housed the National Football League’s Chargers team in what is considered the geographic center of San Diego, a neighborhood called Mission Valley. The area is already known as one of the city’s most traffic-congested and nonwalkable neighborhoods, with many deeming its busiest streets dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists.

But the project, which calls for a new $250 million college stadium as well as new offices, classrooms, apartments, stores and restaurants, hotels and a long-sought community river park, is expected to generate an additional 45,174 car trips each weekday when it is fully built out in 2037, according to a draft environmental impact report. The campus is expected to be completed in several phases after the university and city agree on a price for the land, a negotiation for which is in progress.

“This is the largest developable piece of city-owned land remaining in San Diego, and it’s very valuable, so it’s important that the city gets what it’s worth,” said Gary London, senior principal with real estate consulting firm London Moeder Advisors in San Diego, noting the city is expected to bear many of the long-term public-service costs that will come with increased development in the already busy enclave.

The need for traffic mitigation, as SDSU outgrows its current main campus amid rising enrollment and looks to expand, reflects a larger development-related issue facing many growing cities in the Western United States, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

Unlike many major East Coast and Midwest hubs, most of the nation’s western cities came of age well after the rise of cars and the interstate highway system. As a result, the adoption of mass-transit such as subways is often lukewarm and their transportation lifelines are steeped in car culture, which has enabled development to sprawl into the suburbs for the past several decades, boosting commute times in the process.

Building large projects in city centers that draw in more visitors or residents, who largely travel by car, inevitably increases traffic in many locations that are already plagued by congestion. Cities in the U.S. West accounted for eight of the top 25 most traffic-clogged cities in the country, according to a 2017 ranking by traffic analytics firm INRIX.

As development grows, traffic problems have already spurred cities and developers to push for solutions. Some are looking to more self-contained mixed-use developments with the potential to reduce car trips by putting work, commercial and housing elements on the same property. Other cities require developers to widen roads or add bike or walking infrastructure. San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle are among cities considering the idea of congestion-based pricing, essentially putting a toll on the use of some roadways during peak rush hours, a concept that’s already set to take effect next year in New York City.

San Diego’s Mission Valley was once rolling hills containing dairy farms, but over the past six decades, with the development of the local freeway system, it grew to become one of the city’s most built-out areas for retail malls, hotels, offices and apartments. The neighborhood has several trolley stops but basically just one main roadway, Friars Road, that handles the bulk of its heavy east-west surface vehicle traffic.

New Plan Sought

City planners are aiming to address traffic and other problems with an update of Mission Valley’s community plan, which hasn’t been significantly revised in three decades, and there are several mixed-used projects either underway or in planning in the neighborhood. What’s developed at the stadium site will play a major role in shaping that enclave’s future while dealing with its chronic growth-related problems.

SDSU officials have scheduled public meetings, with the first taking place Sept. 12 and 24, to discuss traffic effects, project plans and the preliminary draft impact report, which was recently released for its required 60-day public review.

In a statement, university Associate Vice President Gina Jacobs, who is overseeing planning for the western campus, said several mitigation efforts are being planned well ahead of any construction. Jacobs said those efforts include road improvements and enhanced pedestrian and bicycle facilities.

San Diego State University has long been outgrowing its main campus off Interstate 8 amid rising enrollment. SDSU backers last fall garnered city voters’ approval for plans that call for the university to negotiate with the city to purchase 130 acres within a larger 230-acre site in Mission Valley to build a new western campus for the university. It must receive approvals from the California State University Board of Trustees, as well as the city, before construction can begin – possibly late next year – starting with the stadium and river park.

Plans call for eventually replacing the former NFL stadium with a new 35,000-seat stadium for college football and other special events, to be joined eventually by 4,600 residential units, 1.5 million square feet of office and lab space, 95,000 square feet of retail and restaurants and 400 hotel rooms. Portions of the site not containing buildings will be devoted to the public river park spanning about 75 acres, with bike paths, walking trails, recreation spaces and other open-space amenities.

The new stadium would be built on a different part of the site than the one currently housing the former NFL stadium, vacated by the Chargers when the team left for Los Angeles in 2017, which is still being used for college football games and other events. The old stadium would be torn down after the new one is completed.

Local real estate consultant London foresees at least one major challenges in integrating a large mixed-use development: The stadium site not only sits near the busy interchange where Interstate 15 meets Interstate 8, but is also isolated from most of Mission Valley’s heaviest commercial and residential development to the west off Friars Road.

“In that eastern part of Mission Valley, the stadium site is sort of like an island – there’s nothing around it,” said London.

The old stadium essentially sits alone in the middle of a massive parking lot that takes up most of the current site. On game days, it has the potential to significantly fill the neighborhood’s already crowded roads with even more traffic. That’s a situation that would likely be made worse once the SDSU facilities and adjacent commercial elements are all up and running in the next two decades, unless mitigation measures are taken in these early planning stages.

SDSU officials have proposed a “transportation demand management” program aimed at finding alternative transportation options that might help minimize car trips to and from the new campus, including getting more people to use the existing trolley station adjacent to the stadium site.

Road Changes

Other improvements identified in the draft impact report include new traffic signals, the addition of turn lanes, road restriping and other traffic signal coordination projects. Also planned is a new road connecting the western side of the project to the nearby Fenton Parkway, and a new connection to Rancho Mission Road under the Interstate 15 freeway.

“SDSU will pay 100% of the costs of those road improvements to be built as part of the project, and will contribute its fair share toward the cost of other improvements to city roads identified in the draft EIR to mitigate the project’s impacts,” Jacobs said.

Students and staff will be very likely to use the existing trolley system to travel between the main campus off Interstate 8 and the new Mission Valley campus. However, London said it remains to be seen if the project can significantly reduce road traffic by increasing regional use of the trolley and other mass transit, which has generally seen stubbornly slow growth in usage by San Diego residents over the past decade.

City officials are currently not commenting on planning or other matters related to purchase negotiations with the university for its acquisition of the city-owned land targeted for the new western campus.

Cary Lowe, a San Diego land-use attorney and board member for local non-profit planning advocacy organization Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, said that group and others would like to see more regular communication and transparency with the public regarding those ongoing talks.

Those purchase negotiations will decide, for instance, the responsibility of both sides to see to fruition the long-sought river park, deemed a necessary civic amenity but also something that could become a significant tourist draw. There is also the question about how the stadium project will integrate with other planned developments and other long-term changes being considered for the overall Mission Valley community plan.

“There are so many things that need to be addressed that go beyond just what gets built on that property,” Lowe said. “There needs to be attention to what can be done that’s going to help citywide, or at least that will help Mission Valley.”

Lowe said he’s not expecting any final plans for the site to be approved until at least early 2020. The final project that comes out of SDSU’s planning in coming months, he said, could contain more needed affordable housing than what’s currently on the drawing board. Or it could contain more or fewer commercial elements, or a different mix of university-focused facilities.

“Most big projects evolve – what you started with isn’t what you end up with,” Lowe said. “I’m sure this SDSU project will also evolve.”