By Jennifer Van Grove
After decades of starts and stops, the Riverwalk Golf Club in Mission Valley is now set for its second act as a potential model for suburban living, where the trolley drops off thousands of San Diegans at the doorstep of jobs, shops, parks and homes.
Tuesday, City Council members voted unanimously to approve the Riverwalk project, a 195-acre, mixed-use development from Houston-based real estate investment group Hines and the Levi-Cushman family. With the vote, the project, which includes the addition of a light-rail station on San Diego’s existing green trolley line, is now on track to break ground in the second quarter of 2021 at an estimated cost of $3 billion.
“This project, in one iteration or another, has been coming through this office since I got here back in 2012. It’s been a long time coming,” said Councilman Scott Sherman, who represents the Mission Valley region. “To me, this is an example of the smart-growth philosophy that we’ve been preaching about for quite some time.”
At build-out in 2035, Riverwalk will introduce up to 4,300 apartments and condos, 152,000 square feet of retail shops and 1 million square feet of office space, with uses split between four districts and bisected by the trolley line and a downtown-style main street.
The site plan is meant as the perfect complement to an all-new, $10 million transit station, built entirely at the developer’s expense, as well as the surrounding natural environment. The project calls for 97 acres of parks, open space and trails, with bikeways and pedestrian walkways that follow the project’s portion of the San Diego River Pathway.
The latest version of the development at 1150 Fashion Valley Road has been in the works since 2017 — with other renditions contemplated since 1987 — when Hines teamed with landowner the Levi-Cushman family. It’s anticipated to be constructed in three, five-year phases starting with more than 1,900 multifamily homes, most of the community retail space and neighborhood parks.
“We want to create a sense of place in western Mission Valley and create a new neighborhood that feels authentically San Diego,” Eric Hepfer, a director with Hines, told council members. “And we want to do that while being respectful of our neighbors.”
To the latter point, Hines recently hashed out its differences with the neighboring Linda Vista community group. The developer last week agreed to revise building heights and setbacks in some areas, as well as to reserve the project’s 430 subsidized units for people making up to 65 percent of the area’s average median income. The concessions, which were incorporated into the council’s approvals, were applauded by Council President Georgette Gómez. She also commended Hines for its ability to secure the support of labor groups and work with the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System on the transit station.
Hines is also on the hook for an estimated $75 million in community benefits, as negotiated by the city in the project’s associated development agreement. The legally binding contract includes the trolley stop, more than double the required amount of parkland, $750,000 in annual park maintenance and a river crossing on Fashion Valley Road.
With its commitments, Hines received the backing of several environmental and business groups, including Circulate San Diego, the San Diego River Park Foundation and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Still, a few public speakers dialed into the virtual meeting to oppose Riverwalk.
“The developer of this project is asking the City Council to make some unvetted assumptions about the needs of the community. They’re also not taking into account the results of the pandemic,” said Stacey Studebaker, who identified herself as a resident of west Mission Valley. “Our needs as a community have changed drastically. We don’t need the office space. We don’t need the high market-rate housing. We don’t need the retail space. And we certainly don’t need the added traffic along the already-congested Friars Road.”
Whereas traffic proved a near-sticking point with San Diego Planning Commissioners at last month’s hearing, City Council members did not take up the issue or call into question anything in Riverwalk’s environmental analysis. The state-required report, which the council voted to certify, concluded that the project doesn’t require traffic mitigation. That means the city, and not the developer, will be responsible for completing a long-desired, north-south connection from Friars Road across the river to Hotel Circle North or Interstate 8.