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Commission approves revamp of UTC mall

Saying the potential tax, job and other benefits outweigh traffic impacts, the city Planning Commission voted 5-1, with one member absent, June 12 to recommend to the City Council that they approve Westfield UTC’s scaled-back plan to reconfigure the regional mall. The plan will add 610,000 to 750,000 square feet of retail space to the mall’s current 1 million-plus square feet.

Australia-based, international mall owner Westfield Group plans to spend $900 million to turn the “new UTC” into a mixed-use project that will include a mass-transit center connected to a trolley extension planned for 2015, public outdoor plazas, upgraded parking and a variety of residential opportunities including a high-rise tower and affordable housing.

Developers originally proposed 250 to 725 multi-family units on the nearly 76-acre mall site, but trimmed that number back to 250 to 300 housing units after planning commissioners balked at the scale of their proposal. Developers additionally agreed to spread the housing units out over a larger area of the project site, as recommended by planning commissioners.

The “new UTC” calls for new and remodeled anchor stores, a state-of-the-art cinema and more than 150 new specialty shops and boutiques. It would be the first major revitalization of the shopping center in more than two decades. A crucial component of the reconfigured mall is a substantial “green” element to turn the project into a model for sustainable environmental development. It will include use of photovoltaic solar cells on roofs and irrigation of landscaping with reclaimed water.

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Speaking on behalf of the University City Planning Group, George W. Lattimer, an office building owner in the area and a member of the advisory group since the early ‘80s, testified that community planners remain adamantly opposed to Westfield’s mall expansion proposal, as presently construed.

“The big issues are traffic, the precedent and the overriding considerations (benefits) offered by developers in exchange for the unmitigible impacts (traffic and environmental),” said Lattimer.

Lattimer argued it would be better to take the 18,000 projected average daily trips UTC mall’s retrofit would add to the area, and use those instead for scientific research or corporate or office development, rather than retail.

Lattimer also contested Westfield’s figures for how much its redeveloped mall would benefit the local economy. “Most economic benefits are overstated,” he said. “Institutional science research and professional businesses existing in UC, they are the economic engines of San Diego’s future. Make Westfield adhere to the adopted community plan, as has UCSD, Scripps, Qualcomm, etc.”

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New planning commissioner Tim Golba, a La Jollan, moved that the UTC mall project be approved. “I would like to congratulate the applicant on their sustainability factor,” said Golba. “You could have done a little token effort, but you chose not to.”

“What you’ve got now is a suburban mall surrounded by parking,” Golba said. “We need to bring it up to 2008, going from the old school suburban shopping mall to an urban, thriving mixed-use use concept that will really start to give some life to it.”

Commissioner Gil Ontai noted the new UTC will be an opportunity to enhance the cultural experience of the region, as well as provide more jobs. Ontai questioned Westfield reps about the number of jobs the revitalized shopping center would create. They told him it would add 4,000 jobs when completed, and 8,000 jobs during the construction phase.

Commissioner Eric Nasland joined the majority on the commission in supporting the UTC mall project. “It is important we reinvent this mall,” he said. “I very much support this idea of mixed-use with housing to transform the community into something that is both urban and urbane. It is important we acknowledge that the transformation of this mall is the making of a true urban village.”