‘Reimagining’ UTC

Planning Commission hears testimony on massive plan

Roughly five hours of testimony before the San Diego Planning Commission, May 22, made it clear that the proposed large-scale, long-term redevelopment of Westfield UTC’s shopping center calls for drastically reconfiguring the mall, which would dramatically impact traffic congestion, necessitating major road infrastructure improvement throughout the entire region.

No wonder, then, the Commission was unable to arrive at a consensus on whether to recommend approval to the City Council of a project of such magnitude, until ways are found to significantly mitigate all of its environmental, visual and traffic-circulation consequences.

Westfield’s vision for the first major revitalization of the UTC shopping center in more than two decades would add approximately 750,000 square feet of retail space for new and remodeled anchor stores, a state-of-the-art cinema and more than 150 new specialty shops and boutiques.

The “reimagined” mall would also add new public outdoor plazas, upgrade parking, provide a variety of residential opportunities - including a high-rise tower and affordable housing - and create a new regional transit center with a future link to the trolley. The project would also increase, by more than 18,000 average car trips per day, the amount of traffic going to and from the center.

As proposed, Westfield’s vision could represent an investment in excess of $900 million. If approved, it is estimated the redevelopment would take five years to complete. Westfield is also touting its “new UTC” as a national model for use of energy-sustainable practices, designs and materials.

At the May 22 meeting, the city Planning Commission opted to continue, until June, a vote on the project. Commissioners, however, attached a laundry list of conditions, which they expect project applicants to address before they return to have their project reconsidered.

Planning commissioners are being asked to sign off on a number of zoning changes on the nearly 76-acre project site, including an application to amend the University City Community Plan, rezoning to allow residential on site to accommodate between 250 and 725 multi-family units, approval for relocation and expansion of an existing public transit center, as well as approval of an Environmental Impact Report done for the large-scale redevelopment/renovation project.

Three representatives of Westfield gave a presentation detailing the particulars, as well as the alleged public benefits of the project.

“The revitalization plan is a project of the future that will not only provide a substantial economic boost to San Diego and the University City community,” said Westfield spokesman Jonathan Bradhurst, “but we claim it will become a nationally recognized model for environmentally responsible and sustainable land development in the 21st century. It will be environmentally sustainable in many ways, from housing through transit through the water supply and renewable energy.”

Renewable energy for the project is to include rooftop photovoltaic solar panels covering up to 10 acres on top of parking decks, generating enough energy for more than 1,000 homes.

“The new UTC will be a $900 million retail development that will not take one more square inch of land, or one more drop of drinking water,” added Bradhurst. “It will create a brand new transit hub in the community in a growing region.”

Westfield also plans a number of water reclamation efforts with its UTC redevelopment including:

  • Use of reclaimed water (instead of potable water) for irrigation, reducing fresh water consumption by half for the retail portion.
  • Use of indigenous, drought-resistant planting to minimize irrigation needs.
  • Installation of dual-flush toilets, waterless urinals and other water-conserving plumbing fixtures to increase water savings by 25 percent.

Project opponents argued UTC’s redevelopment would benefit shopping center developers, not the surrounding community; significantly add to already overwhelmed traffic circulation in the region; and act as a community plan buster for University City.
George Lattimer of University City Planning Group (UCPG) asked, if these extraordinary exceptions allowing huge deviations from the community plan are allowed for UTC, what’s to prevent other shopping centers in the area from following suit?

Planning commissioners, in their comments at the end of the hearing, noted project applicants had come far - but still had a significant way to go - in resolving the infrastructure and other problems that need to be addressed before they, in good conscience, can recommend approval of a redevelopment project with such extreme and sweeping regional environmental and circulation impacts.

Planning Commissioner Osutji said the success - or failure - of any redeveloped UTC shopping center will be predicated on whether or not area road infrastructure can be improved to accommodate greater traffic demand which the project will bring. “We seem to always put the cart before the horse,” he said. “What we’re doing (here) is putting the project before the infrastructure. At one time or another, you need to make the point that we need the infrastructure to support what we’re proposing, like this project.”

Planning Commissioner Gil Ontai didn’t like the high-rise housing proposal contained in UTC’s plans. He asked that project applicants return with a plan for disbursing the residential component throughout a larger area.

Commissioner Eric Nasland saw shortcomings in the transit center hub relocation/expansion component of the UTC redevelopment.

He said, as presently construed, the new transit hub would not efficiently convey riders into the heart of the shopping center.

New Planning Commissioner Golba didn’t feel applicants had gone far enough with their rooftop solar proposal. He challenged Westfield to come up with a plan to raise the bar in solar-power generation for their project.

All of the commissioners agreed that the range of 250 to 725 housing units for the residential portion of the UTC redevelopment project was far too great.