Riverwalk San Diego: From Golf Course to Mixed-Use Development

Winter 2020/2021 Issue
By: Jennifer Whitelaw
A new light-rail station will sit at the heart of Riverwalk San Diego, a $3 billion, 200-acre transit-oriented development. Rendering by MVE + Partners, Inc., courtesy of Hines

A transit-oriented project aims to create a village in the center of the city.

Riverwalk San Diego, a $3 billion, 200-acre transit-oriented village that received unanimous approval from the San Diego City Council in November and will break ground in the second half of 2021, represents a shift in the city’s regional planning and development away from car-oriented developments dominated by single-family homes. Hines, which will build the project over the next decade, will provide a mix of park space, 4,300 multifamily units, 150,000 square feet of retail and one million square feet of office space that capitalizes on San Diego’s indoor/outdoor lifestyle.

In addition to being San Diego’s first transit-oriented village, Riverwalk also represents a rethinking of land-use policy. The large site is currently an underused golf course in a centrally located area that could accommodate increased residential and office uses.

(Development first explored converting golf courses to other uses in an article from the Summer 2019 issue, “Tee-Commerce: Acing the Golf-Course Conversion.”)

Converting the existing Riverwalk golf course into a mixed-use, transit-oriented village is simpler than other golf course conversions. The land has always been planned for redevelopment, and unlike many golf courses that are woven into the design of master-planned neighborhoods, Riverwalk is a standalone, 27-hole course, allowing for a gradual closing as the neighborhood develops. Initially, a nine-hole course will be shuttered, leaving an 18-hole championship course operational for the early phases of the project. Eventually, the entire course will close to make way for the neighborhood and park areas.

Envisioning Transit as a Front-Door Experience

The city of San Diego, with the input of stakeholders, has addressed sustainable growth by increasing the number of places where transportation, housing and employment intersect. Riverwalk will accelerate this trend by creating an activated light-rail station that will be the center of this urban infill project.

Transit stops often seem like afterthoughts, and many lack connectivity with the surrounding environment. Hines will use this new light-rail station as a front door to the Riverwalk village. The platform and station will be integrated into a European-style town square surrounded with office space, retail and cafés.

Hines’ vision for Riverwalk is in line with San Diego’s Climate Action Plan to cut all greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2035. The plan includes strategies that will increase bicycling, walking and mass transit. The light-rail station, which sits along the Metropolitan Transit Service’s (MTS) Green Line, is just one component of the sustainability and circulation strategy at Riverwalk.

The light-rail station will be positioned amid 4,300 planned multifamily homes, 430 of which will be designated as affordable.

“With the upcoming completion of the San Diego Trolley’s mid-coast trolley extension, riders using the Riverwalk trolley stop will have less than a 20-minute commute to most major employment centers,” said Hines Managing Director Eric Hepfer.

Riverwalk is also close to eight MTS bus lines. The ability to find affordable housing with transit access to major business centers without the expense of maintaining a car helped guide Hines’ planning process. With a million square feet of office space planned at Riverwalk, some residents may be able to walk or bike to work.

Considering San Diego’s ideal weather, Hines will further diversify the circulation mix at Riverwalk with more than six miles of pedestrian and bicycle paths, trails and lanes. Bicyclists will also have access to repair stations and rest areas, as well as showers and lockers in the employment and retail areas. 

Riverwalk’s circulation features will help meet the goals of San Diego’s Mission Valley Community Plan Update, which was adopted in September 2019. It calls for pedestrian- and bike-friendly mixed-use development in this urbanized area in the center of San Diego, as well as better use of public transit.

Walkability, Recreation and Conservation

Hines will open up more than 100 acres of outdoor space at Riverwalk to the community, including an 80-acre public park, and rehabilitate a large portion of the San Diego River, which runs through the project. River restoration is another goal included in the Mission Valley Community Plan Update.

“Riverwalk’s park, which runs along the river, will be the largest recreation area accessible by light rail in San Diego and provides us the perfect opportunity to include extensive pedestrian paths,” said Riverwalk Project Manager Pete Shearer

As part of the river restoration work, Hines will extend a segment of the San Diego River Trail through the park, furthering the community’s vision of a 17-mile, contiguous bike and walking path from the beach to the mountains. Additional walking trails will thread through the Riverwalk village.

Hines will also clear the river of invasive plant species and restore areas of concrete river bottom to natural materials. Hines plans to create a mitigation bank surrounding the river, which also helps finance this portion of the project through the creation of saleable wetland credits that can be purchased by other developers to offset their environmental impacts. The mitigation bank will be done in partnership with a habitat management company, which ensures that a high-quality habitat will be created and maintained in perpetuity.

Hines partnered with the landowners, the Levi-Cushman family, to develop the land with a joint venture designed for long-term ownership. 

“Both the family and Hines felt it was important to engage the surrounding community from the beginning of the planning process in order to create a sense of community ownership of the project,” Shearer said.

Community Engagement

Hines staff attended regular meetings of two nearby community planning groups for several years to remain accessible and informed. A Riverwalk project website offers citizens the opportunity to sign up for updates and learn more. Hines also operates social media platforms that provide information about Riverwalk and gather feedback from the community.  

Hines conducted numerous community meetings and incorporated many of the community’s requests into its Riverwalk plan. Creating an identifiable main street for Riverwalk and including neighborhood-serving retail are two project components that materialized from community suggestions.

Another feature of the plan that has community appeal is Hines’ commitment to elevate a frontage road that is prone to flooding. Hines was able to engineer a solution that increased flood capacity while also enhancing the habitat of the San Diego River.

Pandemic Implications

When the pandemic struck, Hines was working on finalizing the environmental impact report (EIR), development agreement and approvals from the City of San Diego. Thanks to a strong working relationship with the city, Hines has not experienced delays in the entitlement process for Riverwalk during the pandemic.

“The lack of delays is a testament to San Diego’s dedication to solving the ongoing housing crisis and strong leadership that adapted processes quickly in response to pandemic-related restrictions,” said Hepfer.

A large, in-person presentation planned for the release of the Riverwalk EIR required Hines to pivot due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Riverwalk team moved quickly to establish an online platform and presentation.

Building designs are still conceptual, which gives Hines the opportunity to create specific designs that respond to changes resulting from the pandemic. The Riverwalk village plan provides plenty of open space and outdoor amenities, which have gained popularity during the pandemic.

Additionally, Hines is monitoring emerging trends in design and technology to maximize wellness and safety at the Riverwalk village. Hines’ corporate office maintains an Office of Innovation to focus on the intersection of technology and real estate and has a partnership with the Mayo Clinic + Well Living Lab to understand how indoor environments can improve human health and well-being.

Jennifer Whitelaw is a senior consultant with TW2 Marketing in San Diego.