Is San Diego America’s finest city?

San Diego calls itself “America’s Finest City.” That’s quite a claim. Yet somehow it seems to fly juuust under the radar. San Diego’s sun, zoo, Navy, chicken, and iconic hotel are known by many, but what about the city?

San Diego’s streets can seem very Seattle-like except the tree species.

I visited recently for a closer look. The verdict: Go there. San Diego is impressive from a tourist and urbanist city-loving perspective.

The Gaslamp Quarter might be the best downtown restaurant district on the West Coast. Picture a mix of historic and new, with eight blocks of restaurants and bars along Fifth Avenue overflowing to other streets. It feels like the real core of Downtown. The all-ages crowd mixes locals and visitors. Nightclubs and restaurants boom bass out their open windows (consider this when choosing a hotel), interspersed with quieter places and takeout of many cuisines. The open windows lend a summer resort feel even in the winter. Try Sushi Lounge on Market and get the salmon poke.

San Diego’s corporate presence is relatively small, a standard local worry. It’s also not concentrated Downtown. The real office core is 10 miles north in La Jolla, with the country’s #3 biotech cluster (some say), techs like Qualcomm (unless it’s taken over!), and UC San Diego. This means Downtown can focus more on housing, tourism, and nightlife. This is an interesting contrast to Seattle’s huge office CBD which pushes other uses to its fringes. It’s nice from a tourist perspective, but probably not so nice if you want to walk or ride transit to the office. Downtown San Diego has been adding quite a bit of housing, probably for the lifestyle more than to serve the Downtown workforce.

This ravine has a semi-wooded trail at the bottom.

New residential towers on the Downtown fringe.

San Diego overall is denser than you might think, sort of like central LA or Seattle – lots of bungalows, plus a surprising amount of multifamily. There’s lots of infill, with that great West Coast trait of trying to use land as efficiently as possible (because it’s expensive). Vacant lots are rare, aside from parking lots around the Downtown fringes that have been going away quickly. Steep hillsides and ravines woven throughout the city provide a mix of built and natural areas.

Retail in centralized neighborhoods tends to be in familiar walkable corridors like University Avenue (sort of like our 45th, with stretches of activity) or small walkable nodes. The most visible difference might be the palm trees. It’s worth a long walk.

San Diego’s low transit usage is therefore surprising. Just 3.9% of in-city residents used transit for commutes per the Census Department 2012-2016 survey, and just 3.1% walked. That’s despite the weather and some rail transit. Seattle (albeit with a smaller city limit) was 20.8% and 10.1%. The gap has apparently been getting wider since then as San Diego’s mode splits have worsened and Seattle’s have gotten better. One reason: our jobs and big university are centralized.

Another reason is very high parking requirements for new buildings. With some exceptions, even studios require 1.25 parking spaces per unit, and a two-bedroom requires two spaces! That’s a huge cost to renters. It’s also encouragement for people to have cars and use them, versus Seattle where parking is often separate. As a result, San Diego’s infill seems to be about large sites that can fit parking and fewer but larger units. The Seattle resident who pays $1,000 for a micro would probably need a roommate in San Diego. San Diego’s home prices are similar to Seattle’s despite the lack of a corporate job base, and despite an apparently-mellower form of California empowered nimbyism.

Why is the job base lacking? Airline service is one obvious factor. San Diego International has a single, short runway hemmed in by North San Diego Bay. It’s very close in, with the glide path spectacularly (if noisily) a half-mile north of Downtown. Passenger counts are less than half of Sea-Tac’s. Tijuana Airport allows you to walk over the border to routes mostly within Mexico, but its numbers aren’t huge. A long-term solution isn’t imminent. Some hope it involves an existing military airport at Miramar or Camp Pendleton.

A ferry to Coronado Island is a nice trip. The terminal is Downtown next to the USS Midway aircraft carrier. It’s a slow boat but a quick ride. The view is fantastic. You end up near a business district with several restaurants (try Saiko Sushi). From there it’s a 25-minute walk to Hotel del Coronado on the ocean side with its beach and great architecture. When you get back to Downtown, tour the Midway.

Museums at Balboa Park

Balboa Park is an easy walk from Downtown. This is theoretically 1,000 acres with a mix of park and amenities. It’s sliced apart by a freeway chasm and much of it is a golf course and the Naval Medical Center. Some parts aren’t well-connected to the city. But it has beautiful areas and many of San Diego’s top museums as well as its famous zoo. It’s easy to spend a day there. If you get your fill of arts, culture, science, and aircraft, try the Model Railroad Museum, because cities and towns are cool in miniature.

Is this America’s finest city? A lot of cities have valid claims, and San Diego is one of them.

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