Santee Folly Square

by Carolyn Chase


The "Santee Trolley Square Commercial Center" is proposed for a 50-acre site lying in the 100-year floodplain just north of Mission Gorge Rd., bisected by the termination of the San Diego Trolley line to that area.

    Is there anything in this project that makes it oriented toward the trolley - other than the name? I think not. When you look at the site plan, it's dominated by parking, parking, parking. It's basically one-story, big-box, car-oriented retail: a poster child for "infill sprawl."

    The proposed project would be "anchored" by a 126,000 square-foot Target. Another 86,000 sq. ft. of building floor area are proposed for a T.J. Maxx. An additional 111,243 square ft of major retail uses are provided in five retail buildings ranging in size from 11,300 sq. ft. to 33,243 sq. ft. Four small retail pads totaling 53,900 sq. ft. of building floor area are planned parallel to the existing trolley line. A total of 43,000 sq. ft of restaurant uses are planned, along with 6,800 sq. ft. property manager's office and a 1,200 sq. ft. Sheriff's "storefront." The project also includes a site for a future 30,000 sq. ft. library - without clear walking paths from the Trolley station.

    The public of Santee may be under the impression that this project is mixed use. Usually this means a combination of commercial and residential. Not here. The other use in this case is the sheriff substation, taking up less area than 8 parking spaces, and a site for an unfunded library project. Government and commercial may technically be a mix of uses, but in this case the real mixed use is retail and parking.

    As one Santee resident put it, "The thing I can't figure out is why anyone thinks we need a Target. We already have a Wal-Mart and a K-mart." There happens to be a Costco, Wal-Mart, Ross Clothing and Factory 2-U all within a third of a mile. There are also 40 restaurants within a 1 mile radius of the project. More important from a regional perspective, if we'd known the Trolley was going to go to a Santee Target, would we have spent millions of our tax dollars to send it there? And should we continue to subsidize operations to send it there without any prospect of increasing ridership?

    I think not. The promise of that substantial regional investment and ongoing subsidy was some kind of transit/ pedestrian-oriented, "urban village" development.

    To say this design is pedestrian-friendly is absurd. To call this an urban village is a mistruth. How can Santee residents and visitors find an urban village type "sense of place" when they see it is easier to drive from the Target to the other block of stores or the isolated restaurants, and find a second parking space?

    This development is not conducive to pedestrians. It creates no destination or "sense of place" or "village" that would warrant riders taking the trolley there. Some of the stores chosen to be in the project are not transit/pedestrian friendly by nature. At a minimum they should move the stores that have bulky merchandise or offer shopping carts to the outside of a pedestrian zone and keep the rest of the stores and restaurants closer together oriented toward the Trolley station. When you visit real "trolley squares" in major locations in other cities, you find real mixed-use, high density development clustered around a station plaza. This approach could be taken on this site and still provide for parking needs - on the edges of the site.

    The ideal for pedestrians is to place all the activity centers in high concentrations, lessening the walking distance between activity centers. The project has poorly placed activity centers for pedestrians. Four of the six restaurant pads (the four largest) are located in isolation from the big stores and from each other. Pedestrians seeking to walk from the major stores to the restaurants would have to walk through the parking lot.

    The only sense of this place is going to be a hot, miserable asphalt jungle. Massive asphalt parking lots as are being proposed here contribute greatly to water pollution and the "heat island" effect - i.e. raising the ambient temperature when the heat is both absorbed and reflected back from a black surface. To address both these problems alternative parking lot designs should be required. Plantings of sycamores or local oaks should be maximized to enhance the cooling effect. Over the long term, they create an outstanding sense of place that will attract people. Anyone who has strolled through a grove of old sycamores or oak trees, cannot help but thank God or those who acted to plant those trees in the decades prior.

    Is this the best choice for Santee, economically - and for the area's quality of life?

    This project provides more humdrum retail space (in a city with very little population growth) and more retail jobs, with few or potentially no local businessowners. The City of Santee wants to keep tax revenue in the city, but what do the citizens of Santee want? Better employment opportunities might allow some from having to commute out of Santee for work. City leaders framed the question "Target or a theater?" How about "retail jobs or higher-paying jobs?" How about "public plaza/park-urban village" vs. complete economic sell-out?

    To add insult to injury, the City acquired the land for $7 million, but is selling it for only $4 million while just about everyone else is making big bucks in real estate and they are also proposing to waive an additional $700,000 in impact fees.

    The leadership of Santee should be ashamed that they can't do better than this when it comes to "smart growth." Santee planners and City Council should take advantage of the key feature of the Trolley station.

    If the Santee City Council didn't want to do transit-oriented development at this site, then they shouldn't have pushed for the trolley investment and ongoing subsidies. If this proposal goes in, there will be no chance for significant ridership increases for that transit station - at a location where ridership is already low. If they push ahead by thumbing their noses at that regional investment, then why should the region continue to maintain and subsidize that regional investment? Only areas that use transit to advance land use patterns should continue to receive regional subsidies in this important infrastructure.

    This project is scheduled to be heard before the Santee City Council later this summer.