Santee Folly Square

Santee is missing an opportunity to provide real transit/pedestrian-oriented development. What a waste.

by Carolyn Chase

he “Santee Trolley Square Commercial Center” is proposed for a 50- acre site lying in the 100-year floodplain north of Mission Gorge Rd. and bisected by the termination of the San Diego Trolley line.

    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, with a 9,350 sq. ft. garden center. Another 86,000 sq. ft. of building floor area are also proposed for a department store major tenant. An additional 111,243 sq. 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 square 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 walking paths from the Trolley station.

    The leadership of Santee should be ashamed that they can't do better than this when it comes to “smart growth.”

    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.” More important, from a regional perspective, if we'd known the Trolley was going to go to a Santee Target, would we have spent hundreds of millions of our tax dollars to send it there?

    I say not. The promise of that substantial regional investment was some kind of “transit-oriented development” that it was supposed to attract.

    The city leaders wanted an entertainment-retail complex to provide a “sense of place” and a downtown focal point. Supposedly, the Trolley Square project is aimed at local folks who want to go out for dinner and a movie but stay in town. But the theater proposal died, and now the entertainment opportunities are diminished. While some of the retailers can be “entertainment-oriented” electronics, media, sporting goods, and other specialties I don't think that Target and T.J. Maxx count as entertainment-oriented. An outdoor entertainment theater is the only remaining “entertainment-only” activity center. A logical choice would be to place a food court in conjunction with the outdoor amphitheater, but the designers decided to situate a single small restaurant, a single small retailer, and the Target garden shop directly adjacent to the outdoor theater (concrete pit). Without the multiplex cinema, the other stores lose traffic going to the movies, and thus the only customers will be the ones who chose to come directly to the individual store or come for free outdoor theater entertainment (significantly less visitors than a multiplex theater).

    The layout of the commercial center is not conducive to pedestrians. 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, either down the vehicle aisles or separated sidewalks. The circulation does not show the locations of any pedestrian paths connecting the activity centers. However, some of the parking lane medians appear different and may be wide enough for an intended walking path. Even with walking paths, will there be adequate protection from sun or rain?

    Some of the stores chosen to be in the project are not pedestrian-friendly by nature. Target and other retailers often use shopping carts, which favor placing parking closer to the store entrance, rather than placing other stores near the store entrance. Many of the proposed stores are “big box” in nature, keeping entrances apart. The Target garden shop should be placed on the western edge of the pad, rather than the southeastern corner. Pedestrians do not typically shop at garden shops, as most of the merchandise available is bulky and requires a car to transport. Move the stores that have bulky merchandise or offer shopping carts to the outside of the pedestrian zone and keep the rest of the stores and restaurants closer together.

    To say this design is pedestrian-friendly is complete stretch; to call this an urban village is a mistruth. This design does have some pedestrian-oriented “features” placed over a typical traditional shopping center and parking lot. This design could be improved for pedestrians just by lumping all the buildings on one side of the trolley track and leaving the rest for parking. How can Santee-ites 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?

    The only sense of place there is going to be “asphalt jungle.” Massive asphalt parking lots, as 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 avoid both these problems, parking lots can be installed that allow runoff to percolate down. Tree plantings should also be maximized to enhance the cooling effect and help create a sense of place other than a hot, miserable, asphalt plain. Sycamores or local oaks should do well in this location.

    The public of Santee may be under the impression that this project is mixed use. Mixed use means a variety of basic zoning types incorporated into one area. Usually, this is a combination of commercial and residential.

    Not here. The “other use” in this case is a sheriff substation/storefront (1,200 sq. ft.), which will be tucked behind the manager's office (6,800 sq. ft.). The sheriff station takes up less area than 8 parking spaces.

    The other potential use is the plan for a future library (30,000 sq. ft.) in the northeast corner. Funding and construction for the library project will most likely be separate from this project. If the library project is scrapped, the land may be given to commercial interests. The public amphitheater will be managed by Vestar, the property developers. I predict that it will be underused as a performance space and sit as an empty concrete pit, enjoyable by those on lunch breaks and small children. Perhaps, for the original multiplex plan, entertainment and retail were considered different uses. But that concept is dead. Government and commercial may be technically mixed use, but in this case the real mixed use is retail and parking.

    Does Santee need this, economically?

    Citizens of Santee might benefit from certain types of stores, as there seems to be no local competition for the Circuit City and Bed, Bath & Beyond. There may also be market area for a large bookstore, as it was mentioned that a Borders Books & Music was already lost to another area mall because of delays.

    However, this project will also put in a Target and a T.J. Maxx department store in the center of Santee. These will add more department store options in a location that has a Costco, Wal-Mart, Ross Clothing and Factory 2-U all within one-third of a mile. The next nearest Target is only 2.5 miles away from the site (but, in the city of El Cajon), while the nearest K-Mart is 2.3 miles away and within Santee. Vestar mentions a population of 258,000 within a 5-mile radius. They fail to mention to potential restaurant developers that there are 40 restaurants that are currently within a 1 mile radius of the project. I'm sure the Target and T.J. Maxx will be economically viable or else they would not have signed onto the project. But is this what the people of Santee need?

    This project provides more retail space (in a city with very little population growth). More retail jobs, with little or no local business owners. 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 high-income families from having to commute out of Santee for work. City leaders faced the question, “Target or a theater?” How about “retail jobs or higher-paying jobs?” Or, “Target (revenue generator) or a library, park, or school (revenue sink)?”

    I wonder if the city leaders know what proportion of their citizens must find employment outside the city, and how many people commute to Santee for work. Which jobs would they rather have?

    Santee planners and City Council should take advantage of the key feature that the Trolley is. When you visit real “trolley squares” in major locations in other cities, the development is clustered around the station. This approach could be taken on this site and still provide for parking needs on the edges of the site.

    If this development goes in, there will be no chance for significant ridership increases for that transit station at a location where ridership is already extremely low. 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. If they push ahead by thumbing their noses at that regional investment, then why continue maintain that regional investment? Only areas that use transit to advance land use patterns should continue to receive regional investments in this important infrastructure.

    Carolyn Chase is editor of the San Diego Earth Times and chair of the Mayor's Environmental Advisory Board. E-mail her at