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Guidelines That Energize Mixed-Use Designs


San Diego is a living example of the power of effective mixed-use designs in urban settings.


San Diego’s new 3.4-acre Ballpark Village includes an elevated park, bridges, and a major public plaza. Underground parking, wood-framed midrise buildings, and towers stimulate a diverse and lively instant community. Renderings: CarrierJohnson + CULTURE

By Michael Johnson, AIA, Founder and Design Principal Carrier Johnson + CULTURE

Working nationally on downtown revitalizations, one sees several themes in successful urban projects that enrich the civic fabric, energize social interaction, and inject economic vitality. In our current work with 14 of the top-20 U.S. developers in national mixed-use residential markets, Carrier Johnson + CULTURE, San Diego, has gained perspective of scale on how cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and San Diego are renewing their central business districts. Even competing projects help create a powerful symbiosis, drawing millennials and young families to live in expanding downtown neighborhoods and making city living better on a daily basis.

Learn more about multi-use design in urban settings in our interview with Michael Johnson.

San Diego’s high-rise 7th and Market is a vertical city program that includes a hotel, retail spaces, offices, and affordable and market-rate residences.

San Diego’s high-rise 7th and Market is a vertical city program that includes a hotel, retail spaces, offices, and affordable and market-rate residences.

Many projects benefit from recent experiments in redeveloping cities, such as downtown San Diego, where new ideas have emerged in financing, handling legacy issues, complex hybrid types, adding density, enlivening streetscapes, as well as incorporating affordable housing and other social aims. Some offer useful formulas for construction methods; mix of unit types, amenities, and public zones; use of business centers; and retail presentation.

Yet, the rebirth of downtown San Diego didn’t happen overnight. It has roots in the mid-1980s to address a cityscape pockmarked by surface parking lots and underutilized structures. Spurred by a few major works—notably Jon Jerde’s Horton Plaza and Arthur Erickson’s convention center—alongside a thriving, though shrinking, defense industry, relocating businesses, and young professionals and creative types, everyone sensed an incredible opportunity.

High-tech leaders, such as Qualcomm and biotech firms, moved here, and old bones such as the Gaslamp Quarter started to perk up. An active public-private coalition drew up new redevelopment guidelines, and neighborhoods took turns in a rolling transformation.

Since about 2013, the East Village—the largest of the city’s five districts—has emerged as the next renaissance story for San Diego. New developments here take advantage of several lessons learned over the past two decades. Among them:

  • Create mini-neighborhoods. As seen in the new 3.4-acre Ballpark Village by Carrier Johnson + CULTURE, being developed by Greystar/JMI, diversity and multilevel thinking create instant urban excitement. The large site is trifurcated with a mews into three sections, with an elevated park, bridges, and a major public plaza. Underground parking, wood-framed midrise buildings, and towers with retail and live-work units stimulate a diverse and lively instant community.
  • Push for true mixed-use. With the right mix of uses, new developments encourage the street activity and economic impact that budding neighborhoods need. For San Diego’s high-rise 7th and Market, designed by Carrier Johnson + CULTURE for Cisterra Development, a vertical city program of at least 10 uses will boost city life with recurring flows of people and traffic, from a hotel and retail to offices and affordable and market-rate residences.
  • Use affordable hybrid construction. While known for diversity of architectural expression, San Diego’s mix of underlying structural approaches demonstrate economy, resiliency, and long-term sustainability. The 15th and Island project in the East Village by Pinnacle International, for example, boasts a 45-story tower of concrete and steel with a mid-rise base wrapping the block’s perimeter in wood-frame structure over a concrete podium. The result is a less-dense mid-rise that cuts costs by eliminating excavation into a high water table.
  • Find creative alliances. Cities are bastions of pluralism and dynamism, and our best mixed-use ventures forge valuable coalitions for lasting, positive change. Examples include residential projects in partnership with healthcare providers, senior housing operators, academic institutions, and even sports venues.

Whether in Virginia Beach or Los Angeles, Tempe, or Portland, these rules for mixed-use help make urban developments more than merely buildings. They create new business corridors, vibrant neighborhoods, and tourist magnets. San Diego isn’t the world’s only Cinderella story, but for innovation in urban mixed-use architecture, it’s a reliable and winning case study.

Michael C. Johnson, AIA is founding design principal at CarrierJohnson + CULTURE, San Diego, a global architecture, design, and strategic branding practice known for innovative building, living, and communications solutions (

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