North City West: Lost Chance for Excellence


North City West is a figurehead of sorts, a barometer by which we can gauge what kind of progress city officials, developers and planners are making toward creating better communities. Roughly 30% completed, the largest of San Diego’s many tracts is expected to house about 40,000 within the next decade.

With all that has been written about how to create livable neighborhoods, these ones seem like a step backward. It’s hard not to feel that the potential for profit has overshadowed the opportunity to build a great new people place from scratch.

Two developers are mainly responsible for the community:

Pardee (Del Mar Highlands, at the north) and Baldwin (Carmel Del Mar, the southern portion).


The first houses were completed in 1983. Today, many key neighborhoods

are finished or under construction, and, for better or worse, the community is beginning to show its face.

On a recent afternoon, it paled by comparison to the old established city of Del Mar. Even though such an analogy is not entirely appropriate--the grown-up Del Mar village has only about 5,000 residents--one can easily identify certain elements, present in Del Mar but absent in fledgling North City West, which make all the difference between success and failure.

Pretend, for a moment, that you are a visitor, arriving in Del Mar for the first time. Maybe you’re even considering living there.

Driving into town from the north, you are met by an extremely hospitable place. On the left, architect Jon Jerde’s Del Mar Plaza addresses the street with a low, appropriate scale, materials which relate to other buildings nearby and shop windows and a stairway that provide an invitation to both motorists and pedestrians.

Woodsy Building

On another corner at this key intersection of 15th Street and Camino del Mar is a woodsy bank building, anchoring the corner with a tower. On the sidewalk, people crowd around a flower stand. A third corner is occupied by a cafe with outdoor tables.

A half block into town, you see a sign for the Del Mar Chamber of Commerce.

In a matter of seconds, you, a newcomer, are beginning to warm up to the place.

Heading south on Interstate 5, your first impression of North City West is the jumble of homes stretched along three bluffs. There is little variety to their shape, placement or color; unbuffered by trees, they dominate what were once pristine ridgelines.


Driving into Pardee’s Del Mar Highlands along Del Mar Heights Road, impressions aren’t inviting.

On the left is a windowless, olive drab Pacific Bell building that should have been hidden somewhere. On the right is a brick bank, then the northern edge of the San Diego Corporate Center, a series of office buildings ranging from mediocre to adequate in design, stretching all the way south to Carmel Valley Road at the opposite end of the new community.

Are these appropriate first impressions for a place where people live? Rancho Bernardo’s pseudo-Mediterranean monotony seems inviting by comparison.

Further along, rows of identical houses are set behind long stretches of off-white block walls. The impression is of people living an isolated existence, protected from whatever evils Del Mar Heights Road has to offer--most likely traffic noise.

Walls could have been designed more as a part of the landscape, broken by different heights and angles, buffered with low shrubs and trees. Or what if homeowners were left to add their own walls as part of landscaping? In some cases, people in their yards would actually be visible from the street.

Where Are the Parks?

Maybe the street-side edges of the neighborhoods could have been buffered by linear parks with jogging, hiking or bike paths. Then, from significant streets like Del Mar Heights Road, you would get some sense of life and enjoyment.


On a map in a sales office for one of the community’s several neighborhoods, parks and a “community center” are indicated.

To date, no parks are apparent. The community center turns out to be the shopping mall anchored by a supermarket and drugstore. The first phase is just being finished. Closest to Del Mar Heights Road, the main attractions will be two banks and a McDonald’s.

A bookstore would be a step in the right direction. Restaurants planned will make the center more inviting, but a gallery, sculpture garden, or some other hint of culture would help even more.

Entering Baldwin’s Carmel del Mar, impressions aren’t much better. Again, gas stations mark the gateway to the community, this time along Carmel Valley Road. The same blank walls seal off the neighborhoods. Eventually, the entire strip closest to the freeway will be covered with commercial buildings, making your first impression of North City West quite similar to what you get from any number of large, speculative business parks in San Diego County.

At least, residents indicate, Carmel del Mar has a well-used park and pedestrian trails that wind between the neighborhoods.

North West West does have an island of serenity. The old Carden School, inconspicuous one-story buildings, is set back among pepper trees just east of the corporate center. From the street, you catch glimpses of children playing. Nearby is the Del Mar Baptist Church, another low-key building that gives human scale and warmth to a huge community where such intimate moments are scarce.



First clash: City architect Mike Stepner was out-muscled by the CCDC when he suggested that a proposed Lorimer & Case-designed downtown condominium high-rise at Broadway and State Street be reduced in height. The Koll Co.’s project is the leading contender among three being considered by the CCDC.