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Most Innovative Cities in America, Part 3: Urban Renaissance in San Diego

Over the course of our“Why Not San Diego?”  series, we have taken a look at the many reasons why San Diego should have been included in Fast Company’s “Tomorrowland” piece, which highlighted the nation’s most innovative cities. In part two of the series, we focused on San Diego’s emerging tech scene, responsible for driving job growth, stimulating the economy, and developing a steady stream of internationally-recognized breakthroughs in the health-sciences, communications, and cyber-security sectors.

Today, we’re keeping our gaze ahead by looking towards the past, highlighting the urban renaissance taking place Downtown, where the historic roots of the city are being preserved, renovated and repurposed to house the businesses shaping our future. In collaboration with the county’s eco-friendly efforts and the drive for disruptive technology, we’re seeing the Downtown area take center stage in the story of San Diego’s rise as one of the nation’s smartest cities.


San Diego’s impressive Downtown area was founded in 1867. Upon arrival from San Francisco, Alonza Erastus Horton stepped ashore, stretched his legs, cupped his eyes to block the sun’s glare (we’ll assume it was a typically sunny day and that he wasn’t wearing shades) and said, “I have been nearly all over the world and this is just the prettiest place for a city I ever saw.” Shortly thereafter, the real-estate developer from New England purchased the land for a whopping $265 – somewhere in the ballpark of what you’d pay for a monthly parking permit today.

In the early 1900’s, businesses flocked Downtown to set up shop in the Warehouse District of J-Street, which offered factory space and close proximity to a bustling trade harbor. Wonderbread, TR Produce, Western Metal Supply, Snowflake and Showley Bros. Candy Factory, among others, took up residency in the area.


Today, Downtown San Diego is one of the most vibrant, walkable and liveable city centers in the nation. Landmarks like the Convention Center and Seaport Village, which have been carrying the local flag since the late 80’s, are being reinforced by a barrage of fresh development and renewed corporate interest. A major turning point for the city was the completion of Petco Park in 2004, which brought San Diego’s love of baseball back to the city’s nucleus, generating a renewed demand for real-estate Downtown.

As another wave of businesses have begun actively migrating towards the city center, the landscape downtown is being reimagined and reinvigorated. Creative minds, like those behind the I.D.E.A. District, are helping drive the urban renaissance movement by redeveloping 35 blocks of the East Village for housing, office space, and recreational facilities. Their goal of seeing our city’s future “enriched by art, entertainment and recreation, the hallmarks of all great livable and vibrant cities” is set to position San Diego as a hub of innovation, design and creativity.

The momentum behind Downtown development is having a magnetic effect on industries across the board. According to the CONNECT Innovation Report, the number of software startups Downtown continues to multiply at a remarkable rate, going from 1 in 2011,  to 8 in 2012, to 23 in 2014. We’re also seeing large companies like Sempra looking to establish themselves in the East Village, while plans for the area’s first five star hotel move further down the pipeline, towards fruition.

Additionally, community venues like The Quartyard and Maker’s Corner are providing a space where creativity in various incarnations (be it making craft beer, textiles, tech, music or food) can be expressed and appreciated. It’s the constant repurposing of space that makes our renaissance story so compelling; and once again, we’re seeing those original warehouses on J Street housing the most progressive businesses of our time. Even landmark buildings like the original library, while currently not in use, are being reserved for the right idea as the area blossoms.

Large-scale projects are extending beyond business, too, as local thought leaders continue looking into sectors like public transport (a constantly evolving issue in densely populated regions like Southern California) for the next big breakthrough. Over the next few years, we could actually see a Skyway Gondola take commuters from the Gaslamp District, above the traffic, to Balboa Park in as little as 20 minutes.

All things considered, what makes San Diego such a great city is the sum of all its strengths. The symbiosis of innovation, environmental awareness, and an appreciation for the city’s roots is supporting an ecosystem that drives job creation to support the economy, while creating opportunities that future generations can run with. Which brings us to our next feature, where we’ll talk more about hiring and retaining millennials today.



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