By Tommy Hough
Cisterra Development's "Preserve at Torrey Highlands" office complex was approved by a 6-3 vote of San Diego City Council on Aug. 5, by way of an amendment to the Torrey Highlands Community Plan that will enable construction of the office park over the objections of neighbors, the Rancho Peñasquitos Community Planning Board, the Del Mar Mesa Community Planning Board, and almost every major environmental outlet focusing on land use within the city. It was upheld by council on its second reading on Sept. 10, again by a 6-3 vote.
Located south of State Route 56 near Del Sur and just west of Rancho Peñasquitos, the 420,000 sq. ft. multi-story, multi-structure complex will be built on an 11-acre notch surrounded on three sides – through a fluke of previous ownership – by the city-owned Del Mar Mesa Preserve.
San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action and our allies have noted, in a variety of forums, the environmental effects the construction will have on the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, which contains not only the last remaining portions of native San Diego coastal habitat left in the city, but the last remaining acreage of this ecosystem in California. This area was considered so vital and so worth keeping at arm's length from development, even the route of State Route 56 was altered in the early 2000s to give the area as wide a berth as possible.
Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped developers from picking away at virgin acreage on either side of the 56 freeway. Over the years we've seen the strip malls and 24-hour gyms and gas stations and casual dining restaurants move in to the north, while office parks eat away to the south toward the preserve, and space for habitat and nature is left ever more denuded – sliced away from the wholeness of our remarkable countryside and larger natural ecosystems.
We have a housing crisis and a housing shortage in San Diego. There is no doubt about that. We don't have a shortage of office parks or office space. Opposition to this project isn't about trying to prevent housing, it's about radical upzoning of property that benefits a select few. It's about neighbors saying, loudly, this is an absurd place for a needless office complex. It's about protecting one of our city's great natural preserves from the death by a thousand cuts it is currently suffering from. There is no meaningful transit in the area, and the Cisterra project does nothing to advance our city's Climate Action Plan. On that basis alone, it should be rejected, and another site found for it. It is indefensible.
Representatives from Cisterra admitted in testimony before council on Aug. 5 that they are essentially "built out" in UTC and Carmel Valley, and need to move on to find new areas to build in. Why do we owe them that pleasure? Especially since there is abundant empty office space in the area, and in areas like Kearny Mesa and Miramar that are already within our built footprint, closer to neighborhoods, homes, and potential transit.
And this is not a matter of the Cisterra development being a "one and done" project beside Del Mar Mesa Preserve. Rather, it's just opening the door. The Preserve at Torrey Highlands is the vanguard of other developments to follow, and more concrete to be poured alongside the preserve, joining Merge 56 and the inevitable holiday traffic jams of the incoming shopping center in Torrey Highlands, all further isolating the preserve like a native habitat freak show.
This project marks the beginning of more and more land being set upon for use within sight of, and within affecting range of, the Del Mar Mesa Preserve. This isn't what was intended when this area was protected. And if it was, it's not too late to change that dynamic.
Our parks, special places and preserves survive today as islands of conservation, cut off from one another, with only the most tenuous connection perhaps being a dry stream bed or a canyon bottom within the mesas that may have escaped development or being buried in fill. The proposal of this office complex is an affront to our reasonable obligations of stewardship. It is needless. It is an impediment. It is not housing. It solves nothing, while taxpayers lose out and speculators quietly benefit from the very solace the preserve was meant to protect.
The Orwellian-named Preserve at Torrey Highlands does not compliment the site on which it is to be built, or the native plants and species of the publicly-owned and accessible Del Mar Mesa Preserve that lie on three sides of it. It is the worst kind of monument for the city to jam into a space beside a locale that it should otherwise take exceptional pride in, and exceptional care to protect.
It is a terrible shame a majority of this council is unable to see open space beyond what it can be zoned for, or how the value of it can be increased, especially a parcel already within a protected preserve. Neither you nor I, nor the wind along the mesa tops, the dense oak woodland along Deer Creek at the bottom of the canyon, or the wildlife that silently live and pass through this valuable natural corridor will benefit from this development. The only beneficiary is San Diego-style business as usual.
Photos by Renée Owens and Tommy Hough.
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