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Construction starts on Mission Valley's largest development. Master- planned community includes

Grading has started on Civita, San Diego County’s first major master planned community since the real estate bust and, at 230.5 acres, the largest development of its kind in Mission Valley history. But unlike past large-scale projects in the valley, Civita promises a new direction toward the goal of creating San Diego as a "city of villages," where walkability, livability and sustainability will dominate. The word that Civita’s developer, Sudberry Properties, uses is "blurb." "Blurb" is a blend between suburban and urban,” said Marco Sessa, Sudberry vice president. And looking at the land plan for the property, bounded by Mission Center Road, Friars Road, Interstate 805 and existing neighborhoods up the hill in Serra Mesa, Civita (rhymes with Evita) might live up to its invented name — a blend of Latin for "civic and community" and "vitality and life." It was previously called Quarry Falls.

The $2 billion development, announced in 2002 and approved by the San Diego City Council in October 2008, will have 4,780 housing units, up to 1 million square feet for commercial use, and 67 acres in parks and open space as construction proceeds over the next 12 to 15 years.

Unlike much of the rest of Mission Valley, residents in Civita will eventually be able to walk to their own small commercial center, play in a public park that they will maintain through an assessment district and perhaps send their kids to a charter or private school. "It is very gratifying that after eight years of working on the property to see it go forward," said Tom Sudberry, the company’s chairman. "Frankly, I'm happy we didn't start on it 2 1/2 years ago, when the market began to go down. I’d much rather be in this trend line going in the right direction versus the other trend line where we were looking at a terrible, terrible market."

The first phase will comprise housing projects:

•Sudberry will build Circa 37, a 306-unit apartment complex that will open in about a year. The 37 refers to 1937, about the time Franklin Grant began mining operations on the site. His descendants are partners with Sudberry and will share in the profits as development proceeds.

"We have never wanted to put another isolated apartment complex or strip of shops on the land," said Pat Grant, Franklin Grant's grandson. "Our own ethics drive a desire to make it sustainable, walkable and desirable. Civita is the embodiment of the best ideas emanating from all the vision meetings we had with the experts who soon joined our team."

•Shea Homes will build the 73-unit Skyloft and 127-unit Social Garden at the west end of the property. The models of the for-sale town homes should open late next year with prices expected to start in the $400,000s.

"Civita is one of the preeminent jewels in the San Diego real estate market," said Paul Barnes, Shea's San Diego division president. "It is a new urban environment being created in Mission Valley, and we're extremely excited to be in the first phase. What we're going to be building is very innovative and exciting new housing stock for San Diego."

Also coming in the first phase — to be completed over the next five years — will be 150 units of affordable housing and a retail-apartment building with 175 senior housing units.

Real estate experts say it will be hard not to score a winner at Civita, at least in terms of home sales and apartment rentals.

"Mission Valley to me is really the center of San Diego," said Russ Valone, president of the MarketPointe Realty Advisors consulting firm. "People will be drawn there and attracted there, especially young households who want access to shopping and the trolley. Even move-downs will be attracted there." As a sign of the valley’s attractiveness, MarketPointe found the third-quarter apartment vacancy rate at 3.4 percent, compared with 4.1 percent countywide.

Ben Evers, an agent with Century 21-Award working in the valley for eight years, said new projects do well because of their modern design and up-to-date amenities. But he said developers have to be wary of the continued glut of foreclosed and distressed properties.

"My guess is that the builder is just going to have to hold them a while," Evers said. reported this week that the Mission Valley 92108 ZIP code had 324 homes for sale, ranging from a 2,102-square-foot unit in foreclosure for $704,494 to a 1,495-square-foot unit, also in foreclosure, for $40,283. But Sessa, the Sudberry vice president, said the valley has "weathered the storm" of the housing downturn better than many other neighborhoods.

"It takes a little bit of insanity," said Sudberry’s son Colton, company president, when asked why the company is moving now before economic conditions improve. "One way to make money as a developer is to live long enough. We've been at this 11 years and seen two cycles." But with loans available for apartment development and Shea funding its first condos internally, the development team figures they'll be ready by 2012, when many economists think San Diego housing will be on its way up. As MarketPointe’s Valone said, "If we haven't started coming out of the recession (by 2012), we might as well give it up."

It was nearly 50 years ago, in 1961, that Mission Valley shopping center opened its doors — and the floodgates opened to hodgepodge development in the valley — formerly dominated by truck farms and dairies along the San Diego River — without a master plan for transportation, public services and open space. Ever since, planners, residents and enlightened developers have been trying to catch up and fix the problems that arose.

Sudberry expects to spend about $150 million in on-site and off-site infrastructure improvements, starting with a $10 million down payment on traffic improvements: a sidewalk on the west side of Texas Street up to Normal Heights; new traffic signals at Murphy Canyon Road ramps to I-805; widening Friars Road east of Mission Center Road; and funds to continue planning for a $100 million reconfiguration of the state Route 163/Friars interchange.

Still, valley critics fought the project from its earliest days, saying the valley’s problems should be fixed before major new development goes forward. Outgoing Councilwoman Donna Frye was the lone vote against the project. She praised its design — "I wish it was the first project in Mission Valley" — but today worries that it might include too many homes and that the added traffic can't be mitigated with related public improvements. Also remaining in opposition is Lynn Mulholland, chairwoman of the Mission Valley Community Council. "When you drive down Friars Road or try to, there are expletives," she said. "They (Sudberry) are doing their part — they are making it worse." Bruce Warren, chairman of the Mission Valley Planning Group, which reviews valley projects, said traffic is as bad as it is because the city did not carry out certain road plans previously envisioned. "Now let’s see what sort of courage elected officials have," he said, to insist on carrying out Civita's promises, as well as previous ones.

Bill Anderson, the city's planning director, said Mission Valley bike paths and public transit use, as well as better roads, will help reduce congestion. Otherwise, he said Civita is carrying many of the goals envisioned in the "City of Villages" concept, adopted several years ago, to manage growth by making existing neighborhoods more walkable and environmentally sustainable even as new infill projects get built. "It's showing at least someone has confidence in the market," Anderson said. "We’re glad to see it get started and look forward to it."

As Tom Sudberry told the council two years ago, "I hope 15 years from now you look back on this vote and say you did the right thing."

Civita at a glance

  • Location: 230.5 acres, bounded by Mission Center Road, Friars Road, Interstate 805 and Serra Mesa neighborhood along Phyllis Place and Ainsley and Harton roads

  • Development: 4,780 condos and apartments; nearly 1 million square feet of commercial space; 31.8 acres in public parks, 2.1 acres in private recreation, 35.6 acres of open space; civic center with amphitheater and Heritage Museum on Mission Valley history; shuttle system, hybrid-car sharing program; hiking, biking and walking trails

  • Infrastructure: $150 million, including about $60 million in off-site improvements

  • Build-out value: $1.5 billion to $2 billion

  • Development team: Sudberry Properties, developer; Carrier Johnson of San Diego and Elkus Manfred Architects of Boston, land plan

  • Status: Grading began in late November. Completion expected in 12 to 15 years

  • Circa 37: 306 apartments by Sudberry, occupancy early 2012, with 500 more by 2013

  • Skyloft: 73 condos/townhomes, and Social Garden, 127 condos/townhomes, both by Shea Homes, models open fall 2011

  • Affordable housing: 150 units, opening by 2013

  • Senior housing: 175 units in a mixed-use building with retail space, open by 2015

  • Awards and honors to date: U.S. Green Building Council certification for neighborhood development; Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award; Catalyst Project by state housing department for sustainable land-use planning

Off-site improvements First projects starting in 2011:

  • Sidewalk on west side of Texas Street from the valley, north-south

  • Upgrades to north entrance access routes to Fashion Valley

  • Widening of westbound Friars Road along Civita frontage

  • New traffic signals at Murray Ridge Road ramps at Interstate 805

  • Design completion for reconfiguration of interchange at state Route 163 and Friars Road

  • Traffic study and environmental review of proposed road link to Phyllis Place and I-805

By ROGER SHOWLEY Union-Tribune

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