Just 90 miles to the south of Riverside is San Diego. Like much of Southern California, San Diego has found itself battling suburban sprawl for much of the past few decades. However, unlike its big brother to the north (Los Angeles), San Diego still remains an actual town with a highly recognizable central core -- a core which has become even stronger and more viable in the last decade. And, with the recent opening of Petco Park, downtown San Diego has officially turned the corner for good.
But it took more than the $500M investment of Petco Park. Downtown's recent transformation actually gained its first tangible foothold in the mid-1980s with Horton Plaza. After a few slow years, steam began picking up and by the 1990s, the historic Gaslamp District began to come alive with eateries, pubs and night spots.
Next, there was a new convention center, marina redevelopment and first-class hotels, which paved the way for a return to high-rise residential developments -- many of which have been built just in the last 3-5 years. Today, there are 25,000 residents living in downtown -- a significant number in suburban-oriented Southern California.
And now, there's Petco Park. Although to many, Petco Park is simply icing on the cake (and in some respects, it is), in reality the new ballpark for the San Diego Padres means so much more.
For starters, it keeps MLB in town. With the on-going threat of the NFL's Chargers leaving (and having already lost the NBA's Clippers in the 1980s), San Diego needed to retain at least one major-league franchise. Some may disagree, but being a "major-league" city is still important these days.
Likewise, this immensely large investment in downtown San Diego has once again proven to skeptics that downtown is indeed a place worth -- and necessary -- in retaining, redeveloping and reinvesting in (again, a seemingly simple concept lost on many suburban-minded Southern Californians).
With so much recent downtown development -- particularly on the residential front -- San Diego has separated itself from the rest of Southern California and moved closer to being a balanced city the likes of Portland and Seattle. In fact, although there is neither a Microsoft nor a Space Needle, some would say San Diego is more and more becoming 'Seattle South.'
Regardless, there's no denying that after decades of battling smaller suburban cores popping up outside of downtown (La Jolla, Mission Valley, Rancho Bernardo), the city's central core is stronger than ever and still remains the region's primary focus. This is one very distinct -- and important -- difference between Metro San Diego and Greater Los Angeles.
Again, how was it done? Reinventing, redeveloping and reinvesting in the central core. But above all, it took realizing the need to retain the central core.
So, if there's one city in Southern California in which the others could learn from, downtown San Diego indeed is it. (Are you listening Riverside? Anaheim? Los Angeles??)