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Downtown Is Still Far From the Live-Work Hub Urbanists Envision

A 2016 study found less than 4 percent of downtown workers also lived in the area, and one expert said it’s not likely things have changed much since then. But downtown boosters think there’s reason to be optimistic.

The EvoNexus startup incubator opened a downtown branch in 2012 in space donated by the Irvine Company. / Photo courtesy of CommNexus

This story is a part of The People’s Reporter, a feature where the public can submit questions, readers vote on which questions they want answered and VOSD investigates.

The question from VOSD reader Donna Regalado: “How many people who live in downtown San Diego also work downtown? And how many people who live in downtown San Diego leave downtown to work elsewhere?”

To submit your question or vote on our next topic, click here.

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Urbanists consider an abundance of businesses just a short walk or transit ride away from many workers’ homes a hallmark of a successful downtown.

That dynamic is the exception rather than the rule in downtown San Diego.

A 2016 study commissioned by the Downtown San Diego Partnership, a business group, found less than 4 percent of downtown workers also lived in the area, and that 96 percent commuted there for work.

Here’s a visual look at a major finding of the study by UC San Diego Extension’s Center for Research on the Regional Economy.

The research, which relied on 2013 Census numbers, estimated 80 percent of working downtown-dwellers ventured outside the area for work – meaning less than a quarter of downtown residents actually worked downtown.

The study found most downtown residents were commuting to neighborhoods like Sorrento Valley, Kearny Mesa or Mission Valley.

Residential development has boomed downtown in recent years. and there’s been a more concerted effort to lure businesses, so I asked UCSD’s Mary Walshok, who led the research effort, whether she believes these trends may have changed.

Short answer: not so much.

But Walshok said she’s optimistic about downtown’s prospects. She noted that downtown is becoming more attractive to new tech companies. For example, nonprofit Connect, which aims to promote and create technology-tied companies, tallied 105 new tech start-ups in the neighborhood from 2014 to 2017.

Downtown boosters have also cheered a Los Angeles real estate investor’s plan to transform Horton Plaza in the Gaslamp Quarter into a mixed-use office and retail space with an eye toward tech companies. They’re also excited about a UCSD satellite campus set to open in East Village by early 2021.

“The only way out of the morass is to create jobs and grow jobs downtown,” Walshok said.

Walshok, along with other regional leaders and planners, does envision a dramatic boost in downtown employment over the long haul.

In its 2013 regional growth forecast, the San Diego Association of Governments predicted downtown could gain 30,000 jobs by 2050.

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