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Getting There: The Golden Triangle

The terminus of the .1 billion Mid-Coast Trolley extension will be a raised-platform station straddling Genesee Avenue, next-door to Westfield UTC. Rendering courtesy of Sandag
Operators are nearing completion of a 0 million renovation and expansion of the Westfield UTC mall. Rendering courtesy of Westfield Corp.

As San Diego braces for potentially more gridlock in the already congested Golden Triangle area — fueled by dozens of public and private construction projects moving forward over the next five years — the consensus among local commercial real estate brokers is that patience will be rewarded in the long run.

Particularly in the area where University Towne Center meets UC San Diego, if commuters, office tenants, students and business operators can withstand short-term pain — in the form of longer vehicle trips — the benefits eventually will include less need to get in a car before, during or after work, thanks to the trolley that will extend to that neighborhood.

In theory at least, several high-rise apartment projects underway in the UTC area will put more residents either closer to the jobs now increasing in that neighborhood, or closer to the trolley that will take them to other employment hubs such as downtown San Diego. University students will have more options for living on or adjacent to the main UCSD campus, or accessing the school from other neighborhoods via the trolley.

“People won’t completely give up driving their cars, but by providing alternative means of transport and increased traffic flow, it will alleviate congestion and allow for future growth,” said Chad Urie, managing director in the San Diego office of brokerage firm JLL.

20,000 Riders

Much hinges on the extended trolley’s ability — based on regional planners’ projections — to eventually capture 20,000 new daily riders from throughout the region taking the trolley to UTC and UCSD once the trolley expansion is completed by 2021.

If that and other elements fall into place, JLL predicted earlier this year, UTC is poised to significantly raise its profile as a transit-friendly employment hub. JLL estimates that when the trolley’s Blue Line extension is finished and opened, UTC will have 2.3 million square feet of offices located within one-quarter mile of a trolley stop, or 34.2 percent of the total office inventory in the UTC/Eastgate area.

On that metric, UTC would jump ahead of Mission Valley, where 1.6 million square feet of offices, or 25.4 percent of the inventory, are within that quarter-mile of a trolley station. By comparison, nearly all the inventory in downtown San Diego — the region’s largest office market with 12.2 million square feet — is within that quarter-mile of the trolley.

To get to the benefits, weekday Golden Triangle drivers in particular could be in for a time-consuming slog — though several local brokers said city, state and regional planners have generally done a good job informing the public about detours and other methods for navigating the current and future traffic obstacles.

Also, brokers said they are not seeing significant signs that prospective office tenants or business operators are avoiding the Golden Triangle due to concerns over current or upcoming construction-spurred traffic snarls.

New delays are expected to be limited primarily to the UTC-UCSD area, as congestion in other parts of the triangle, such as Sorrento Valley to the north, was significantly alleviated a few years ago by the addition of new interchanges off Interstate 805.

50 Projects

UC San Diego accounts for at least 12 of the nearly 50 Golden Triangle projects identified recently by the regional planning agency San Diego Association of Governments, as local, state and university officials rolled out a new multimedia information hub called Shift — aimed at minimizing headaches from projects either underway or planned in the area where state Route 52 converges with Interstates 5 and 805.

The biggest of the upcoming UCSD projects is a $490 million mixed-use development, called North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood, that is expected to include student housing, academic and commercial space.

Not far away, mall operator Westfield Corp. is nearing completion on a $600 million expansion at its Westfield UTC mall. Next-door, owner Regency Centers in coming months will be moving forward on a significant expansion of its Costa Verde retail center, expected to top $230 million. On the other side of La Jolla Village Drive, developer Hines is making plans for a third tower at its La Jolla Commons office campus, currently home to the US Bank and LPL buildings.

This is in addition to road and related infrastructure projects impacting the neighborhood, such as the widening of the Interstate 5/Genesee Avenue interchange, and a new bridge that will cross the freeway onto the UCSD campus at Gilman Drive.

The Big Connection

The biggest upshot of all the changes, said commercial broker Ron Miller, is the connectivity that the trolley will enable between UTC and downtown. Many businesses operators, he said, likely will be seeking to capitalize on the same factor already cited by UCSD officials in its selection of downtown’s East Village for a new cultural and education center now under construction.

Miller said connectivity with downtown enables more transportation options for UCSD students, including many who will not want to move out of downtown for jobs they might obtain in UTC or other parts of the city after graduation. Employers in the UTC area conceivably could have a wider pool of prospective workers not frightened off by the prospect of long freeway commutes.

“It removes that element of uncertainty,” said Miller, a senior vice president in the San Diego office of Colliers International Group Inc. “The transit accessibility becomes a recruiting tool in itself.”

Combined with current and upcoming new passenger bridges within UTC that will connect existing office parks with Westfield UTC and the raised-platform trolley station at Genesee, Miller said there is an opportunity to create more of a pedestrian-accessible environment.

Moving Toward Mass Transit

Another potential regional benefit, said brokers, is that those who commute to work via the trolley will be able to use their time more effectively during the trip — a smaller-scale version of what is now done by commuters taking the Coaster from downtown to North County (and some who then take Amtrak further northward into Orange and Los Angeles counties).

Brett Ward, executive director in Cushman & Wakefield’s San Diego office, said the trolley element will be a big step toward making the local region more competitive with other metro hubs looking to attract talent, especially on the West Coast. Ideally, however, he would like to see steps taken in the long run to make more of San Diego County more transit-accessible — for instance, by extending the trolley farther north to access local Coaster stations.

“The whole county isn’t mass-transit friendly yet, but this will be a good step forward,” Ward said of the upcoming UTC changes.

Shuttle Services

In the meantime, brokers said the continued evolution of UTC into a mixed-use, one-stop community with many things in walking distance (or accessible via short-run shuttles being planned by some office operators) is putting increased pressure on owners of suburban office campuses to increase their stock of on-site amenities that don’t require drive time.

“Having an area that’s more walkable and more transit friendly is going to make a big difference,” said Matthew Carlson, senior vice president in the local office of CBRE Group Inc.

CBRE itself is preparing to take full advantage of the new surroundings at UTC, as it relocates its San Diego regional operations this fall to a new office building across the street at the Westfield mall.

Several of the other commercial brokerage firms serving the region have also been relocating along La Jolla Village Drive to serve the new traffic patterns with updated offices, including JLL, Colliers and Voit Real Estate Services.

Miller said other types of companies also have been relocating recently to get closer to the action, such as Westcore Properties, Wells Fargo and ServiceNow.

These follow previous and pending move-ins by technology and biotechnology firms, such as Illumina Inc., which is in the process of filling the newly built i3 office campus and other nearby buildings within UTC.

Taking the Long Way

None of the current activity or promised benefits will likely take time off what’s expected to be longer, frustrating waits in Golden Triangle traffic for many commuters in the next half-decade.

But JLL’s Urie said there is an opportunity at UTC in the long run to actually carry out the city’s long-held “smart growth” dreams, which include transit friendliness and other quality-of-life elements. As in other local cities, San Diego planners’ efforts have often been thwarted by local opposition to projects in many areas outside of downtown.

“Think of downtown or Little Italy 10 years ago,” Urie said. “It’s hard to argue that those communities aren’t more vibrant and enjoyable now.”

“The same opportunities present themselves in the Golden Triangle,” he added. “Now we need smart growth around the trolley lines and public transit that creates other great communities.”

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