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The Power is in the I.D.E.A.

Written by

Innovation + Design + Education + Arts

By David Malmuth

Why has the concept of a District dedicated to Design, nourished by Education, enriched by the Arts and focused on Innovation caught the imagination of San Diego business and community leaders? They understand that in the 21st century it will not be enough to rest on our past business success, great weather and beautiful environs, we have to deliberately plan for the future: a future that can capitalize on the marriage of design and technology. That includes high paying jobs to attract and retain young and educated citizens, which provide a lifestyle enriched by art, entertainment and recreation; and that, will result in a vibrant local economy moving forward.
Design: To conceive, invent, execute, or construct according to plan.
The I.D.E.A. District holds the potential to become a major new business and jobs engine in San Diego. This sustainable, mixed-use Innovation district is comprised of 35 city blocks in downtown’s East Village and will be driven by a Design cluster. Making this vision a reality can have a transformational impact on our city by creating as many as 10,000 jobs in the next decade.
What represents a cluster?
A geographic concentration of companies, suppliers, support services, financiers, specialized infrastructure, producers of related products, and specialized institutions whose competitive strengths are improved through the existence of shared advantages. Major trends in the global economy, coupled with San Diego’s strategic location, business climate and entrepreneurial spirit, all point toward the opportunity for this concept to be the “next big thing.” In addition, there are specific characteristics of the existing district that make it ideal for this use, most importantly the presence of several major educational institutions that emphasize design, multiple small but growing design-related businesses, and a building environment with the appropriate character.
Why focus on design?
Steve Jobs, arguably the most influential force in both technology and design has said, “Design is what gives technology a soul.” What he understands, and has proven again and again, is that breakout companies, products and services in the 21st century will result from the perfect marriage of cutting-edge technology and brilliant design.
The rest of the world has clearly woken up to the power of design — not in terms of “nice packaging,” but as a means to drive fundamental economic growth. Seoul, Korea (and Helsinki right behind it), have made huge investments to win the designation as the World Design Capital for 2010-11.  This “Asian Tiger” has shown exceptional resolve in rebuilding itself from the ashes of war to its current status as an economic powerhouse. In Spain, Barcelona’s 22@ innovation district has integrated economic, physical and social regeneration with investment in economic and social programs as well as property development — a strategy that has created 56,000 jobs and thousands of new companies since 2000.  What do they know that we are missing?
San Diego is already home to significant design activity. In fact, the relatively undeveloped East Village area that we are targeting already has 30 design-related businesses, including recording studios, architecture firms, photographers, artists, urban lifestyle boutiques, graphic design firms, fashion designers, stylists, art schools, and art galleries and spaces. But, we have yet to seize the potential to create and support a specific cluster of these firms that will not only elevate their importance in the region, but can also lead to new collaborations and growth.
What turns the I.D.E.A. District from intriguing concept to reality? In part, catalytic projects and none are more important than the proposed new urban campus for the NewSchool of Architecture and Design (NSAD). This institution, (currently located in the district), is owned by Laureate International, an international for-profit education company that owns 55 universities and colleges worldwide, 18 of which specialize in architecture or design. The new NSAD campus is slated to be Laureate’s flagship design school and a center for design excellence worldwide.
Once the momentum starts to build, there are a number of other key projects that can shape the future of the district including:
• A new studio loft building that creates an opportunity for San Diego-based design firms, including the design functions within our largest technology companies, to co-locate.
• A Design School, modeled after the D-School at Stanford, which offers a graduate degree in interdisciplinary design and connects programs from NSAD, City College, UCSD (CaliT2 and CISA3), USD and San Diego State University.
• Design and creative-focused businesses, new to Downtown San Diego that are recruited to become anchors for this new cluster. Examples would be IDEO in Palo Alto or Activision in Santa Monica.
• An “ARTS Blok” — a full city block containing a museum showcasing the works of a major collector with galleries and cafes at grade, low-cost studio space a level above, and 200 units of affordable artist housing on the upper floors.
• A flexible “watering hole” community space that provides for a lively discourse and exchange of ideas, trends and issues and has a nocturnal life as a hip performance and visual arts space.
• A variety of well-designed and programmed public spaces, including the East Village Green, that facilitate interaction and relaxation among district inhabitants.
• High Design High — a charter school modeled after the magnet school DASH (Design and Architecture Senior High) in Miami and similar in concept to San Diego’s own High Tech High, in which students have a specialized design-focused curriculum and are able to partner with area designers for internships and mentorships
• Multiple retail and dining options, including a fresh market, all with a strong design/artistic influence, with outdoor cafes spilling onto the streets.
• Housing in a wide variety of forms and price points including student and artist housing and new models of supportive housing for the homeless.
• Bike and car-share programs encouraging residents and visitors to walk, bike or use transit in the district.
We envision a real, vibrant, urban neighborhood characterized by activity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The cluster of creative enterprises will be a magnet for young people, for innovation, and for artistic and entrepreneurial expression. This community will be composed of scientists, students, engineers, artists, designers and architects, whose economic function and personal passion is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content. The concept is scalable and can move forward successfully with only a few key and targeted anchor tenants, but has the opportunity to grow dramatically and ultimately emerge as a major growth engine.
This is not an opportunity that will last indefinitely. Development pressures are already building to turn one of the district’s best assets, available land, into four-story apartments over a parking podium. If this occurs, East Village will read as one long, boring, run-on sentence and it will forever preclude the potential to achieve something truly special and transformative.  Imagine if, as some suggested at the time, we had decided to pass on UCSD and just built more housing instead.  Consider how that one strategic choice has changed our region.
So, the challenge is before us. The undeniable convergence of technology and design, the presence of growing design businesses and educational institutions hungry for collaboration, and available urban land with great “bones” all conspire to present us with a huge opportunity. Can all the stakeholders in this District work together to achieve a dynamic, jobs-rich mixed use neighborhood that can produce extraordinary benefits for all?  We believe we can and we will.

David Malmuth is president of David Malmuth Development LLC.

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