UC San Diego Sees Downtown As Innovation’s Next Frontier

by Jennifer Davies

Since its inception more than 50 years ago, UC San Diego has been an agent of change in the region. But its transformative role was hardly by chance. Rather, it was the stated goal of civic leaders in the 1950s and 1960s. They envisioned a world-class research university that would serve the needs of innovative defense companies after World War II as well as enable and energize a growing cluster of life science and technology firms on the Torrey Pines Mesa.

That vision has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Today, San Diego is home to one of the world’s largest research and development clusters in the world, which, according to the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation, has an economic impact of almost $14 billion annually.

But while innovation continues to flourish on and around the UC San Diego campus, there is growing recognition that technological advancement is not—nor should it be—the sole province of the Torrey Pines Mesa, said Mary Walshok, associate vice chancellor of public programs and dean of UC San Diego Extension.

“Just as the growth of the research institutions on the Torrey Pines Mesa has been transformative for the city and the region,” Walshok said, “we realize there is an opportunity to be part of the next great transformation, and we believe that means UC San Diego needs to have a vital presence in the urban core.”

To that end, UC San Diego Extension recently announced its intention to build an Innovative Cultural and Education Hub in downtown San Diego. The four-story, 66,000-square-foot facility, which is slated to open in 2020, will sit at the corner of Park Boulevard and Market Street and deliver a wide range of programs to the growing downtown innovation community and the diverse neighborhoods throughout San Diego’s urban core.

“This facility will open up doors to our students and our faculty to be more embedded in the rich tapestry of our community,” Walshok said. “We hope it will attract others to the mission of an inclusive innovation economy that is so critical for San Diego’s ongoing success.”

UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla said the new facility is designed to deliver on the core tenets of the university’s Strategic Plan to ensure equity and excellence.

“Our establishment of an urban innovation and educational hub demonstrates our commitment to be bold and build a better university, a better community, and a better world,” Khosla said. “This new hub will support economic development downtown while delivering new educational opportunities for our students, faculty, and staff, and provide a greater connection to the communities throughout San Diego.”

UC San Diego Extension will provide leadership for the center, which the Holland Partner Group is developing as part of a larger residential project at the location. The UC San Diego center will offer educational and cultural programs and will include an outdoor amphitheater. The center will be home to:

•    Academic and outreach programs for middle school and high school students from surrounding communities
•    Business incubation and entrepreneurship resources for entrepreneurs throughout the urban core
•    A venue for arts events and exhibits to showcase the university’s and the larger community’s cultural offerings
•    A hub for civic engagement, including applied research and volunteer opportunities
•    Courses, workshops, and seminars relevant to downtown’s growing workforce.

Mayor Kevin L. Faulconer applauded UC San Diego for its commitment to the city’s ongoing efforts in education and economic development.

“Landing a university presence in downtown San Diego is a game changer and the result of years of hard work to make it a reality,” Faulconer said. “This new project will continue the revitalization of the East Village neighborhood and, with UC San Diego’s top-notch reputation, provide countless opportunities for collaboration as we prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow.”

No state funds will be used to finance the construction of the project, and ongoing financing will come from a combination of program underwriting, contracts and grants, fees for services, and lease revenues all of which UC San Diego Extension will manage.

Walshok said rapid advances in technology and changing demographics demand that UC San Diego move beyond its main campus and find ways to engage a wide array of constituencies at the new downtown facility.

For one, if San Diego is to maintain its leadership role as a global hub for innovation, the region needs to invest in its downtown because millennials, who make up the largest generation in U.S. history, crave an urban lifestyle. The Nielsen Company, a national market research firm, found in a recent survey that 62 percent of millennials would prefer to live in the type of mixed-use communities found in urban centers, where they can be close to shops, restaurants, and offices. This demographic trend parallels the increasing importance of software, data analytics, and computers to all industries—retail, health, services, manufacturing, and entertainment.

Downtown San Diego echoes the national trends. Of the 34,550 people living in downtown, millennials are the largest demographic group, making up a third of the population.

An urban environment is even important to millennials who work in the innovation sector, Walshok said. Increasingly, UC San Diego graduates in computer science are moving to cities such as San Francisco because they offer a wide variety of job opportunities and an urban lifestyle.

“We’d naturally much rather they live and work here,” she said.

This desire for an urban environment is evident in downtown San Diego’s growing innovation cluster. Already, downtown is home to more than 110 startups, which translates into 15.34 startups for every 10,000 people. By way of comparison, there are just 1.35 startups per 10,000 people countywide.

Walshok emphasized that much of what is driving the innovation economy is the growing importance of software to all fields—from healthcare to transportation to telecommunications. Because of its collaborative nature, software development demands density to foster connections and spur new advances—something that urban environments are uniquely able to offer.

But UC San Diego’s urban innovation initiative is about more than growing downtown’s tech scene, Walshok said. It is about engaging the surrounding communities to ensure they have access to the training and educational resources they need so they can be part of a growing and constantly changing innovation sector.

One of the main reasons the university selected the Park and Market site is because it is located next to the extension of the trolley’s UC San Diego Blue Line, which will run from San Ysidro to University City and connect the campus in La Jolla with the greater San Diego region.

“These transportation links that connect the university with the larger community are critical as the city comes of age,” Walshok said. “We want to build this facility to demonstrate that no matter where you come from, there is a place for you in the innovation economy.”

Walshok said the exact programs the facility will house will be determined over the coming year through conversations and collaborations with a wide array of community stakeholders. Nonetheless, she added, it is clear this new hub will help redefine the role of a research university in the 21st century by offering unique educational experiences and research opportunities as well as arts and cultural activities.

“With the diverse neighborhoods surrounding the urban core, including Barrio Logan, the Diamond District, and Golden Hill, this project reinforces UC San Diego’s role as a key partner in spurring economic prosperity and inclusion through engaging events and educational offerings of interest to all San Diegans,” Walshok said. “In the decade ahead, I think the downtown facility will yield real economic benefits for the citizens of San Diego. It is an extraordinary time for our region.”

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