Opinion: Why the Downtown San Diego waterfront is the perfect place to grow the life science industry
Bonanno serves as chief investment officer for IQHQ, a San Diego-based life sciences real estate development company. He lives in North County.
The idea of locating a life sciences hub on the Downtown San Diego waterfront may feel sudden and unexpected to some. It requires thinking outside the box, but that is when discoveries are made. The notion the industry is constrained to central San Diego is plainly a false narrative and contrary to evident trends.
Perhaps a brief history of life sciences in San Diego would be helpful. Back in 1960, forward-thinking city officials invited Jonas Salk to locate his research institute on 70 acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The institute opened in 1963 and although it was not directly related, Hybritech, San Diego’s first biotech company, was formed 15 years later. When Hybritech sold to Eli Lilly in 1986, its former employees spawned new companies, and the industry was formed into an enduring cycle of growth: formation, partnership, merger or acquisition and then new company formations.
The industry persisted as venture capitalists were lured in by the enormous profit potential of new therapeutics and cures. At the birth of the industry, it made perfect sense to zone areas near UC San Diego and near the research institutes in Torrey Pines, and that is what the city did.
In the 1990s, real estate for these companies was particularly challenging because of the expensive and specialized nature of improvements essential to their research, the newness of the product type and the years of projected losses associated with fledgling biotech companies. Still, the base of laboratory real estate grew alongside the new industry with the assistance of early visionaries.
Once again recognizing the opportunity, city officials created new zoning to accommodate industry growth. They selected areas that were at the time largely undeveloped and previously primarily inhabited by industrial and walk-up office buildings. They were also central to newly populated suburbs and around the intersection of San Diego’s major freeway systems. The zoning worked in unison with the continued growth of the life science industry to form the San Diego cluster.
But life science was not the only industry growing in San Diego. Over the past 25 years, technology, aerospace and countless other sectors continued to grow here as well; the streets and freeways became increasingly congested, and land for expansion became highly constricted. Meanwhile, secular changes became prevalent here in San Diego, as well as in major metropolitan statistical areas across the United States, Europe and Asia. Since the turn of the century, much discussion has focused on urbanization, the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels and the expansion of mass transit.
To adapt to these trends, developers began urbanizing suburbia with extensive and disproportionately large program amenities. This is because the suburban locations are mostly accessible only by car and far from home, restaurants, hospitality, entertainment, culture and the airport. We started thinking about how inefficient and ineffective this strategy was and why the narrative that once made sense needed to change.
Some say that the selection of the Downtown waterfront location for our research and development district is a “pioneering” move. We see things differently; we believe the pioneering occurred when Baby Boomers began migrating into the suburbs, while the birth of the industry coincided with that trend. But now, after decades of suburbanization, we have experienced two decades toward a still-growing trend of urban renaissance, leading to the repopulation and resurgence of American cities.
The San Diego Research and Development District is quite literally surrounded by housing, hospitality, restaurants, entertainment and culture. It also has remarkable access to all types of transit and the airport. You can live anywhere you want and work in this district. Owning your own automobile is optional. Importantly, for its occupiers, it means being able to draw from a diversified and vast labor force. Its strategic location also allows for the integration of self-sustainable amenities on site, allowing for a reexamination of expensive and inefficient occupier-specific amenities while providing more diversified and enjoyable employee experience.
The Research and Development District is poised to become a resort-like waterfront destination with life sciences at its core. It will accommodate the growth of the life science industry, and help transform San Diego into the incredible city it was always destined — and richly deserves — to become.
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