Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Creating a Sustainable Main Street 

12-09-2015 17:35

Over the last ten years, the greater North Park community and the North Park Main Street business district have experienced a new economic and cultural renaissance, emerging as one of the most progressive and exciting urban villages in San Diego. It all got started in 1998 when North Park Main Street (NPMS) declared itself an Arts, Culture & Entertainment District. Since then, a new professional class of artists, designers, musicians, architects, writers, entrepreneurs, and lively cultural events have turned North Park Main Street into a widely recognized creative community.

Today, the community continues to forge new ground as it works to become California’s first sustainable Main Street community—both economically and environmentally.

The North Park Community

North Park is located in the central portion of the city of San Diego within five miles of the downtown area and adjacent to Balboa Park. North Park is roughly 1,466 acres in area and has a population of approximately 40,500 people residing in about 22,000 dwelling units.

North Park Main Street was established in 1996 as a Business Improvement District whose boundaries center on two primary commercial corridors—University Avenue and 30th Street. North Park Main Street’s goal is to promote the revitalization of historic commercial districts supporting small, independently-owned businesses.

In addition to the Main Street program, North Park’s commercial corridor along University Avenue is one of five sites designated as Pilot Villages under San Diego’s City of Villages program. This innovative city program helps to build sustainable communities by promoting development that mixes housing, retail, jobs, schools, and civic uses within walkable communities that have ready access to transit. The immediate access to buses and the light-rail trolley allows residents and visitors to experience commercial corridors and unique shopping experiences without having to spend time searching for a parking spot.

Creating a Sustainable Main Street

The California Office of Historic Preservation oversees the California Main Street program in partnership with the California Main Street Alliance (CAMSA), a nonprofit entity. As state historic preservation officer and a native of San Diego, I challenged North Park to become California’s first sustainable Main Street Community. Community leaders took on the challenge, and in 2009 they initiated California’s first Sustainable Main Street program.

First, they brought together a group of local stakeholders, which included transportation planners, environmental advocates, energy conservation experts, green building consultants, farm-to-table restaurateurs, elected officials, business owners, utility companies, and residents working with volunteer professionals under the leadership of North Park Main Street staff. This group came up with the following goals and objectives for the program:

  • Maintain the cultural and historic integrity of the built and social environment.
  • Increase resource efficiency and conservation within the district.
  • Increase internal community connectivity.
  • Provide a setting for a sustainable green economy.

The initial planning group also decided that guiding principles should include supporting the environment, strengthening the local economy, and promoting social equity. As a result, they came up with the following key program objectives:

  • Create a demonstration project that can serve as a model for other communities.
  • Maintain cultural/historical integrity by strengthening the existing historic fabric of North Park and shaping new investment to enhance the physical setting of this unique urban village.
  • Increase resource efficiency by reducing the carbon footprint of the district, conducting energy audits, promoting efficiency of water use, and reducing the district’s contribution to the waste stream.
  • Promote a sustainable green economy by increasing opportunities for local employment, production, and commerce while increasing the diversity of goods and services available.
  • Promote mobility by increasing the efficiency and ease of transit, encouraging active transportation, and improving accessibility for residents and visitors alike.

The Sustainable North Park Main Street program calls for the preservation of historically significant and contributing structures, emphasizing the reuse of materials and business practices that require less energy and waste. These principles provide an opportunity to grow North Park Main Street around a shared vision of localism, historic preservation, and environmental stewardship. By making North Park Main Street a center of sustainability, community leaders hope to strengthen and broaden the district’s competitive position as a desirable destination for new businesses, thereby fulfilling Main Street’s core mission of architectural and cultural preservation through economic development.

From Vision to Implementation Plan

An extended design development process led to a Vision Plan, which was widely distributed and presented in two community gallery showings, with associates present to clarify the proposal and collect feedback from community representatives. The next step was to create a Sustainability and Implementation Plan based on the Vision Plan. The Sustainability and Implementation Plan refines the photos and visionary drawings of North Park, using them as a basis for diagrams with explanatory notes describing the possible interventions in very practical terms. Possible interventions included the following actions:

  • Increasing the width of non-historic sidewalks.
  • Improving shading and softening landscaping while filtering and decreasing the amount of rainwater that goes to the public storm drain system.
  • Generating renewable energy on site by maximizing use of roofs and parking structures while providing rebates and incentives for residential and non-residential property owners.
  • Providing public open space, vest-pocket parks, and event gathering spots at street edges, alleys, and other developable land contributing to the greening and social vitality of the community.

The Sustainability and Implementation Plan has a number of uses. It will help Main Street staff educate and inspire building owners and business people about how they can participate in and support the broader vision of a Sustainable North Park Main Street. By demonstrating the separate components of a sustainability program, the plan can also be used to generate interest in potential funders to support plan components. And finally, by illustrating the vision of coordinated infrastructure investment in the public areas, the plan serves as a handbook for public agencies and advocacy groups who oversee and implement public works.

The Sustainability and Implementation Plan was also designed for other California Main Street communities to use as a model for their own Sustainable Main Street program. The publication, whose appendices serve as both technical manuals and ongoing records of the accomplishments of the district, is also meant to be a living, growing document to which additional interventions, digital building models, incentives, completed projects, or community proposals may be added.

A unique feature is how the plan looks at five different historic buildings that illustrate sustainable solutions while retaining their historic integrity and maintaining their sense of place within the community.

San Diego’s Historic North Park Main Street District acts directly as a catalyst for sustainable development of the North Park community and as a model to explore the potential of implementing various sustainable strategies in both the public and private realms.

Franklin, Tenn., Adopts Sustainability Program
Another Main Street community, Franklin, Tenn., has made great strides in developing and implementing a sustainability program. The city held workshops on sustainability to get citizens involved in drafting a Sustainability Action Plan. Volunteers formed committees to develop goals for the action plan. These goals included waste reduction, establishing guidelines for more sustainable building practices, and encouraging urban development that promotes mixed-use, high-density development, among others.

Another initiative, the Live Green Partners Program, recognizes businesses that are taking steps to green their operations. Business owners can choose among a wide variety of activities to cultivate a culture of sustainability in their business practices. This may be as simple as printing double-sided documents or switching to biodegradable materials for carryout containers.

Future Steps

Full implementation of this plan demands a series of programmatic elements, some of which could be financed as discrete components. In the long run, however, the success of this effort will depend on North Park Main Street exerting a strong coordinating role among these various efforts. Here are some of the program components envisioned by the plan:

  • An advisory committee charged with strategic planning, monitoring, and recording progress of the implementation plan.
  • A three-dimensional digital model of the district (already created) and detailed models of five focus buildings. Future enhancements of the district model include additional building models, with emphasis on North Park’s historic structures.
  • Community-based GIS support to enable the district to map current conditions and monitor program performance. 
  • Internship programs for students in urban studies, architecture, and environmental studies. Interns can continue to model the district’s historic buildings, develop Historic American Building Survey drawings, provide design solutions, develop and maintain tracking tools, participate in community meetings, and develop outreach materials.
  • Technology to support the digital modeling and graphic capabilities of the program and an interactive website to allow full accessibility to the program’s resources.
  • A coordinated effort to get community input and provide outreach to building owners, business operators, prospective developers, and government agencies.
  • Secure dedicated funding for a Sustainable North Park Main Street program coordinator to implement the program. This staff member will act as a resource and outreach coordinator, actively pursuing and facilitating efforts by both private and public sectors to implement the components of the plan.
  • Development of a special Benefits District to help implement the public right-of-way portion of the plan by providing maintenance and operations support for green infrastructure components.


Through the extraordinary and exemplary action of the community, the Sustainability and Implementation Plan for North Park Main Street has shown that projects of this scale and complexity can be achieved where there is passion and commitment. The locally-driven efforts of community volunteers, coupled with professional consultants, government entities, private companies, and nonprofit organizations, can continue to enhance the economic and cultural renaissance of the greater North Park community.

Visit for the complete Sustainable North Park Main Street Sustainability and Implementation Plan.

Publication Date: Summer 2012



Author(s):Milford Wayne Donaldson, FAIA

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