In August 2018, many of us were aghast at a news story, summed up in the Union-Tribune’s webby headline, “Three dead in wrong-way I-805 crash in Sorrento Valley that shut down freeway for 6 hours.” An 18-year-old man driving a McLaren sports car 100 miles per hour southward in the northbound lanes smashed into an SUV carrying a mother and daughter. On impact, the cars ignited in a firestorm and all three were killed.
Deadly accidents are not rare occurrences at the nexus “in Sorrento Valley.” Charred swaths and shattered glass on the highway speak of a Pickett’s Charge to get through the Merge, famed for its 22 northbound and southbound lanes that move thousands to destinations ever elsewhere.
This getting by only popularizes a misconception about the place, like rubes end up in Bakersfield or billionaire technocrats outnumber the poor in San Francisco. No, no, no. Look closer. Wrecks don’t occur in Sorrento Valley. They happen on Interstate 805, the coronary artery that skirts the community. I-805 is not in but rather above or over the Valley, much like our night and morning clouds are above and over the coastal air-vent of the county, daily sun-erased.
Most of us know little about the Valley below. For one thing, it’s among the safest of neighborhoods. A glance at crime statistics shows negligible amounts in Sorrento Valley proper (most months: no murder, no rape, 20 nonresidential burglaries). The place is either an off-hours fortress with a Brink’s security apparatus, or what is there — aside from a few thousand folk who live in the Water Ridge and Pacific Ridge developments — is mostly business property under lock and guard.
Indeed, there are two Sorrento Valleys. One is a beehive of daytime ritual; countless cubicled techies, screen-gazing at Qualcomm or startups such as Omniome, Injinji, and Onsolve (soon-to-launch micro-gadgetry or spicy Asian street food). The other is composed of halcyon homes where residents unwind with ample night-and-weekend quiet. They toast their five-bedroom, backyard-balcony, canyon-view homes and listen to the coyotes howl.
Birth of an old identity
One morning in March, 2013, Julia Schriber drove out of her Sorrento Valley subdivision and was shocked to see her locale had just been signed — blue-and-white plaques bolted to light poles, reading “Welcome to Mira Mesa.” There were several of these roadway placards, overnighted as it were. In one case, there was (and remains) a “monument,” a fake-rock marker announcing Mira Mesa, anchored where Mira Mesa Boulevard begins just off the I-805, which, residents rightly claim, is Sorrento Valley proper. Her pride assaulted, Schriber started phoning friends.
Soon, Susan Carolin, Lil Nover, and a woman named Suzette joined Schriber, all 20-year-plus residents, for a kitchen-table revolutionary tea. They were more than upset, as Schriber, a sonographer at UCSD, tells it. “We felt we were literally being erased.” The word “erased” suggests intent. (Some ruthless sorts, during this velvet takeover, also changed Valley names on Wikipedia and on Google Maps, which eventually had to be changed back.) Schriber says that what little clout neighbors thought they had, they didn’t. Her prime motivation was to protect the autonomy of the two canyons, Los Peñasquitos and Lopez, long, walkable swales of dusty trails and chaparral. These protected spaces, Schriber says, herald a healing balm, what residents think of as their Sorrento home, “a perfect urban-vs-nature environment.”
In no time, the culprit emerged: the eight-member, authoritarian assessment-district, the Mira Mesa Planning Group. They branded Sorrento Valley a “subarea” of Mira Mesa, as well as the prosaic “Western Mira Mesa,” in part, Schriber observes, because “no one ever questions them.” Suzette did. At Kevin Faulconer’s office, she fulminated, only to be told, Scriber recalls, “no one would fight their battles for them.” If members wanted a community identity, they must form a town council.
Which they did, only to discover the irksome fact that the City is bounded by all sorts of overlapping jurisdictions. The administrative overlord for Sorrento Valley is the Mira Mesa Planning Group. Which is where the signs came from. Peeved, Susan Carolin lobbied to have the Valley take on its police department’s designation as Sorrento Valley — in her words, their “most accurate identity.”
To become Sorrento Valley (again), the quartet of women got instructions via Google to form a 501(c)(3) corporation, chartering tax-exempt status, a board, rules, meetings, minutes, and encouraging citizen input. First order of business was an orchestrated protest against the neighboring neighborhood thieves, the Mira Mesans. At a town meeting, the incensed Sorrento Valley residents pushed back, a hundred sympathizers chanting slogans and wearing T-shirts, “Stop the Mira Mesa Land Grab!”
Since then, these women, along with others (husbands and friends), have accomplished a rare act of civic heroism, scratching a community into being, one monthly Marriott common-room confab at a time. Actually, I should say reviving a community into being: Sorrento Valley, for a long time an expanse of grazing and mooing (the cattle story comes later), has existed as a place name for more than 150 years.
What is a community?
First would be an agreed-upon boundary. Wayne Cox, a member of the town council, tells me that Sorrento Valley is not an amorphous adjunct to Mira Mesa. There’s a clear line: the north-south Camino Santa Fe, from Los Peñasquitos to Carroll Canyon Road.
Second is the “raised” consciousness of its community members, who trigger a mini-Tea Party, which ignites the torches of those who care the most about where they live, and who put in thousands of hours of time volunteering, forgoing Netflix to read five-year community-plan reports.
Indicative of this are Susan Carolin’s pursuits: president of the town council; the captain of the “Next Door” program, a website meetup; representative of the San Diego Coalition of Neighborhoods; and author of articles about the Valley. For Cox, the thing that got his goat was that the Mira Mesa bosses had no interest in hearing either his voice or those of his neighbors, homeowners and condo renters in the Valley. Thanks to Cox and a few disgruntled, dedicated others, the town has a voice now.
A transient hometown
In the Valley, there are hundreds of office parks, turn-in lanes to warehouse bays and loading docks, abuzz with beeping delivery trucks, Monday through Friday. Employees lunch locally while a few, exhausted after work, “dinner” there. The community would like a more aggregate feel. But the rush to leave around four is like lining up for the Indy 500. According to Plan Mira Mesa, there are 1618 businesses in the Valley, at which 46,000 people work. Most are one-vehicle commuters. That’s a sizable car-print.
For those of us who cubicle at home and feel superior, such back-patting is unearned: The majority of San Diegans not only do not live where they work, they can’t. Would they like to? The assumption is yes, based on common sense and the decades-old “City of Villages” concept so central to San Diegans’ hope for the post-industrial, decentralized, mixed-use city many hope to work from home in. (You would think that masses of techies could work remotely; perhaps many do, but it hasn’t slowed the traffic.)
Some facts. Sorrento Valley occupies 7.7 square miles (2 percent of the City of San Diego), sports 5400 residents, and has a low density: 704 people per square mile. By comparison, orange-grove-laden Rancho Santa Fe has 459 people per square mile, while the rabbit-warren city proper has 4337. The Valley feels roomy, the canyons giving one’s legs the space to stride and roam.
The people. Thirty-nine percent are foreign born; the ethnic range is mostly white and Asian. The distribution of age groups rises sharply at age 25, peaks at 35, and falls fast at 45. (Where any 35-year-old gets the money to afford Sorrento Valley’s home prices — pound for pound, among the highest in the county — is another mystery.) A tech-heavy population, almost half carry a bachelor’s degree or higher; five percent are PhDs. Nowadays, there are a good deal of young urban professionals. These singles and couples are college-and-post-grad renters. There’s only a smattering of kids; there’s no school.
Nonetheless, Sorrento Valley offers an incomparable site that still amazes as one whizzes by in either direction and peers west: a lagoon-away hike or bike ride to the Pacific Ocean and the shudder that this valley was once among the most beautiful and wild expanses in southern California, where canyon, estuary, and beach formed the aboriginal Merge.
Weed and speed
The big four issues that town council members chew on at their meetings, underneath the roar of jets and helicopters taking off and landing at nearby Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, include:
One, the slow invasion of marijuana production facilities — not pot shops, but dope mills (oils, creams, pipes, edibles) whose downside is more arrivals/departures, greenhouse gas emissions, and a skunk-like odor from the cooking vats, that is, if the facilities include retail or delivery components. Ten such mills are coming soon to the Valley and 17 to Mira Mesa. Twenty-seven stoner warehouses — odiferous, indeed.
Two, the accompanying image shift, by no means certain, from San Diego’s Land of Tech to pick-up-friendly ganja stops. The former San Diego County Credit Union office — on Sorrento Valley Road, zoned industrial and paralleling I-805 beneath the towering legs of the freeway — is slated as a production facility. Cannabis labs and hemp ovens will be housed in many of these one-story architectural throwbacks. Many of these throwbacks possess the aesthetic appeal of a suit-box from Nordstrom. Street-common signs, For Lease and Real Estate Opportunity, suggest not abandonment but an era that time forgot.
Recently re-elected District Six councilmember Chris Cate, who represents the Valley and Mira Mesa, issued the following word salad about his position on these facilities, a policy more cosmetic than substantive: “While I did not support the City Council’s recent decision to not limit the number of marijuana production facilities in each council district, we have proposed a number of reforms that will limit the potential negative impacts of this industry. This includes advocating for the removal of illegal storefronts, delivery services and online platforms such as WeedMaps, as well as proposing new regulations regarding the advertising of marijuana businesses.”)
Three, a change in image impacts not just the people who live in the Valley but, more numerically, the 70,000 who every day bumper-to-bumper into jobs or drive past, and who are lumped in with the 73,000 cars and trucks that enter the Merge, northbound, on I-805. (By 2034 that number climbs to 106,000.) Schriber and a few other seers/proposers have a vision for the Valley’s future: Move the 30-year-old Coaster train station south about a mile on Sorrento Valley Road; there, build a transportation hub where commuters, via an aerial skyway, would descend from a Trolley stop near Scripps Memorial Hospital a mile or so to the west down a breathtaking canyon-side to the Valley — in gondolas like those that jostle across the San Diego Zoo.
At the hub, city buses, business shuttles, scooters, bikes, and Lyft service would address the first-mile/last-mile connection, mass transit’s hardest problem. Schriber says, “If we can just get people here, it’ll be easy to move them to their businesses.”
Four, a nuisance and a danger — weeds and speed. It only takes a quick turn down industrially zoned side streets to find curbside clumps of witch grass and bull thistle, then whomp-whomp over speed humps or be shamed by “speed beacons,” identifying Your Speed and telling you to Slow Down. Schriber says the worst issue of all are the deadly accidents on Sorrento Valley Boulevard, a hilly rush-hour race course, again, used to flee the Valley, in an otherwise “very happy neighborhood.” (Of course, every San Diego neighborhood wants weed control and brush management, not exactly fiscal priorities in a City whose shortfall in 2019 has a high-end estimate of $40 million.)
Valleys of distinction
The name, Sorrento Valley, shares a three-beat, sibilant sound with its Northern California “rival,” Silicon Valley. We may associate the two, but their differences are stark. The main feature of Silicon Valley includes its notoriety as the home of Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, and Google, planetary apes of the most aggressive sort. Plus, the area has five sizeable cities, a population of four million, wizards (or demons) Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg, humanist causes, and wealth unimaginable.
Sorrento Valley, by contrast, is puny, singular, button-down, and famed for two things, one new, the other old: Karl Strauss beer and Linkabit, a 1968 Los Angeles company that made circuit boards, semiconductors, silicon chips, and phone technology. Its two founders, Irwin Jacobs and Andrew Viterbi, moved the company to the Valley in 1970.
From Linkabit’s seminal habitation as a digital communications mecca, a spider’s web of companies grew in the 1980s — one hundred spinoffs and scions of spinoffs, most notably, the millionaire-making Qualcomm, begun in 1985 and still on the Fortune 500 list at #133.
Joel West, writing in the Journal of San Diego History, notes a counterintuitive reason why startups flourished in the Valley. From 1984 to 1989, Linkabit encouraged “the dispersal of [their] technical talent,” in part because management and public relations weren’t the company’s strong suit while letting creative teams take control was. The outcome launched a tentacled revolution, wireless communications companies breeding close to the parent. Today, there are some three hundred such digital firms in the area. The truth is, Sorrento Valley has been far less monetized and social media-controlled than Silicon Valley. It remains Untucked, not T-shirt and sneakers, a kind of porous bivouac of information firms, immune to the spotlight. Sorrento Valley is hardly associated with the morphing of humans and devices in the social-media age.
A major oddity
Another curiosity about the indeterminate nature of Sorrento Valley comes from scanning overhead maps from the 1960s. Bulldozers flattened hilltops, canyons were back-filled, graded dirt roads snaked every which way, and the new mesa tops were prepped for concrete foundations and parking lots. Such was the developers’ dream: I see houses, businesses, mini-malls. The problem was, excepting a few hundred condos and single-family homes squeezed in on some prime real estate, the lion’s share of the commodified mesas and their arterial roads were zoned, IL 2-3, that is, industrial light, mainly for biotech labs and innovation incubators.
The home-to-business balance is lopsided, as I’ve detailed. With four of five San Diegans driving to work alone, the transportation cost per household averages $10,000 per year. In the residentially concentrated and even busier Mira Mesa, it’s a thousand dollars less. But in Sorrento Valley, the price runs between $16,000 and $18,500, the higher number twice as high as it is for a Mira Mesan.
Homes in Sorrento Valley shoulder majestic open spaces; they are also wedged in by the light industrial grid. The neighborhood can neither grow up nor out. Jeff Stevens, chairman of the Mira Mesa Planning Board, a citizen-based advisory group, has been an off-and-on member since 1986. He tells me that Sorrento Valley was settled with an industry/business stamp due to “the Miramar overflights”: Military planes take off toward the ocean, turn north, and fly directly over the Water Ridge condos. The “noise contour” is a nuisance and a restriction — to the degree that most home builders cannot persuade themselves to push new projects.
The brave, occasional developer wants, when cost-feasible, to erect “workforce housing.” But, Stevens says, just because you build homes in the Valley doesn’t mean a person’s employment will be nearby. In addition, there are two things Sorrento Valley does not have: schools and libraries. Stevens says, for families, that’s a “real shortcoming.”
One recent workforce housing project Stevens recalls was opposed by Qualcomm; they went “ballistic,” he says. Since their founding, anyone bringing in residential space will, from Qualcomm’s point of view, “add-to or create conflicts,” namely, more lights, odors, noise, vandalism, traffic, and mixed-use chaos.
Moreover, one reason Qualcomm exerts its miserly persona when it comes to property is its dominion in the Valley. The company owns, at its Sorrento Mesa campus just off Mira Mesa Boulevard, 15 parcels of land. In 2017, these parcels were valued at $1.4 billion, with an annual tax bill of $18.5 million. Qualcomm is not wont to let any of this go, especially after it downsized this past June and still has empty office space. Says Stevens, rezoning for residential will only drive the price up on the land the tech giant owns, raising their property taxes even higher. It makes a kind of sense.
All this is true also of small businesses on Sorrento Valley Road. Its two-mile-long stretch borders the Amtrak and the Coaster train tracks and has for years offered 15 percent “space available,” according to one realtor, a perennially depressed market where no one wants to relocate, since most of these spots have none of the glassy elegance the white-coats desire.
Liberty’s hidden tax
Another measure of how the Valley has been altered over time goes back to the initial conquest. Beginning in 1759, a viable 12,000-year settlement of the Ystagua, descendants of the Kumeyaay, was subdued by land barons who evicted them and in their place grazed 1000 head of cattle across Los Peñasquitos’ 1000 acres. The spot was called Soledad during the Spanish occupation, until a cattleman renamed it Sorrento, a romantic homage to Sorrento, an Italian city on the crest-shaped beach of the Bay of Naples. The greatest economic transformer wasn’t cattle, of course. It was the railroad, tracking through in 1886, and its spurs linking the Valley to cities north and south with beef.
Elena Juarez, owner of the Sorrento Valley Children’s School on Sorrento Valley Boulevard, recalls opening her preschool in 1983, with Qualcomm arriving next door two years later, while cattle still lowed in Peñasquitos. Juarez says the occasional randy bull would get loose and require a police escort back to the fields. By 1990, people outnumbered cows — as well as horses, stabled near the canyon — and the animals were eaten or trucked away.
In the 1970s, when the district opened a Valley elementary school, Jack Naiman built a nearby community center for children. He wanted parents who labored in the Valley to have a safe, modern, after-school kids’ hang-out. He contributed a gym, a pool, and a playground, all supervised. Call it early extended workplace daycare.
Alas, place and plan succumbed to the exponential hunger of tech companies, an irony that even Naiman, head of American Real Estate, couldn’t escape. The money was in the business ventures, not in the community. Exemplary of the former is his San Diego Tech Center on Scranton Road, an award-winning architectural marvel whose white-palace citadel has nothing a swing-set-loving child would want. Indeed, his dream of a kids’ magnet went south. Today, the district elementary school in the Valley is gone. Of Juarez’s 80 current preschoolers, she says 90 percent are driven in from Carmel Valley to the north and 10 percent from Mira Mesa to the east.
This driven-in-ness is (stop me if you heard this before) beyond annoying — single drivers, Coaster trains (some 17 a day with more coming), dinging railroad crossings, massive struts of the Interstates and their grinding noise, stop signs instead of traffic lights, all of it colluding into a workday Carmageddon.
It makes one think that the last thing planned for, at least, in the bright, shiny vision of pro-growth moguls, is the traffic. Even as the cattle and horses were packed off, small-business developers sliced the whole pie of Sorrento Valley, not as a work/live magnet, but solely as a work mecca. At everyone’s peril — and this sentiment was alluded to by everyone I spoke with — we ignore, unconsciously, the lesson that Americans pay a hidden tax for the liberty we prize to live and work anywhere we want.
Driving north on Sorrento Valley Road toward Carmel Mountain Road, one finds the serviceable New English Brewery, seven years making and selling craft beer in the Valley. New English is expanding. It has a new party room, with a wall of barrels shouldering barrels and a slew of brews on tap, overseen by British owner Simon Lacey, the brew master. His tasting room opens at 4 pm weekdays where, as a pod of food trucks rattle and hum outside for a dinner crowd, a group of beer lovers convenes. “They are,” he told me recently, “the smartest group of drinkers I’ve ever met.” PhDs and Tesla types who earn a daily breather from plying their skill set in the Golden Triangle. Off work, they wend their way, mostly, to North County homes. But, Lacey says, they like his easy-in/easy-out brewski stop, one of a few sticky way stations in the Valley.
Despite such success, a quandary remains for Sorrento Valley. I think it’s this: a lack of stickiness. With little room (or will) to build more housing, with a stagnant population, with home prices precariously high, with no school, library, fire station, bus service, shopping-center shuttle, cinema, concert venue, or neighborhood park with a bandstand, the only thing that I see growing is the community’s insularity.
To be fair, there are A.A. meetings, a group of Sorrento Valley Riders who horseback through the Los Peñasquitos preserve, a fencing school, a summer baseball camp, a post office, a police substation, and a shrubby canyon bordering Water Ridge that is slated to be the Valley’s first/only 30-acre urban park. And, I should add, there are sticky offerings that magnetize residents to Mira Mesa proper — just a short drive away.
Such, I caution, is my viewpoint as a visitor. I’m exacting no blame. The sticky element I speak of needs investors. It needs after-work destinations such as dance studios and a bookstore. It needs kids, poison-oak infected and worried over by their parents. It needs a lot more than a dedicated few, beyond the quartet of town-council women and their Fall Beer Fest whose profits fund a Halloween Spooktacular for a face-painted passel of local kids. A hometown needs a few wuthering heights, too, a rough element, a dark alley, a lovers’ lane, from which the unpredictable may sprout.
Still, I take away the idea that even if muscular operations such as Karl Strauss and Qualcomm have given Sorrento Valley its mercantile brand, such a scorch is skin deep. It takes a few generations of people who stay in one place, whether they work there or not, who eventually develop narrative continuity when the story of staying put becomes their stickiest identity.
Eternal space available
Speaking of sticky: take a drive through the Valley’s El Camino Memorial Park, final resting spot of fast-food kingfish Ray Kroc and his liberal, animal-loving, Salvation-Army-arming wife Joan. The pair, along with other notables, Jonas Salk and Patti Page, are buried in the 220-acre hilly enclave. At El Camino, all roads curve, spigots shoot early-morning arcs of sweet moisture, green grows the grass, and burial plots — slotted crypts in mausoleums or bush-boxed courtyards of family gravesites — age wine-slow under the petal falls of hibiscus and bougainvillea, the whole enterprise somnambulant with noncommercial tranquil intent.
No community wants to be known for its dead. Still, Sorrento Valley has no memorial, say, a stone statue of an engineer in a lab coat, that commemorates its history. I think, and pardon my moroseness, that viable communities last, and become celebrated, because of those who have lived and died there. Perhaps the Valley neighborhood needs a buried legacy to assert, finally, its fullest sense of self.