Sense of Place: Cities Along 78 Corridor Create Live-Work-Play Downtowns

Downtown San Marcos

A growing interest in walkable and live-work-play urban experiences are breathing new life into downtowns across the country. The same is true along the 78 Corridor, where cities are looking to invigorate their local downtowns, or in some cases, design and construct a downtown. These progressive cities – San Marcos, Oceanside, Escondido, Vista, and Carlsbad – are also creating urban hubs for innovative people and entrepreneurs to gather.

These North County communities are committed to revitalizing their downtown neighborhoods by creating extended hours of programmed activities, walkable and play areas for residents and visitors to enjoy year-round, as well as creative coworking spaces to help fuel the thriving startup scene along the 78 Corridor.

The cities along the 78 Corridor cite having easy access to the ocean, mountains, and deserts, along with year-round beautiful weather and a business-friendly environment that is conducive to stimulating the economy. Combining new downtown initiatives with better use of public space further boosts the quality of life and experience for locals and tourists alike.

“A healthy downtown is key to a strong community. I am excited to see the transformation of 78 Corridor downtown areas into walkable communities,” said Tracey Bohlen, Economic Development Manager for the City of Oceanside. “These enhancements are giving residents and visitors more options for shopping, dining, entertaining, and outdoor activities year-round that are easily and safely accessible by foot, Sprinter and Coaster transit, bicycle or by car utilizing the new parking facilities the cities have provided.”

Below we look at how each city along the 78 Corridor is capitalizing on its civic, cultural, historical, and entertainment assets to further support the need for thriving downtown centers while creating a sense of place and community.

San Marcos

North City aims to spur economic development while balancing the “college town” feel.

For Darren Levitt, VP of Sea Breeze Properties and Developer of San Marcos’ downtown development plan, there is a united sense of purpose when creating these new mixed-use spaces and developing a downtown neighborhood.

“The intent is to create long-term economic growth and environmental sustainability with communities that can live-work-play, all in a walkable area. This establishes a sense of place and identity for residents,” he said, adding that the name of the project, University District Specific Plan, is currently being changed to North City.

Historically, San Marcos has not had a traditional downtown. However, city planners knew that CSUSM would have a student population nearing 20,000 and it was time to develop a downtown with mixed-use space to spur economic development while balancing the “college town” feel. With this in mind, local developer Sea Breeze Properties was able to acquire about 200 acres adjacent to the campus, and together with the City, created a vision that would develop a downtown for San Marcos.

Over the last ten years, North City has been constructed from the ground up to include the Quad Student Housing, Block C Apartments, Pima Medical Campus and Office Building, and Urge Common House that anchored the area with a brewery, Mason Ale Works, and a bowling alley. The retail space features dining like Prep Kitchen, Newtopia Cyder, Fresh Café, and Umami Japanese. Recently, Union Cowork had its much anticipated grand opening and construction is nearing completion for a new Extended Learning Building for CSUSM. There is much more on the horizon for North City in the next couple years, including plans for a climbing gym and fitness center, Mesa Rim.

Artist rendering of North City.

The City of San Marcos is working to improve infrastructure and mitigate transportation and traffic issues around San Marcos Boulevard from the new development of its downtown. The city’s transportation plan includes roadways accessing the new downtown via Discovery Street and a pedestrian bridge connecting CSUSM directly to North City, thus reducing traffic through town.

This is all part of the vision to create a prosperous, thriving community where residents, office occupants, college faculty and students, as well as visitors can meet friends and bump into neighbors as they walk around the neighborhood enjoying a dynamic and active urban environment.

Advanced planning is underway to begin construction within the next year of approximately 400 apartments, as well as commencement of grading on the west side of Twin Oaks Valley Road for over 600 single family homes and townhomes. Over the next few years, North City will open a natural food grocery story, a movie theatre, additional office spaces and a hotel, as well as more main street facing shopping and dining experiences. San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones has expressed her excitement for the future by stating that San Marcos is becoming a drive-to destination instead of a drive-through city.


The revitalization of Downtown Oceanside has transformed vacant storefronts into thriving businesses.

For more than a decade, Oceanside’s downtown has been going through a renaissance period. Starting with the renovation of Mission Avenue with enhancements to the entrance into downtown with a two-lane one-way street.

Tracey Bohlen, the City of Oceanside’s Economic Development Manager, said this revitalization of downtown has attracted investors to the once-vacant storefronts and has transformed them into thriving businesses, including new restaurants and shops bringing additional tax revenue to the City. The Nine Block Masterplan outlines a road map for visitor-serving and community uses. With over 50,000 sq. ft. of retail, about 600 hotel rooms and time-share units and 600 new housing units, downtown is booming with this revitalization.

Projects like Pierside North and South have established beachside residential living in the mixed-use space, and new hotels like SpringHill Marriott and Joie de Vivre Hotels and Destinations have also injected more life into Downtown Oceanside.

The Oceanside Sunset Market – which recently celebrated it’s 10 year anniversary and is now the biggest evening market in California and continues to attract thousands of residents and tourists.

Construction on the Nine Block Masterplan.

People are staying longer on their visits, taking time to explore the beach and all that downtown life provides. Bohlen said “The economic development that is happening now in Oceanside is creating more tourism and more jobs for our community.”


Downtown Carlsbad has plenty of new businesses and dining options.

Carlsbad’s proximity to the beach has always made it a very attractive coastal community.. Revitalization of downtown Carlsbad Village gives folks a reason to stay longer and come back for more beyond the beautiful beach, said Claudia Huerta, City of Carlsbad Village Manager.

Over the last five years, Carlsbad has completed several beach access improvements and a community center with a community garden that was built next to the Senior Center in the Barrio, a neighborhood adjacent to the Village.

There has also been an effort to bring new life and a culinary flare to North County, which is evident in Carlsbad with all the new businesses and dining options.

State Street’s flourishing business community has added a new coworking space, BLOC, and also has a thriving art community that features galleries and artists’ studios at New Village Arts. State Street and surrounding areas are also becoming a dining destination with exceptional establishments like the sister restaurants Campfire and Jeune Et Jolie, Park 101, the Goods, Handels, and Blue Water Grill. These wonderful places are effortlessly accessible by public transit making it easy for residents, tourists, and the environment.

“With so many outstanding dining options, Carlsbad Village has continued to be a leader in the culinary community,” Huerta said.

She said city planners and developers know that it takes more than just being a beach- or dining-destination, so they are investing to study the best decorative lighting to support economic vitality in the Village, and to explore diversifying retail offerings to enrich the pedestrian experience and attract more people to Carlsbad Village businesses.


Vista’s annual Rhythm & Blues festival allows the community to come together and enjoy local beer and live music.

In the City of Vista, a downtown renaissance and economic shifts are reshaping the downtown as city leaders are putting strategies in place to make it more inviting while capitalizing on its civic, cultural, historical, and entertainment assets to further support the vibrant environment needed for a thriving city center.

Historic downtown Vista has undergone several improvements since the 1990s. This includes the modification of Broadway to make it more pedestrian friendly and changing Main Street to two lanes with meandering sidewalks. The City has also made significant investments into its sidewalks, streets, parking, lighting, landscaping, and signage in the downtown area.

In addition, Vista recently gained federal status as an Opportunity Zone for the Downtown and Paseo Santa Fe areas. Opportunity Zones are specific geographic locations, where business owners, property owners and investors can decrease, defer, and in some instances, completely eliminate taxes on capital gains. This creates another amazing financial incentive for those looking to locate in businesses and investors in Downtown Vista and Paseo Santa Fe areas.

“Our vision for downtown Vista is an active, prosperous, and culturally rich city center that attracts both residents and visitors,” said Mayor Judy Ritter, adding that Downtown Vista’s renaissance is greatly due to the City’s amplified efforts to attract diverse businesses and investors to the area over the past few years.

One of the new businesses is Shaks Mediterranean Bistro, which opened in Vista in the fall of 2018 after closing its Armenian Café in Carlsbad due to the purchase and opening of a new hotel.

“Upon losing our location in another North County City, we began looking for locations in all of the immediate areas. The City of Vista was very persistent in assisting us to find a location. With their help, and after looking at many locations in Vista, we chose Main Street,” said owner Eddy Shakarjian, also a long-time Vista resident. “I can’t say enough about the city personnel. They all made the load much easier for us and I was blown away with their kindness.”

Downtown Vista takes pride in its local art scene.

In 2015, the City of Vista mapped out a Downtown Vista specific plan for the continued revitalization of downtown, reestablishing it as the commercial, social, and cultural center. The purpose of the plan is to create a vibrant, attractive, and livable downtown for existing and prospective residents, businesses, and visitors. The plan for downtown Vista includes:

  • Supporting economic development through a coordinated effort between the public and private sectors.
  • Establishing a formal Arts Culture District to encourage and promote the arts as a key element of Downtown Vista’s economy and identity.
  • Creating a lively mixed-use environment that provides a variety of housing, retail, and recreational opportunities and choices.
  • Acknowledging the unique history and community identity of Vista.
  • Enhancing public gathering spaces with social and recreational amenities.
  • Fostering stronger connections between adjacent neighborhoods and commercial centers downtown through enhanced pedestrian and bicycle networks, improved transit access, and efficient parking.
  • Enhancing Buena Vista Creek as a pedestrian and recreational resource by providing pedestrian and bicycle trail opportunities along the creek.
  • Incorporating the principles of health and sustainability.


Neighboring Escondido is also undergoing a transformation.

Plan 9 Alehouse Downtown Escondido.

According to Michelle Geller, Economic Development Manager for the City of Escondido, “There has been this perception that North County is a remote place far from San Diego’s urban amenities, but through Innovate78 and other outreach efforts, the word is getting out that Escondido has cool companies, great restaurants, fun events, and all kinds of housing choices. One of Innovate78’s taglines is ‘San Diego’s Upside,’ and I’m seeing that sentiment resonate with people up here.”

Geller points to the enhancements in Downtown Escondido as part of the reason why residents and visitors alike are flocking to the city. Over the past five years Escondido’s Grand Avenue has been booming with new businesses and dining establishments, including Burger Bench, and Vinklectic, a special boutique that carries unique clothing, jewelry and decor, and SIP Wine and Beer, a cozy tasting room featuring local wines and craft beer on tap. The City partnered with the Downtown Business Association to redo the landscaping in the medians along Grand Avenue. The Maple Street Plaza has been the most extensive downtown improvement to date and was completed in 2012 with funds from a SANDAG Smart Growth grant.

“This [Maple Street Plaza improvement] impacted Downtown Escondido greatly and provided a newly constructed pedestrian plaza featuring water designs, two iconic arches, and an entire block that is completely closed to traffic that is used for special events,” Geller said. “This revitalized area provides residents and visitors areas to walk around and enjoy local events in a safe, attractive space.”

A streetscape improvement project to make Grand Avenue more pedestrian-friendly, as well as widening sidewalks to provide more opportunities for restaurants to offer outdoor dining, is currently in the works. Many already established North County restaurants are setting up shop on Grand Avenue, including Mikko Sushi and Barrel Republic.

A few years ago, John Paul the Great Catholic University moved its campus to Grand Avenue. In 2016, the private college opened its student life center at the corner of Grand and Maple. This has attracted more college students and young families to adjacent neighborhoods, as well as to restaurants and shops along Grand Avenue.

“Residents and visitors alike love downtown Escondido because of its unique and historic buildings which sets it apart from other San Diego neighborhoods,” Geller said. “Creating a high-density urban living alongside these historic buildings makes Escondido a one-of-a-kind place where businesses and people want to be.”

Like Minds

City leaders along the 78 Corridor agree a strong downtown is critical for the success of their communities and the region, and they will continue to fine-tune plans to create thriving urban districts as residents and visitors alike become more aware of the unique amenities that exist in the central part of each of these communities.

“We want each downtown along the 78 corridor to be seen as the lifeblood of the communities it serves,” said Tess Sangster, City of San Marcos Economic Development Manager. “These urban cores are being reinvented to give businesses, residents, retail establishments, and guests an exciting environment to explore, connect, and thrive.”

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