How Citythinkers is Finding Purpose in City Heights

By Beth Geraci

Open House San Diego (OH San Diego) long had been on Diego Velasco’s radar. As a spectator, he’d always enjoyed participating in the annual architectural showcase. But something about 2021 seemed like the right time for more.

This year, Velasco’s company, Citythinkers, will be an Open House sponsor for the first time. Velasco, the company’s principal and founder, chose to sponsor Open House San Diego 2021 for several reasons — but OH’s turn toward equity and inclusion in 2021 had a lot to do with it.

A Man Inspired by Architecture, Urban Planning and Affordable Solutions

Diego Velasco

Velasco wanted to send the message that his business, a multidisciplinary planning, urban design and research-based firm based in North Park, celebrates equity and inclusion, too. As Citythinkers immerses itself in two City Heights affordable housing projects, Velasco is feeling solidarity with the residents there, many of whom are refugees.

Both Citythinkers projects are at the heart of City Heights’ Urban Village, a prominent intersection where four neighborhoods converge. The area already is home to a library, a park, nonprofits and other businesses. Thanks to Citythinkers, it soon will be home to additional affordable apartment units as well.

Citythinkers’ first City Heights project is a five-story, 75-unit apartment building at Fairmount and University Avenues. While Velasco designed the building, he partnered with Dess Partners on the complex, which features two- and three-bedroom family housing units for low-income families earning 60 percent of the area’s median income. The project also includes a community center that local nonprofits can use as event space.

A rendering of the five-story, 75-unit apartment building Citythinkers has in the works

The company’s second City Heights project, the Union Bank Apartments, will be a 60-unit building at 44th Street and University Avenue.

“We have such a need for housing, particularly affordable housing, in San Diego,” says Velasco, who for the last three years has taught a housing policy class at University of California San Diego (UCSD). “Knowing that you are contributing to a solution and helping families find a secure place to live is meaningful work. Housing revitalizes a neighborhood and brings it to life.”

Effective design and urban planning can help communities flourish, Velasco says, and he embraces any opportunity to play a part in that. “Even if my work makes a difference for just one family, it’s worthwhile,” he says.

Two Missions Aligned

With Open House San Diego set to take place from March 5-12, the program’s focus on diversity intersected with Velasco’s own ideals at just the right time. OH this year touts the theme “Design + Community,” inspiring San Diegans to explore what those two concepts mean in their own lives. For Velasco, the theme sends the message that quality design is a group effort.

“The best design is born from a collaboration from community members,” he says. “It leads to a deeper understanding of the community that you’re designing in. The most compelling designs tie back to the culture of a place, and there’s no way to understand that without engaging more deeply with the people who live there.”

All of this Velasco came to as an architecture student at UC Berkeley, where the program is grounded in social and cultural design considerations. With a masters in urban planning from the University of Washington, Velasco strives to find the ways architecture and urban planning intersect. If this summer’s awakening on social justice put communities like City Heights at the forefront, it’s a realm where Velasco’s passions spring to life.

“City Heights is such a rich community culturally, and it’s important for San Diegans to learn about it and see its contributions to San Diego as a whole,” Velasco says. “The people who live there are invested in each other and in the community. They’re opening businesses and committing for the long term. All of this is wonderful to showcase through Open House San Diego, and I’m proud to play a role in it.”

Interested in becoming an Open House San Diego sponsor? Email to learn how.

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