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Monday, March 21, 2005 | San Diego wrestles with a housing emergency while at the same time being pressured to provide opportunities for job growth. The result: a tug-of-war over the remaining undeveloped or under-utilized industrial land as housing developers want to move in.

The Sickels Group’s Sorrento View (see part one of Jobs vs. Housing ) project symbolizes this dilemma, which is now something of a Solomon’s choice for the City Council. Elected officials are faced with serving two masters while making land-use decisions on what little land is left, particularly in Sorrento Mesa.

Coleen Clementson, general plan program manager at the city, said “a flood of proposed plan amendments” has been received requesting zoning changes in community plan land-use designations from industrial to residential.

“No matter how you look at it, there is a shortage of land for almost every land use,” Clementson said, citing two key issues: collocation – which involves safety, noise and air quality concerns – and land conversion – the loss of industrial land to residential zoning.

City’s proposal for collocation

The Sickels Group opposes the proposed policy, but believes that, if the policy is adopted, the Sorrento View project, which is being reviewed by the city’s Development Services Department, deserves exemption. “We need workforce housing and this project meets that need,” said Kris Michell, project manager. “We don’t understand the opposition, which seems to be more political than based on the merits of the project.”

City officials have received letters from a number of businesses and trade groups supporting the 1,000-foot buffer. Among them are the Industrial and Environmental Association, a trade group that describes itself as “the ‘voice’ for manufacturing and associated companies in San Diego,” as well as BIOCOM, which represents San Diego-area biotechnology companies.

Collocation restriction efforts

“I’m in favor of housing, but a higher priority for me is job growth and creation,” said Nordhoff, who favors a more stringent policy of a one-quarter-mile buffer zone, which is about 1,300 feet. “There is no upside for me, only downside,” he said of housing developments like Sorrento View. Residents eventually complain about nearby businesses, even though “sometimes their fears are irrational,” driving business away, he said.

“We risk losing businesses, because the economic climate in California is not as good as other states,” Nordhoff added. “If they allow collocation, it’s only going to be one way – the little industrial land we have left will disappear.”

Disagreement within the business community

“Housing prices in San Diego are not sustainable, and if your workers can’t afford to live here, you can’t stay here – that’s what I see as the top issue,” Roth added. “Discussions have to be held, and we have to figure out solutions that take in both sides of the equation.”

The only letter opposing the proposed 1,000-foot buffer zone came from the Building Industry Association of San Diego, according to a city staffer.

Michell points out that housing is already collocated adjacent to Biogen Idec’s new campus in the Golden Triangle and Neurocrine Biosciences in Carmel Valley. “There is no scientific basis, no bio-safety regulations for a 1,000-foot buffer around the businesses in Sorrento Mesa,” Michell said.

She said the Sorrento View project will be formally presented to the EDC for its review and hoped-for endorsement on April 1.

City Council makes the final decision

“The theory of collocation is that you can create housing near where people work and reduce the load on the transportation infrastructure,” said committee chair and Councilmember Scott Peters, District 1. “But I don’t want to lose any industrial land, and I don’t want to interfere with these businesses, which are the backbone of our economy.”

Councilmember Donna Frye, District 6, also a committee member, is an affordable housing advocate, but on the collocation issue, she is adamant – “I have been very much a staunch opponent to collocation.”

“The larger problem is that when you collocate residential with industrial, it’s just a matter of time before residents complain about noise and air pollution, and residential pushes out the industrial,” Frye said.

She points to the former General Dynamics site in Kearny Mesa, originally planned for light industrial, offices and commercial space, as an example of flawed planning. Several office buildings have been built, but that housing is being built instead of the promised tax base of movie theaters, restaurants and hotels.

“One of the problems is that collocating housing drives up the cost of the industrial land and potential jobs are lost,” Frye said. “Developers will not want to use it for industrial purposes because they think maybe they can get the land rezoned and build housing instead, where they make five to 10 times more than they make with industrial development.”

Larry M. Edwards has been covering San Diego business since 1984.

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