Friday, February 24, 2006 | For three years, San Diego’s downtown planning agency has been sketching the blueprint that will direct projected growth in the area, but the many groups claiming a stake in downtown’s future – even the downtown planners themselves – are scrambling at the last minute to alter the plan.
The City Council simply will not approve the plan as it stands, many say.
The Centre City Development Corp will ask the City Council at a public meeting Tuesday to approve its vision, but the plan is being shaped further as it approaches a city council that may have other ideas for downtown over the next 25 years.
“There are discussions going on and all opinions are being explored,” said Matthew Adams, vice president of governmental affairs for the Building Industry Association of San Diego. “Hopefully we can address some of the concerns that are being made by some lawmakers and still have the opportunity to create a vision for downtown that everybody wants.”
The plan outlines how denser development will be allowed in the 1,500-acre downtown to accommodate twice as many workers and three times as many residents by 2030. CCDC, the city’s downtown redevelopment arm, has collected input for how to best plan out and pay for parks, infrastructure and transportation projects as downtown expands.
Groups have been running around City Hall in the last week discussing improvements to the plan with council members, who have the final say. Proposals are being made to change the plan’s approach toward a bevy of issues, including affordable housing, how new density is allocated to developers and – most prominently – parks.
The push to change CCDC’s proposal is being met with open arms by some while others wince. Plan supporters argue that varying from the CCDC plan after years of planning sends the wrong message to those who put in the time to participate in the public process, while others argue that the plan is open to debate right up until the time the City Council takes a vote on it Tuesday afternoon.
“I understand some 11th hour ideas have surfaced, but I have not seen anything official,” said Councilman Jim Madaffer. “The time to have [made changes] was years ago.”
CCDC itself has supported its proposal throughout the process, but abruptly changed its tune this week when it recognized that mistakes were made in the way funding for parks were calculated.
While CCDC, as recently as this month, insisted the council OK its proposal, the agency then acknowledged this week that it miscalculated the funding for 10 acres of planned parks. The mistake set off a flurry of meetings between developers, city leaders and the downtown planners who are scurrying to deliver an attractive proposal to a council that has not hesitated in the past to change development proposals right at the dais.
Nancy Graham, who became CCDC president in December, said the incentive being used to lure property owners to turn over their land for parks may no longer work because of market conditions.
Under the proposal, a property owner with two parcels each zoned to allow five-story buildings could transfer the development rights from one lot to the other to build a 10-story building if the other parcel was turned over to the city to be used as parkland.
Skyrocketing land prices downtown make the transfer of development rights, or TDR, program much less attractive to developers, Graham said. CCDC assumed in its proposal that the TDR park program would help bridge the gap between what parks cost and what the city could pay with developer fees and property taxes. Graham said she discovered this week that the program would likely not work.
Additionally, others within the city took issue with CCDC’s assumptions that money was available to alleviate the effects of burgeoning growth downtown. Without offering a dollar-sign estimate, Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin said it was unclear how the city would fund the infrastructure that accompanied the new development.
Even if development-impact fees or property taxes paid for parks, street lights or fire stations, the city would still have to pay on an annual basis for maintain the parks, lighting the street lamps and staffing the fire station, the independent budget analyst stated.
“CCDC does not address these fiscal impacts or any funding solutions in their Downtown Community Plan,” the IBA report said.
Planning Commissioner Carolyn Chase has questioned how the growth planned for downtown will impact the city’s general plan, its existing multibillion infrastructure deficit and the quality of life in the urban hub. She said she has been frustrated by the responses she has received.
“My biggest complaint hasn’t been the plan itself but the manipulation and the sales job,” Chase said. “What we’re getting is attitude that if you don’t agree with the staff recommendation, you’re nuts.”
Chase has been meeting with several council members to talk about the consequences of not addressing how to cope with 60,000 additional residents downtown. Not guaranteeing that services and facilities are provided downtown means a greater strain on the police officers, schools, parks and traffic in other parts of the city as well, she said. Chase said her goal is flush out the actual costs of the expected growth on the city budget and the infrastructure backlog before the council takes a vote on the proposed plan.
Graham said the plan is not written in stone, and will be reviewed by the City Council every year to make improvements or to adjust policies based on the conditions of the real estate market and economy. For example, the park TDR program could be a feasible option further down the line, and the council will have the opportunity to review that later, she said.
Donald Cohen, who heads A Community Coalition for Responsible Development, or ACCORD, said he is also asking lawmakers to change the proposal. He wants a TDR program for affordable housing and for the city to monitor the impacts of water runoff into the San Diego Bay. Cohen is also proposing to require the City Council to sign off on downtown developments of a certain size and asking that non-binding language be inserted to ask council members to decide whether a project is creating jobs that will pay decent wages.
“We are at a time in San Diego where everyone has to carry their own, full load and we’re once again giving it away without taking responsibility,” Cohen said.
The proposals by ACCORD, which consists of labor and environmental groups, would put downtown at a disadvantage to other parts of the region, Graham said. The concepts should be proposed citywide, she said.
Prospects of what the downtown plan, which was last updated in 1992, will look if it passes next week is constantly in flux, as even the way the new density entitlements are divvied up is in limbo.
Under the proposal, the city is granting developers along a designated L-shaped trolley corridor the ability to build higher buildings for free in addition to a number of bonus programs that allow developers to build higher and denser if they include designated public benefits, such as including a certain amount of affordable housing, protecting historically-designated property or building parks on rooftops.
One variation that is being floated around City Hall is to keep the density the same as the 1992 plan, and to only hand out new density allowances if builders earn by paying for those public benefits. Nobody would be entitled to receive for free the ability to build denser developments under this version of the plan.
If anything about the plan is clear, is that chaos reigns supreme for now at City Hall as elected officials and various community groups try to strike the perfect balance between what they want and what will likely be passed by the City Council.
“I don’t know of anything of this nature where things don’t come up at the last minute,” said Graham.
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