Wednesday, March 01, 2006 | The San Diego City Council on Tuesday approved a roadmap to guide downtown’s growth over the next two-and-a-half decades after slightly tweaking the proposal its downtown planning agency had developed over the past three years.

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The plan was passed by a 6-to-2 vote after a seven-hour hearing, although it was repeatedly challenged by a parade of critics, including council members who ultimately voted to approve it. The criticism resulted in several compromises in the Centre City Development Corp.’s proposal.

The plan will allow developers to build projects that are taller and denser than what is currently prescribed under city law. Raising the so-called density rights for builders will help accommodate the burgeoning downtown community, which is expected to triple in residents and double its workforce by 2030.

“This plan is a plan to ensure that there is continued momentum downtown, in a place that is appropriate to have that momentum and that density,” said Councilman Kevin Faulconer, whose council district includes downtown.

Planning officials began drafting an update to the blueprint for downtown’s growth under the assumption that downtown would soak up a healthy chunk of the region’s projected growth and curtail urban sprawl. There were 53 million square feet of development that existed or was planned out as of 2004, and that square footage has the potential of doubling under the blueprint the council approved Tuesday.

“By taking the density downtown, we are helping preserve our rural lands and our single-family neighborhoods,” CCDC Chairwoman Jennifer LeSar said.

The plan, which was last updated in 1992, will raise current density limits but developers must pay for every new square foot of density. Or they have the option to participate in certain public-benefit bonus programs. With those programs developers can get new density-rights by sparing historical landmarks, turning over land to be used for parks, building affordable housing onsite, constructing housing units with three or more bedrooms and building retail space on the ground floors of their projects.

CCDC, the city agency that authored the downtown plan update, initially doled out 19.5 million square feet of density rights for free, but that amount will now be sold off to builders at $15 a square foot. Faulconer and Mayor Jerry Sanders said they negotiated the $15 price in closed-door meetings with developers last week. Revenue from the fee will fund parks.

Faulconer said the idea of giving developers density rights for free was scrapped after CCDC discovered last week the plan did not envision raising sufficient funds for parks. An incentive program, property taxes and developer-impact fees weren’t enough to fund the proposed parklands, CCDC said.

Now, the new density-rights fee is expected to raise $100 million for parks.

Faulconer also amended the proposal to create a committee to oversee the implementation of the new downtown plan, further recognize that growth will generate urban runoff that will worsen the San Diego Bay’s water quality, establish a maintenance assessment district that would pay for the upkeep of infrastructure in the urban core, and require that a capital improvements plan be submitted soon.

Faulconer said the plan had to be amended, even though the three years of input that went into the new blueprint was “one of the most inclusive and lengthy public planning processes in San Diego for quite some time.”

The changes resulted after several leaders from the labor, environmental, religious and nearby communities indicated that they found the plan to be inadequate. Many of those critics remained frustrated with the plan even as amended.

“I agree with Councilman Faulconer that the process has been lengthy, but has the discussion been extensive as it should be? I actually don’t think so,” said Councilwoman Toni Atkins, who ended up supporting the plan.

Community members and elected officials criticized the plan for much of the meeting, claiming that CCDC’s proposal didn’t go far enough. They complained that the assumptions being used for downtown were inconsistent with what was outlined in the city’s overall planning guidelines, and that it didn’t ensure that quality jobs would be created.

The plan also shoved the impacts of downtown growth, such as an influx of children who require schools and parks, onto surrounding neighborhoods, critics said. Nearby communities, such as Golden Hill, Barrio Logan and Bankers Hill, would also be impacted by a homeless population that was displaced by new development downtown, they said.

“This is going to impact every other community in the city of San Diego and I think we should analyze it,” said Councilwoman Donna Frye, who voted against the plan.

Councilman Jim Madaffer said he disagreed with Faulconer’s amendment because he said it penalized developers and ultimately contributed to the loss of tax revenue for the city and a negative impact on the regional economy. He used dominoes as props to illustrate the chain reaction.

Most members of the council expressed gripes with the plan, but agreed it was time to approve the plan and study changes later. The plan was a “living document,” proponents said.

“It’s time to put the pieces in place,” Faulconer said.

Faulconer, Atkins, and Councilmen Scott Peters Tony Young, Brian Maienschein and Ben Hueso voted for the proposal. Frye and Madaffer voted against it.

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