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Thursday, March 27, 2008 | Galvanized by a threat to their expansion in Sorrento Valley, a collaboration of local biotechnology and high-technology executives fought and won a battle against residential developers with the recent passage of San Diego’s general plan for future growth.

Over a five-year period beginning in 2003, the San Diego Planning Commission received dozens of applications from development companies to convert industrial land into residential neighborhoods through the construction of apartments, condominiums, and single-family homes. But due in part to a grassroots effort led by representatives of San Diego’s growing biotechnology and high-technology sectors, the City Council refused to allow the encroachment of housing in areas designated for industrial use in both Sorrento Valley and throughout San Diego.

City planners say that the biotechnology and high technology community was instrumental in ensuring that the general plan, passed by the City Council on March 10, included provisions that fend off residential developers from desirable plots of industrial land. The victory for bio and tech interests is indicative of their rising voice in local politics.

“The hard-fought win on preserving industrial land is only the first step in the tech and bio community flexing their new-found political muscle,” said Kevin Carroll, executive director of the San Diego Council of the American Electronic Association, a national lobbying organization that represents the technology industry.

“For too many years the tech and bio community has been paid lip service in regional issues, we were told that others were looking out for us, they weren’t. The tech and bio community did not rely on others to win this critical issue — they did it themselves,” Carroll added.

While Carroll emphasized that residential developers and the tech and bio interests have often been on the same side, he said that in this case the bio and tech community wanted to prevent apartment complexes from being built at the site in Sorrento Valley because of noise and health issues caused by mixing industrial and residential development and the industry’s desire to expand.

As San Diego began to update its general plan in 2003, the San Diego Planning Commission was swamped with applications to rezone industrial land for residential purposes.

One proposal set off alarm bells in the halls of bio and tech companies in Sorrento Valley, said Patti Krebs of the Industrial Environmental Association.

In March 2003, the Sickels Group, a residential and commercial real estate company based in Sorrento Valley, applied to build a 1,338 unit apartment complex in the middle of an area that city officials say has the highest concentration of chemical-intensive industry in the county.

The plot of land located between Pacific Center Boulevard and Pacific Mesa Court is now occupied by storage warehouses for nearby industrial facilities.

Krebs noted that the supply of undeveloped land is stretched thin in San Diego, meaning that land-use squabbles may intensify in the future.

“The application to build apartments in the middle of Sorrento Valley was a painful awakening for both the tech and residential development interests, in that we realized we were on a collision course,” said Krebs, who worked closely with the bio and tech communities in defeating the proposal. Krebs added that once residential communities become embedded in industrial zones, clashes between residents and facility operators often ensue.

“From the builders perspective, I can understand why they were attempting to do it, it was an opportunity to earn a significant profit,” said Marney Cox, economist with the San Diego Association of Governments, a collaboration of city and county governments. Cox emphasized that industrial land is cheaper than land zoned for residential purposes.

Sorrento Valley encompasses a dense cluster of biotech and high-tech facilities, which sprouted in the area due to its proximity to several research institutions including the University of California at San Diego, the Salk Institute, the Burnham Institute, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Hoping to nurture, rather than inhibit this cluster, representatives of nearby companies devised a counter-attack to the Sickels Group’s plan in order to convince the City Council that the land was too valuable to the bio and tech industries.

“The chief argument was we are an economic force here, we want to continue building in this area, and this is where we want to expand. So if you want to foster growth, we need to protect this area,” said Ben Avey, associate director of public policy for Biocom, a San Diego-based trade group that lobbies for the biotechnology sector.

Avey added that the biotech community thrives on the ability to efficiently share and discuss ideas and products, so the immediacy of research institutions, biotech companies, and venture capital firms that provide funding for research in Sorrento Valley is crucial to their success.

After the bio and tech industries engaged in a series of meetings with City Council members and city planners between March 2003 and the end of 2004, the Sickels Group eventually withdrew its proposal.

The Sickels Group was the last of three residential developers to drop a proposal to build apartment complexes in Sorrento Valley. The other two withdrew their proposals within a year of their original submission, after opposition to residential development in the area became clear.

“The high-tech and biotech stakeholders were able to make their case by describing their operations,” said Bill Anderson, city planning director. “They have 2-3 shifts, they operate at night, and they are dealing with hazardous chemicals. They wanted to have the freedom to operate safely without having conflicts with neighboring residents.”

Anderson also cited the bio and tech industry’s growing role in shaping the region’s economy and San Diego’s desire to accommodate them.

A representative from the Sickels Group was unavailable for comment on the Sorrento View apartments by press time.

As individual community plans for growth continue to be evaluated throughout San Diego, city planners foresee future battles between industry and residential developers.

The potential for future clashes is compounded by the fact that land designated for industrial use in San Diego has dwindled in recent years.

San Diego has lost at least 800 acres of industrial land over the past 15 years, said Russ Gibbon of the San Diego Economic Development Division.

City planners hope to be in a better position to referee land-use contests now that the general plan, the city’s blueprint for future growth, has passed. The plan includes a section with maps and language that distinguish the difference between industrial land that is conducive to residential uses, and land that should be reserved strictly for industry.

Please contact Joaquin Sapien (joaquin.sapien@voiceofsandiego.org) directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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