Monday, July 28, 2008 | Westfield bills their proposal to almost double the size of the UTC mall as “sustainable development.”

This is absurd: Westfield’s own studies reveal this as an auto-dependent super-regional mall expansion with miniscule transit ridership. The proposed project would add 18,000 new vehicle trips per day to a congested area and is designed to draw traffic from as far away as Carlsbad.

Auto-dependent development is our region’s problem — yet in a barrage of doublespeak, Westfield is spinning this huge mall expansion as a solution.

“Sustainability” isn’t the only “green” aspect of their proposal that Westfield touts: there’s the money they promise will enrich San Diego. The proposed project would expand the existing one million square foot mall to 1.8 million and add two residential towers up to 23 stories tall. The city’s business development manager reviewed Westfield’s financial projections and found them overblown by at least 50 percent. The mayor’s top staff, who are ramming this project through, have hidden this cold dose of reality.

Will the City Council be taken in when this proposal comes before them on Tuesday? Westfield’s army of consultants, attorneys and lobbyists chant the buzzwords: “smart growth, green, walkable, transit-oriented, sustainable.”

The smartest, greenest, and most sustainable aspects of this project are the profits that this Australian-based multi-billion dollar mall corporation will extract from San Diegans. Meanwhile, San Diegans will pay the price of this auto-dependent development: new five-story parking garages lining much of Genesee Avenue and La Jolla Village Drive, streets and intersections widened (making them even less navigable for walkers and bikers), increased congestion on freeways and ramps, and increased air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

If the City Council is smart, they will send this project back for Westfield to come up with a “lower-car” alternative. Scaling the project down to reduce the number of auto trips by 50 percent (to under 9,000) would allow for many beneficial changes. The parking garages could be eliminated, as could the high-rises adjacent to two-story homes. The traffic impacts would be greatly reduced. More sorely-needed park space could be added. Westfield has so far trimmed only things they don’t care about and have refused to scale back the bottom line: the 18,000 new traffic trips. Their reason: they wouldn’t make as much money.

This project will change the area permanently and drastically. The City Council should get it right, and Westfield’s current proposal isn’t close yet to being right.

The University Community Planning Group voted this project down 14-2-1. Westfield refused to present them a reduced scale alternative that might have engaged the community in a real dialogue. Friends of Rose Canyon suggested to Westfield they reduce their traffic impact by scaling back the project and also buying from other developers some of their development rights to further offset the traffic impacts.

Precedent: Almost every developer in this area has lived within their development rights. If the city almost doubles Westfield’s entitlements, others will demand increases as well (some proposals are already in the works). Westfield itself already cites as precedent for their 23-story buildings a 23-story building across the street that was approved just last September. The cumulative effect of the Westfield approval will be to open the floodgates to development.

Killing the goose that laid the golden egg: UCSD and the high tech and bio tech companies it has attracted are today’s economic engine of San Diego. Clogging the area with mall traffic could hurt the ability of these institutions to function. True smart growth would weigh the value of these institutions and consider any new development rights to be allocated to them rather than a mall expansion.

Westfield’s spin versus reality:

The $22 million transit center: Westfield is already required to provide a transit center (in other words, a bus station) — the one that exists. They want to move it so they can build there. The relocated station would be on a narrow strip of land along the edge of their property with a mall parking deck above it. Yet Westfield claims they are “donating” $8 million dollars worth of land. Of the remaining $14 million, it appears that with pressure from Westfield and accommodations by mayoral staff, others will ultimately pick up most of the tab.

Westfield touts the transit center’s connection to a possible future trolley station. The station is at best years away. During negotiations with SANDAG, Westfield shoved any future station off their property and into the middle of Genesee Avenue. Their sole contribution now is a five foot strip of right of way.

The project is “transit-oriented”: Projected transit use for the expanded mall is so minimal (at best 3 percent) that Westfield’s traffic study includes no reduction in vehicle trips due to transit use. This leaves their project unencumbered by any performance criteria for actual use of transit.

No net increase in potable water use: In 1989, the city passed a law that required users near the “purple pipe” system (which distributes recycled water for irrigation) to hook up to it. Westfield never complied. Now they want extra credit for complying with the law. Moreover, recycled water is only for irrigation. The project as a whole will use a lot more potable water. Westfield proposes to offset this by paying to hook up other properties to the purple pipe. This misses the point: we need to reduce our use of potable water. By giving Westfield a big new water allotment, the city is decreasing our ability to use less water.

The project is LEED Gold Certified: This is like claiming you graduated from Harvard when you have just received your acceptance letter. Westfield’s application was approved, which states what they intend to do. Moreover, Westfield’s application scorecard shows they gave themselves high marks for being located next to transit. I found no evidence that the application system evaluated the project’s actual transit ridership.

$7.3 million annually for the General Fund: Westfield hired HRA to do a study of the economic benefits of their project. The City’s assessment of the study slashed HRA’s estimates by half. Its conclusion: if all the stores were built and met Westfield’s revenue projections, the net benefit averaged over 20 years would be $3 million dollars per year. In 2008 dollars, the annual benefit would be $1.5 million.

$300 million for regional infrastructure: Westfield hired HRA to study the amount of money the expansion would bring in from the Transnet half cent sales tax. Once again, Westfield vastly overstates the benefits. The study shows that the current mall would generate $187 million anyhow. The remaining $113 million from the expansion is a 40-year total, with a 3-4 percent annual increase. The annual amount in 2012: $2.2 million. Of course, most of this would be collected anyhow, since people would make their purchases somewhere in the county even if Westfield didn’t expand.

Westfield could do almost every green thing it promises at UTC without this expansion: hook up to the purple pipe, install solar panels and low-water landscaping, retrofit the buildings with water and energy conserving fixtures, move and expand the bus station. With seven major malls in San Diego county, they could do this at all of them.

Their claim that to be green and sustainable, they must build a project that increases traffic, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and energy and water use is ridiculous.

Deborah Knight is president of Friends of Rose Canyon. You can e-mail her at rosecanyon@san.rr.com. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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