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This story also ran in the September 2012 issue of San Diego Magazine.
Note: This year, I began a series on the issues to watch for 2012. I left it lingering at No. 4: infrastructure. But, like all of the issues to watch I listed, infrastructure will be worth watching long after this year is over. So I’m going to keep going; apologies for letting it slip.
Here were the first eight stories No. 12: the Chargers; No. 11: the Convention Center; No. 10: The city of San Diego’s financial problems; No. 9: the San Diego Police Department; No. 8: affordable housing; No. 7: the future of Balboa Park; and No. 6: framing the mayor’s race.
Finally, No. 5: Navy Broadway project (it’s near dead) and more on land use.
In San Diego’s long-betrayed neighborhood of Grantville, developers want the city to approve a project with more than 1,000 housing units.
It’s called Shawnee at Riverbend.
Unfortunately for the builders, the Navajo Community Plan has the land — along Mission Gorge Road and the San Diego River — zoned for industrial and agriculture use.
Many neighbors don’t like what the development will do to traffic, what it might do to the river and what it’s not doing for parks.
So, not surprisingly, the Navajo Community Planning Group refused to approve it.
To get the permission to build it, the developers will need to get the city to change its community plan and allow for housing to be built on the land. They likely have enough friends on the City Council to do so.
This is same story that will play out across the city.
Our cash-strapped City Hall has stopped updating community plans. The rules that govern what can be built on each piece of land are outdated in many places. But demand for housing has returned and if developers want to put up new projects, especially dense ones like Shawnee in Grantville, they will have to tweak old community plans.
That means the builders have to go through a long process and produce special environmental impact reports. And even if they get them approved, they’ve likely made enemies along the way, souring the landscape for future builders.
Neighbors are left fighting each project, one by one. They’re demanding infrastructure — parks, streets, fire stations and crosswalks. But they’re left demanding these things in exchange for allowing a dense housing project to go through.
If the community plans were actually updated with room for dense housing units on formerly industrial land, we’d have a set of unified, agreed-upon rules that everyone could live by. It would set a vision for what residents are OK with. But residents aren’t going to do this if they don’t get the infrastructure they want for their deteriorating neighborhoods.
So we’re in a pickle.
Everything’s falling apart, community plans are languishing and builders and residents are at war. At the same time, the San Diego Association of Governments says the city of San Diego will need to build more than 200,000 housing units by 2030. A vast new survey of residents by the San Diego Foundation found that the cost of housing is already, by far, their top worry.
We have to build homes to keep up with demand. To do that, we have to build homes in older neighborhoods, like Grantville.
But older neighborhoods are not ready to take more density.
Perhaps we can build floating ocean communities?
Actually, a (slightly) easier solution is emerging. And it might also provide a path for the city to get a new Chargers stadium.
Andrew Poat, a former city of San Diego official, and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce are leading a push to address infrastructure needs in San Diego. The end result would be to ask voters to let the city take out a large-scale loan, with or without some kind of tax increase to pay it off.
Poat doesn’t really want to talk about the tax increase yet. Nor is the stadium, he says, on his radar.
What he does want to do is go to all of the city’s 52 planning groups and ask them what they want. A certain park? A freeway on-ramp? A road?
After that effort is complete, the City Council would lay out investments it could actually make if it were to borrow, say, a billion dollars.
Poat, ideally, wants voters to approve it in November 2014.
Poat believes that if the city addresses these communities’ needs, they’ll update their community plans with space for denser, well-planned housing projects. If neighbors know they’re going to get their parks and streets, then they’ll be more receptive to allowing more people into their neighborhood.
In Grantville, an updated plan would mean residents would already have signed off on a dense area. Developers would save time and money by creating projects that fit the vision.
“You can’t build that many units and preserve our quality of life unless you have the streets, roads, parks and libraries communities want,” Poat told me.
Poat also wants to deal with those things we’ve already built.
The city has many streets, buildings and storm drain repairs in various stages of disrepair. The latest estimate puts the total to fix these up at more than $800 million.
At the same time, other people hoping to build things, like a stadium, will try to glom onto the effort.
What better way to get tax dollars to a stadium project than to stick it within a giant package of other construction projects?
It’ll be a pie everyone will want a slice of. But they’ll have to all try to avoid mangling it as they grab for their piece.
I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):
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