Otay Mesa wants to be a big part of the solution to San Diego’s housing crisis.


Its new community plan – which is up for a City Council vote Tuesday – aims to make the area a manufacturing jobs center, and to provide thousands of new homes to help meet the city’s shortage. It would create two new neighborhoods that would cluster homes, shopping and work opportunities around trolley stations.

The community, which sits along the city’s border with Mexico and stretches more than 7,000 football fields, has been working toward its new community plan for more than a decade.

Also at play as the plan is considered: a dispute between Torrey Pines Bank, which owns a property near the border, and the city over what type of development should be allowed there. The bank wants the chance to build retail options there; the city would rather keep the area reserved for industrial use.

Here’s a look at some of the crucial elements in the new plan.

A Cross-Border Employment Center

One of the plan’s primary goals is to make Otay Mesa a “binational regional center.”  Doing so would also accomplish two other goals: increase employment with a diverse economy, and expand the area’s industrial base.

It’s a natural role for the area. The Otay Mesa Land Port is the busiest commercial port on the California-Baja border (and one of the 10 busiest ports in the country). Nearby Brown Field airport supports border patrol efforts and has limited commercial use, which the plan says represents an opportunity to expand business activity. And construction is under way for a pedestrian bridge connecting San Diego to the Rodriguez International Airport in Tijuana.

A quarter of the land in Otay Mesa is set for industrial use: either creating products purchased south of the border, or shipping and storing cross-border products.

Four hundred acres—more than 300 football fields—are reserved for so-called “heavy industrial” use, meant for noisy and hazardous work, like concrete yards or auto-salvaging,  that shouldn’t be done close to schools or homes.  The plan calls Otay Mesa one of the city’s “last remaining viable spaces” for such work.

That’s important, because those industrial uses are considered “base sectors” in an economic development plan the city’s working to pass. “Base sectors” are ones that create goods locally that are then sold outside the region, bringing money from the outside in.

The plan also calls for another 1,300 acres (1,000 football fields) of a flexible industrial classification meant to service the international economy. The idea is that the types of uses allowed in those areas could grow and change with the international economy.

All of these policies to expand and embrace industrial uses are meant to provide middle-class jobs to combat San Diego’s “hourglass economy” – the region has many high-end and low-wage jobs, but not much in the middle.

“This plan creates a middle-class job center for the region, and from my standpoint and a general plan standpoint, that’s the priority of the plan,” said Councilman David Alvarez, who represents the area.

Build Lots of New Homes

Otay Mesa’s new plan would allow for far more housing, to provide options near all the jobs that would be located there.

The plan would let developers build 50 percent more homes than what’s allowed now. The plan could allow for up to 18,000 new units.

If the community ever gets to those 18,000 units, it will have quadrupled the amount of housing that existed during the 2010 census, when there were just 4,145 units.

Create Two Dense Villages Near Transit

A lot of the existing communities in Otay Mesa are sprawling, single-family home neighborhoods. Then there’s a lot of canyon area that can’t be developed, and all those acres of industrial land meant for middle-class employment centers.

To get closer to the “City of Villages” concept of dense, walkable development envisioned in the city’s all-encompassing general plan, Otay Mesa’s plan imagines two such areas.

One is just east of the 805 and north of the border; the other is south of the 905 near the southwest point of Brown Field airport.

Those areas would include mostly multi-family homes and retail stores. They’d support lots of transit use, and would be bike- and pedestrian-friendly.

The villages would do more than push Otay Mesa toward the general plan vision – they’d be key to bringing in new money. The new plan would raise the fees charged on new construction projects in the area — fees used to build public facilities like parks and libraries — and update the priority list for those projects. Rob Hixson, chair of the Otay Mesa Planning Group, said the two village areas are essential to collecting those development fees.

“If you take those away, the whole plan fails,” he said. “We’re relying on those two communities to come through.”

How to Pay for New Stuff

When the Council votes on the plan, it’ll also vote on what’s called a Public Facilities Financing Plan, the community’s wish list for new public projects.

Otay Mesa’s list includes two library projects, two fire stations, a police station, a large park, 17 smaller parks, three recreation centers, a swimming pool, trails and major roads and other transportation facilities.

Overall, the list calls for $1.2 billion in new projects, and would change the way the fee is structured so that it’d be based on the car trips generated by new construction, rather than acreage.

Of the plan’s $930 million in transportation-related projects, roughly half would be paid for with development fees. The rest would come from a mix of public sources.

The Problematic Torrey Pines Property

The biggest hurdle facing the plan is the disagreement between the city and Torrey Pines Bank. The bank doesn’t like what the plan would mean for a property it owns.

Torrey Pines bought when it was zoned for commercial development. It has submitted an application to allow for that development.

But city planners want the property to be part of the expanded industrial area they’re trying to create.

The 33-acre parcel south of I-905 would be worth a lot less if that zoning were changed.

“If the city devalues the property, if our advisers tell us we should pursue our rights, we’ll do what’s in the best interests of our shareholders,” said Gary Cady, the bank’s CEO.

Alvarez said the city’s working to find a compromise, but wouldn’t comment on how the dispute might be resolved.

A possible solution could be choosing a designation that splits the difference between the city and Torrey Pines Bank, such as “heavy commercial,” which allows for retail but is mostly intended for things like storage and distribution.

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

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