The drama surrounding the city’s plan to make Morena Boulevard more transit-friendly will likely die down almost as quickly as it erupted.

The city is trying to encourage development near two new trolley stations so it can boost ridership and get a better return on the $1.7 billion project.

Clairemont residents basically revolted over the idea, especially the part about easing the limit on building height near the Clairemont Drive station. The city quickly backed off.

Things got so heated in part because Sarah Boot, who’s running for City Council in the district, seized on the plan as a chance to distinguish herself from her opponent, Councilwoman Lorie Zapf.

Boot supporters turned a town hall meeting on the city’s plan into a pseudo campaign rally. Boot highlighted the issue on a campaign mailer. And she’s criticized Zapf for previously saying she was open to the plan.

But despite all the sudden infighting, the issue won’t come before the City Council for an actual decision until 2016 at the earliest. Once the campaign’s over, it’s likely to die down for a while.

The gap is useful, in a way: It’ll allow for a cooling-off period in which residents and officials can grapple with two inconvenient realities the Clairemont controversy has brought into focus.

Everyone loves the concept of transit-focused development; almost no one goes to bat for it.

City leaders support transit-focused development in the abstract, but that hasn’t proven very useful for specific projects.

The city’s general plan — dubbed “City of Villages” — calls for future development to take place in dense clusters around transit corridors and near employment centers. That’s the best way to provide housing and combat climate change, the plan says.

The plan identifies “opportunity areas” for more development – including the areas now under fire along Morena Boulevard.

The City of Villages concept was passed unanimously by the City Council in 2008, and in the years since, no elected official has publicly spoken out against it. Both of this year’s mayoral candidates — a progressive Democrat and a jobs-minded Republican — featured its principles in their campaign platforms. The housing plan Mayor Kevin Faulconer presented during the campaign, for instance, was based almost entirely around the idea.

The key to providing more middle-class housing, Faulconer’s housing plan said, is to update community plans to make it easier to build more housing near transit corridors.

That’s a pretty apt description of what the Morena corridor plan would do.

And yet as soon as Clairemont and Bay Park residents lined up against the city’s plan for their neighborhood, the councilman who represents the area and both candidates vying to replace him came out against it. Planning Director Bill Fulton announced his department was backing off its most controversial element.

But local concerns and citywide concerns aren’t always aligned. It’s much easier to support a concept than it is a specific proposal that a group of voters say they don’t want.

The city’s initial proposal might not be totally dead.

As opposition ramped up, Zapf asked Fulton not to mess with building heights or parking in Clairemont. He agreed to change his department’s recommendations.

The study now recommends leaving building height alone at the trolley station on Clairemont Drive, though it still suggests increasing housing density (allowing more housing units per square acre).

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the more aggressive plan is totally gone.

In the fall, the city will hire a consultant to conduct an environmental report on traffic, parking and other factors of the plan. It’s legally required before the City Council can approve anything.

Former City Councilwoman Donna Frye, who has a business on the corridor, asked at a town hall whether the city’s announcement that it would remove the recommendation to up the height limit meant it wouldn’t include the option in the environmental report.

If not, she said, the announcement really doesn’t mean all that much.

Environmental reports are required to consider a range of alternatives, not just the project favored by whoever is trying to get it passed (in this case, the city). The idea is to get a sense of whether you could get some or most of the project’s benefits while limiting some of its effects.

But when the City Council votes on the proposal, it can approve anything that’s gone through environmental analysis. So even if the height change isn’t recommended, a Council majority could approve it anyway, so long as it’s included in the environmental report.

Fulton wouldn’t say after the town hall whether the environmental report will consider the Clairemont height change. He said that decision will be made once the department brings in a consultant.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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