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To gird ourselves for the future, cities and other entities throughout the county have been using regional planning agency SANDAG’s numbers — and those say San Diego is expected to add 1 million new residents by 2030, and we’ll need about 290,000 new homes to house ’em.
But in Andrew Keatts’ analysis of SANDAG’s predictions over the last several decades, something’s become clear: The agency’s track record on estimating growth is abysmal:
In 2000, for instance, SANDAG projected the region would add nearly 400,000 new people by 2010. Instead, the population grew by just 280,000 people. The agency overestimated actual growth by 43 percent.
In 1990, SANDAG told local governments the region would add 480,000 people by 2000. The region added 315,000. That’s a 52 percent error.
We do know, though, that our region’s population is going to continue to grow. Policymakers are still going to have to act and prepare accordingly.
Where exactly are we going to put all these people? Even with the realities of continued growth on the horizon, residents have had a hard time swallowing increased density and development in the ‘hoods they call home.
Where we land on some of the land-use disputes that have made waves the last few years is likely to play a big role in how we accommodate all that growth. Here’s a refresher course on what they are.
Community Plan Updates
Here’s the thing: We could avoid a lot of heated land use fights in town if we did a better job keeping community plans updated.
These blueprints lay out neighborhood needs and set guidelines for new development. When they’re kept up to date, they can save developers, residents and the city money. And the city knows that, which is why it’s spent $15 million over the last 13 years to update 12 community plans. One hitch: For all that time and money, the city only has one completed update to show.
• For a glimpse of how community plan updates can rile residents, turn your attention to Grantville. San Diego officials hoped to turn the industrial community into more of an urban village with apartments, stores and offices. That’s precisely the type of community envisioned in the city’s general plan, the big-picture blueprint that community plans are supposed to help achieve.
Grantville’s plan update was supposed to be done this month. But the plan has run into the usual suspects: parking and traffic.
The city wants to capitalize on Grantville’s existing trolley stop to make progress on its goal of clustering new housing around public transportation. But an environmental impact report has made clear that’ll mean traffic delays:
Building all the new housing discussed in the plan would bring all of the area’s intersections to an “unacceptable” level by 2030 — a technical classification defined as longer than a one minute, 20-second delay during morning and evening rush hour.
But the plan calls for some construction to ease the problems — mostly widening the existing roads, adding dedicated turn lanes or adding traffic signals. Still, by 2030 all the neighborhood’s major intersections would see slower traffic flow.
At the time, Councilman Scott Sherman voiced some optimism that younger San Diegans will be more open to dense developments at the expense of speedy traffic times.“We’re kind of at a transformative stage, where the younger generation is used to using mass transit,” he said. “People’s attitudes are changing, and we’re getting to a point where we can take advantage of it.”
Someone should probably tell the fine people of Clairemont.
• Mission Valley is also at a crossroads, facing huge development and lacking any kind of cohesive community plan to shape it. The area’s considered heavily congested already, and traffic’s only gotten worse. But developers and designers see a land of opportunity.
Gary London wrote in an op-ed that the area has huge potential:
This is an opportunity to take the city’s largest, undeveloped real estate asset and turn it into a financial boon to taxpayers. I’m suggesting we think big. This project is the very epitome of the “city of villages” planning concept that San Diego set out to achieve in its General Plan. If any site deserves intense development, this is it.
In the next three years, Mission Valley is set to draft its first major community plan update since 1985.
That means that for now, there isn’t a comprehensive plan to guide the six major projects that are currently in various stages of the planning process. Those projects are supposed to add about 10,600 new housing units.
City planners have said all of the projects will have to abide by the San Diego River Park Master Plan, but aside from that, designers and land use pros are trying to take a holistic approach to building up the area’s infrastructure. Mary Lydon, who’s among those land use pros, wrote about that philosophy in a commentary for us.
What Counts as ‘Smart Growth’
Community plans set guidelines for future development. When the time comes to build those developments, a new flash point enters the fray: whether they count as “smart growth.”
That buzzy term refers to development that’s meant to be serve many purposes (whether they be offices, retail, housing, etc.), space-efficient (read: dense) and near access to public transportation. Considering the continued growth we’re expecting to see, this would be the benchmark for prioritizing which projects should be completed. The better use of space, the better accommodation of all those people.
• One Paseo, the controversial multi-use development planned for Carmel Valley, initially lost some points on the smart-growth checklist for lacking access to public transit in addition to residents’ worries about traffic and preserving neighborhood character.
In some of the recent renditions, Kilroy Realty, the developer, offered a “comprehensive shuttle loop” to connect the development with nearby offices and the Sorrento Valley Coaster station, but that hasn’t done much to win over the opposition.
Now that might change.
Though most of the details have yet to be ironed out, One Paseo appears to be gaining some smart-growth points. Kilroy announced a compromise with residents Thursday for a scaled-down version of the project that the developer says will halve the amount of traffic generated, and “fit better with Carmel Valley’s character,” according to the U-T:
• While city officials have been pushing for smart growth in most neighborhoods, Logan Heights seems to have been left out. A new community plan dropped a couple months ago, but it leaves the area zoned for industrial uses, bypassing the opportunity for urban development in a place that’s ripe for it.
What makes that decision even more surprising: Residents around Commercial Street are fine with more development, to a point, unlike residents in some other neighborhoods.
• I’d be remiss if I didn’t give “smart growth” a shoutout for blessing us with a new soundbite-friendly catch phrase.
We heard it on the podcast from City Council President Sherri Lightner (“One Paseo is not ‘smart growth.’ It’s actually very dumb growth”) and in direct response, from land use consultant Marcela Escobar-Eck (“Contrary to what has been said by certain folks, this is not dumb growth, it is smart growth. And ‘smart growth’ is an overused term, but it’s responsible growth”). You’re welcome, zeitgeist lexicon.
What the Young Folk Want
Planning for the future means planning to suit the needs of younger folks who will be aging, establishing their homesteads and raising families here. So it’s worth discussing what those young generations (hi!) actually want.
The numbers show that young San Diegans so far haven’t been all that enthused about public transit – at least, they aren’t using it. According to Census data pulled together by CityLab, among 25 of the largest metro areas, San Diego had the largest increase of adults who commuted by car between 2009 and 2013.
But does that tell us they don’t want to use public transit, or that the existing infrastructure doesn’t fit their needs? Keatts talked with Colin Parent, policy counsel at transportation advocacy group Circulate San Diego:
To him, national polls (here and here and here and here, as examples) that show young people are less attached to their cars and like living places they can walk or take transit to their jobs or restaurants and cafes, combined with data showing the increased share of young San Diego car commuters, shows the city has failed to deliver.
“The polling stuff is very relevant because it speaks to how preferences don’t match up with actions,” he said. “You could have people say they want to live downtown but they don’t, is it because they don’t really want to, or because they can’t afford it?”
• Clearly, changing San Diego’s public transportation infrastructure to suit the preferences of younger generations will take some big-picture muscle work from up top. That’s where SANDAG comes in – or would, if its long-term transportation plan wasn’t under fire for being way too car-centric.
For the last several years, the agency’s been engaged in a legal battle with Cleveland National Forest Foundation, the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club.
In its lawsuit, the environmental coalition said SANDAG’s plan didn’t invest enough in public transportation and fell short of state carbon emission requirements. Climate advocacy group SanDiego350.org created a jarring chart to demonstrate that the plan would thwart the state’s goals for cutting emissions.
In November last year, an appellate court upheld the lawsuit, which SANDAG vowed to appeal before the state Supreme Court.
Just last month, SANDAG released an updated draft of its controversial plan. At the time, SANDAG Board Chairman Jack Dale said that after consulting with community members and local agencies, “the resulting plan encourages the development of vibrant, healthy communities that are connected by a range of transportation choices, including public transit, walking and biking facilities, and roads.”
Jack Shu, head of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, sounded skeptical on KPBS Midday Edition:
“Unless we really are seriously thinking about the transit first plan, one that builds transit first rather than freeways first, we are not really talking about a real change in what we are going to have in the future. SANDAG’s plans are pretty much for the most part [what] we have been doing since 1990s and just 10 years ago, which is (build) more freeways and occasionally here and there, improve our transit system and bikeways.”
Another thing to consider while staring down this impending deluge of people and projects: Both are going to need water, something that’s hard to come by at the moment.
A lot of the reason the region can accommodate new growth now is thanks to drastic reductions in per-person water consumption that already happened. Last year, the region used less drinking water than it did in 1990, even though there were a third more people living here, according to the authority.
Part of this reduction was driven by more efficient homes. According to homebuilding industry figures, new three-bedroom, single-family homes use about half as much water as homes built in 1980.
“You want to get people out of older, wasteful houses into newer, more efficient ones,” said Michael McSweeney, a spokesman for the Building Industry Association of San Diego.
Still, the length of the current drought is challenging some of the assumptions water officials have been holding dear. Take, for example, the standard projection that droughts will only last three years. Folks at the County Water Authority said they might try to plan for longer droughts in the future.
If the drought drags on for a few more years, the county is going to be banking on some developments of its own: a to-be-completed recycled water system and desalination plant.