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Looks like San Marcos can teach San Diego a thing or two about urban development.
San Diego’s urban neighborhoods struggle to build the low-income, transit-focused projects the city says it needs, the North County city is quietly thriving.
San Marcos, more than any other North County city, has embraced focusing growth around light-rail stations for the Sprinter, transit advocates say. Ridership is spiking as new projects are being built that connect the light rail to the city’s major destinations with housing at a mix of prices, and officials lay out plans to continue to get the most out of the regional investment.
“San Marcos has taken advantage of the proximity of institutions like Palomar College and Cal State San Marcos to the Sprinter line to focus resources and build transit-oriented development for these growing populations,” said Kathleen Ferrier, advocacy director at Circulate San Diego.
Circulate SD worked with San Marcos on a program to make streets comfortable for cyclists and pedestrians in the area surrounding Palomar Station. That area’s also being developed with a 370-unit project called Palomar Station and a 416-apartment, mixed-use development called Davia.
Overall ridership on the Sprinter still remains small. But between 2013 and 2015, Cal State San Marcos Station’s average weekday ridership had the sharpest increase of any station, from 287 to 454 – a rise of 58.5 percent.
And even though San Marcos has the smallest population among the Sprinter’s four cities (Escondido, Oceanside and Vista are the others) San Marcos’ Palomar Station has the fourth-highest ridership of the line’s 15 stations.
Gary Levitt is the developer of North City, a project meant to fill in the 200 acres between Cal State San Marcos and the nearest Sprinter station with 1,000-1,500 homes for students and low- and middle-class residents and a mix of stores, restaurants and office spaces.
He envisions it as an urban extension of the university’s suburban campus, inspired by urban neighborhoods like North Park and Hillcrest in San Diego. City officials, he said, have “gone out of their way to be supportive.”
“If we’re ever going to do an urban node in Southern California, this is going to be it,” Levitt said. “Thank God we found a city that agreed with us.”
San Marcos didn’t adopt any official policy to promote Sprinter-focused development, but it has embraced certain tools on a project-specific basis, such as by lowering the number of parking spaces developers are required to build for projects near stations.
Plus, the city has already sketched out an inner-city shuttle to connect neighborhoods, like downtown, to Sprinter stations. The shuttle won’t be needed for years, until Sprinter demand rises, but the city has already planned out routes and a special tax district to pay for it. Taxes levied on future residents would go toward managing traffic congestion and funding the shuttle.
“When you look at these projects, that’s what is supposed to happen,” said San Marcos City Councilman Chris Orlando. “You put the station in and development happens around it. We’ve taken a very forward-looking approach to transit-oriented development and developing along the corridor.”
Levitt emphasized that planners and developers looking to cater to transit riders need to focus their efforts directly next to transit stations – “kind of close” isn’t good enough.
“It’s all about getting as many people living within a quarter-mile of transit,” Levitt said. “If it’s more than a quarter-mile away, people think they have to get in their car to get there.”
There’s a lesson in the success seen by San Marcos’ effort, Ferrier said.
“The experience of San Marcos shows there is indeed a market for people to live near transit,” she said.