In a debate this week, mayoral candidate Ed Harris said the city needs to build lots of homes in a responsible way if it wants to make housing more affordable.

“We need to build,” he said. “We need to continue to build. Remember, the trolley line goes all the way to San Ysidro. There are building opportunities and we need to make incentives to ensure that from San Ysidro all the way to San Diego we provide the guidance, provide the incentives to have people build.”

His goal – to build more homes close to public transit to accommodate a growing population – is one that’s shared by the city’s general plan, its long-term outline for development. It’s also shared by the city’s Climate Action Plan, its blueprint to cut greenhouse gases in half by 2035.

But it wasn’t a goal shared by Harris two years ago, when he was an interim city councilman.

After the city released a plan in 2014 to let developers build more homes and taller buildings near two new trolley stops to take advantage of a new, $1.7 billion trolley extension from Old Town to UCSD, Harris staged a protest.

Hundreds of Bay Park residents filled an elementary school auditorium and took turns imploring city planners to kill the plan. They said increasing building heights from 30 feet to 60 feet near a trolley station at Clairemont Drive would bring “towers of terror” and make their neighborhood like Manhattan. They booed off the stage the only two residents who favored the city’s plan.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer – now Harris’s opponent – capitulated.

City planners said before the meeting they would abandon plans for increasing the height limit in the area. The plan is moving forward with no changes to development allowed near the Clairemont Drive trolley station, directly contradicting what Harris now says the city needs to do to make housing more affordable for middle-class residents.

After the town hall, Harris praised the community for defeating the plan. He said the city’s proposal didn’t belong in Bay Park. He said it should be proposed in poor neighborhoods that want new development, like Councilwoman Myrtle Cole’s southeastern district.

“This isn’t blighted,” he said. “This is a very vibrant, healthy, family-oriented community.”

Now, Harris is talking up the city’s need to build new housing near transit – just what the proposal he opposed so strongly intended to do.

In an interview, he said he’s changed his perspective.

“I think you know that when I organized the town hall it was three weeks in office,” he said. “You learn and grow by every experience … I wouldn’t say I regret it. I would say I learned from it.”

Harris didn’t just organize the 2014 meeting, though. He also articulated a clear perspective that night that the notion of increasing housing density near transit was misguided.

“Density belongs downtown,” he said. “That’s just how I feel.”

He now says that perspective is flat wrong.

“No, I don’t believe that,” he said. “We can do density in a lot of areas. That was a statement made by a brand new Council member. Just saying ‘density belongs downtown’ doesn’t allow us to meet our needs as a region.”

Harris didn’t back off his opposition to the Bay Park plan entirely, however.

He said a big part of the community anger was that city planners didn’t clearly communicate their plans for the neighborhood ahead of time. If they had, he said, they would have had a better chance of finding common ground, allowing for more housing but not as much as the city had initially proposed.

The city has since abandoned any density increases surrounding the Clairemont Drive trolley station. The new plan would allow more housing to be built in the southern part of the community, near another new station planned near Tecolote Drive, and at two roughly five-acre areas currently home to trailer parks.

Even though he now says the city needs to build more housing up and down its trolley system, Harris wouldn’t say what he considers the best proposal for new development around the Clairemont Drive trolley stop.

“I’m not going to be locked down on that one project,” he said. “That’s one neighborhood in an entire city.”

That’s one of the recurring issues that led San Diego to be ranked last year as the worst metro area in the state at locating houses and jobs near transit stations. Despite support for citywide goals to concentrate growth near transit, it rarely follows through on that support with action on specific proposals.

Harris did say he would have proposed a pedestrian- and bike-friendly “greenway” from Bay Park to Mission Bay. It’s those sorts of amenities, he said, that would let a community accept density that it otherwise doesn’t want.

“I think we all know there’s a balance between the greed of developers paying into campaigns who would like to do anything they want, and the realistic need for the region,” he said.

Andrew Keatts

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

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