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SoccerCity would generate more traffic than its developers promised, according to a study released last week. That’s bad news for the project’s political hopes, but might be even worse news for the city’s climate goals.
If it is correct, it casts doubt on whether the city of San Diego can ever hit its ambitious goals to increase the share of people who commute without cars. The analysis from the San Diego Association of Governments projects SoccerCity will fall far short of the city’s goals to spur transit use and to persuade commuters to walk or bike to work.
The city’s big idea is to nudge residents out of their cars and into trolleys, buses, bikes or sidewalks by building urban neighborhoods near jobs and transit stations. The idea is the backbone of the city’s plan for long-term growth and its Climate Action Plan.
SoccerCity proposes just that sort of dense mix of housing, office and retail space on a major trolley stop in the middle of the city.
If a dense proposal on a trolley stop in the middle of the city can’t even come close to hitting the city’s goals for how its residents will move around, what can?
For their part, SoccerCity investors say the study is flawed. SANDAG leaders say they are not in the business of evaluating projects and their compliance with the city’s climate goals, and it’s possible another project on the site with a different makeup would score better.
But the study raised alarm from environmentalists and other advocates of the city’s climate plan. Either SANDAG is standing in the way of the kind of growth they want to see, they said, or the agency is raising a red flag on a severe problem in the assumptions underlying the city’s hopes.
City voters next year will decide the fate of SoccerCity, a proposal by private equity group FS Investors to build some 4,800 homes and office and retail space, along with a river park and new pro soccer stadium on the San Diego County Credit Union Stadium site.
SANDAG last week announced SoccerCity will generate 97,000 car trips to or from the site on an average day, roughly 25 percent more than the developer’s estimate of 71,500 trips.
More consequential to San Diego’s goals adopted two years ago in its Climate Action Plan is how few people the analysis claims will get around by anything other than a car.
Just under 17 percent of people commuting to or from SoccerCity are going to take transit, walk or ride a bike, according to SANDAG’s analysis.
The city, though, expects 50 percent of people living within a half-mile of a transit stop to commute by transit, walking or biking by 2035. It’s part of the legally binding Climate Action Plan.
It raises difficult questions for local decision-makers. One is whether they can trust SANDAG’s analysis. If the answer is yes, then they may have to reconsider just how achievable the city’s transportation goals really are.
SANDAG stands by its analysis – and says it can simultaneously be right, and that it’s still possible for the city to make good on its climate plan.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who championed the climate plan, is responsible for ensuring city staff measures its progress, and who supports SoccerCity, declined to comment on what SANDAG’s analysis of the project said about the climate plan’s viability.
SANDAG addressed technical concerns of its analysis from FS Investors in a point-by-point response alongside its report – but it’s the broader implication of what the analysis says about urban developments that’s concerned advocates for transit- and environment-focused policies.
Nick Stone, a partner at FS Investors, the private equity firm behind SoccerCity, said a neutral third party needs to step in to assess the validity of SANDAG’s forecasting model.
“SANDAG is setting a precedent that will have far-reaching consequences beyond this project, since the model ignores everything we know about the benefits of mixed-use, transit-oriented development; it severely undermines everything the city is trying to accomplish with its planning to address the region’s housing crisis and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he said in a statement. “There must be a truly independent, outside inquiry by unbiased traffic engineers.”
A Far Cry From Transit Goals
A SANDAG spokesman said in an email that no one should draw any conclusions from a project like SoccerCity falling so short of the city’s targets.
“Another development on the same site – or this same development on a different site – would result in different mode share results,” David Hicks wrote.
Plus, he said, the model is based on historical behavior. If behaviors change, so will the model’s expectations for how people get to and from SoccerCity.
“The results of our model today reflect current behaviors – the model does not assume or attempt to forecast the impact of” any significant changes the region might undergo in the future, Hicks wrote.
But the numbers aren’t even close.
Three times as many people would need to walk or bike to work than SANDAG projects for SoccerCity to meet the city’s goal. More than twice as many people would need to take transit. And that’s just for the numbers of people commuting – for trips of any kind that SoccerCity residents take, SANDAG thinks just 5.1 percent will be on transit.
With SANDAG’s numbers so far from the city’s goals, it’s easy to wonder why other major transit-focused projects planned or proposed nearby – at a new transit stop in Linda Vista on Tecolote Drive, or near the existing Grantville trolley station – would be any different.
And those are the places, like the SoccerCity site, that the city is counting on most.
Colin Parent, a La Mesa city councilman and interim director of Circulate San Diego, a transit- and urban-development advocacy group, said the analysis is deficient no matter what, because it’s still focused on measuring traffic.
Counting the number of trips from a site is the basis for measuring how much traffic a development causes. The state has since shifted to a different way of measuring a project’s effects, by determining how many miles an average person drives from a project.
“I’m not a modeler, I can’t say if they’re correct,” Parent said. “But I can say that the analysis shouldn’t matter, because they’re looking at the wrong thing.”
SANDAG looked at how many miles typical SoccerCity residents would drive, and found it was 30 percent lower than the typical city resident, at roughly 10 miles per day.
“If it creates fewer vehicle miles traveled, that’s a good thing, even if it creates more traffic,” Parent said.
He said it’s a recurring issue that SANDAG doesn’t use a standard traffic model, and instead opts for one it created, with unknown inputs and assumptions – which makes holding the agency accountable impossible.
The analysis could also speak to how limited the effect of any development decisions the city makes could be as long as they occur on the region’s existing transit system, which SANDAG is responsible for planning and building.
A Circulate San Diego study from 2015 found that just 14.8 percent of people living near transit stops would commute by transit, bike or walking by 2035, based on SANDAG’s data. The report concluded it was mathematically impossible to meet the city’s goals given the transit network SANDAG’s planning.
Elected officials who support major climate plans in their cities need to use their seats on SANDAG’s board to change things, he said.
“This is another example that SANDAG has not bought into its obligation to address climate change,” Parent said.
It’s incumbent on SANDAG to communicate to the city what it would need to do to meet its goals, said Nicole Capretz, who pushed the plan as a city staffer and now runs the nonprofit group Climate Action Campaign, which advocates for other cities to pass similar plans.
“SANDAG could say, ‘Here’s your roadmap – here’s the density, the service level, the amount of bike lanes, this is what you need to do,’” she said. “We are completely flying blind.”