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The MTS Palomar Avenue blue line station. / Photo courtesy of Colin Parent

The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System can and should transform its real estate assets, many of which are underutilized parking lots, into affordable homes.

San Diego is in an affordable housing crisis that is hurting many families. At the same time, cities within San Diego County, as well as the San Diego Association of Governments, are struggling to find ways to meet ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals set by the state and locally. San Diego’s largest transit agency, MTS, has a significant and unique opportunity to be a part of the solution to our housing and climate action goals, and the solution will also help MTS.

Voice of San Diego Commentary

Circulate San Diego released a report last week that outlines recommendations on how MTS can leverage its real estate to build affordable homes, catalyze economic development and address climate change.

The properties MTS has already identified for potential development total more than 57 acres. Circulate calculated that with proper land use regulations, those properties could support more than 8,000 new homes, with more than 3,000 set aside as permanently affordable for low-income renters.

Changes to the structure of the MTS board — as result of a bill written by San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher — present a new opportunity to revisit the agency’s policies that govern development. Circulate’s report recommends that MTS take advantage of the current political support for transit-oriented development by taking three important steps. The first is for MTS to begin issuing development proposal requests for priority sites and actively build relationships with possible developers of agency lands. The second is to require development on MTS land to include a percentage of homes to be made permanently affordable for low-income families. And finally, MTS must end the costly requirements for new developments on MTS parking lots to replace or maintain parking where it is already underutilized.

Circulate San Diego recently performed a system-wide survey of all parking lots and structures owned by MTS located near trolley stations and bus stops. That research found that a substantial number of the MTS parking facilities have very low usage. Many large properties, including the Grantville Station parking lot, are only 30 percent full during peak hours. These properties should be put to use, not preserved as parking that no one even uses.

MTS is also an outlier among large California transit agencies. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority, Bay Area Rapid Transit and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority all have policies to encourage productive joint development efforts adjacent to transit investments. MTS should adopt the best practices from other transit agencies in California to encourage more transit-oriented development on its own land.

The elected officials on the MTS board are responsible for setting priorities and directing staff on how to make the best use of the agency’s assets. Recent changes to the MTS leadership present an opportunity for a new start. Not only will development of this real estate provide public benefits, but it will provide new sources of revenue to support transit operations and to provide better service for riders.

Transit-oriented development on MTS land presents an important opportunity to help improve the local economy, allow people to live and commute more affordably and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the region. The MTS board should amend its policies on joint development. The sooner MTS’s policies are fixed, the sooner more affordable homes can be built.

Gabe Gutierrez is chair of Circulate San Diego and a Chula Vista planning commissioner. Ginger Hitzke is president of Hitzke Development Corporation, based in San Marcos. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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