A vacant lot next to a new planned trolley station at Clairemont Drive and Morena Boulevard has been home to years of development fights. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Five years, two City Council races and three planning directors later, San Diego is poised to make way for new homes near the largest transit investment it’s ever made.

The city has tried in fits and starts to change its development regulations – against fierce and well-organized neighborhood opposition – along Morena Boulevard, and the three new trolley stations there that are part of the $2.1 billion Mid-Coast line that’s under construction.

In the process, the proposal and the community’s opposition has become something of a bellwether for the city’s commitment to combating climate change and lowering housing prices by building dense, urban neighborhoods near transit.

But the plan coming before the City Council in a special meeting Thursday is considerably different than the one that kicked off a round of angry town halls, colorful neighborhood protests and regular media coverage back in 2014.

The city’s proposal would let developers build some 6,000 new homes near a new trolley station at Morena Boulevard and Tecolote Drive, and would rebuild the suburban, big box retail plots with a classic urban street grid. The Council will also decide whether to make way for 3,500 new homes at the planned station near Balboa Avenue and Morena Boulevard, but only on the western side of I-5, in Pacific Beach. The city’s plan would also narrow Morena Bouelvard from four lanes to three while making way for new protected bike lanes and an improved pedestrian way along the commercial corridor.

But the city decided to punt a few decisions that had been the cause of controversy when the proposal first came forward in 2014. The city is not considering any changes at the Clairemont Drive station, where it initially proposed lifting the 30-foot height limit to 80 feet to make way for more homes along the trolley line. It also hasn’t proposed any changes to development restrictions on the eastern side of I-5 near the Balboa Drive station. Any changes in those two areas have been deferred.

Mike Hansen, the city’s planning director, said the proposed housing increase is itself regionally significant. He pointed out that it represents about one year’s worth of housing production citywide, although it will take years for developers to actually build all the housing the plan would allow, if they ever do.

“Where is the right place or the best place in the city to accommodate growth? If we cannot agree that near a fixed-rail line is the appropriate place to accommodate some of the growth that is already happening in the city, then I think we are going to have some additional challenges in the future,” Hansen said. “So I do agree that this is somewhat of a test case.”

Building more homes on Morena Boulevard defined each of the last two elections for the City Council’s District 2 seat, which covers the area. In 2014, Republican incumbent Lorie Zapf won easily, despite her challenger’s attempt to make the race a referendum on the proposal. But in the process, Zapf asked her ally Mayor Kevin Faulconer to abandon changes at the Clairemont Drive station, which he did.

Last year, again facing a Democratic challenger, Zapf again asked the mayor to forgo any changes to building heights near the new trolley stations, and focused on the proposal at the Tecolote Station further south. Faulconer at the time relented –  the proposal would increase density but not allow taller buildings.

After Zapf lost to Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, though, Faulconer reversed himself, and allowed for developers to build up to 100 feet if they seek special permission.

Campbell doesn’t think it’s fair that the Morena Boulevard changes have come to stand in for whether the city is committed to achieving its housing and climate goals.

For one, she said it didn’t really make much sense to build trolley stations in the community in the first place.

“This section of the Morena corridor is only three miles long,” she said. “We already have the Linda Vista station there. So they’re adding three stations within three miles, which is quite a bit. On the west they have water. On the east they have mostly single-family home neighborhoods and three-story condos … there isn’t much of a dense population there.”

She said she’s had conversations with Hasan Ikhrata, director of the San Diego Association of Governments, which is building the new trolley line, in which he agreed that the new stations were only built there because there were already tracks there, which made the project cheaper.

“It had nothing to do with the fact that we really need to think about getting the population to the stations, so they won’t have to use their cars,” Campbell said. “But (Ikhrata) wasn’t there when they started building, and they sure as heck weren’t going to stop it in the middle.”

Campbell said the community has been disappointed time and again by the city throughout the process. She’s unsatisfied with where the plan is today. She thinks the community could live with a plan that increased density but capped building heights near the Tecolote station at 45 feet, and she wishes that Morena Boulevard would stay at four lanes, abandoning the plan to turn one car lane into a cycle track and expanded pedestrian way.

But Campbell is aiming for at least one more change at Council.

The community planning group in Linda Vista, where the Tecolote station is located, first asked that 40 percent of new units in the area be reserved for low-income residents, four times the current citywide restriction. Campbell is hoping to at least get her colleagues to set a 15 percent low-income requirement in the area, above the citywide 10 percent level.

“We’ll try for that, and we’ll try for four lanes on Morena, because I don’t think the city planners live around there,” she said. “They don’t understand that the traffic there is quite congested already.”

The city’s development community is already engaged in a fight over increases to the so-called inclusionary housing requirement, whereby builders must set aside some homes in a project for low-income residents, or pay a fee to avoid doing so. One of their specific requests in negotiations against the city’s attempt to increase those regulations was to ensure that communities don’t set their own requirements, arguing that it’s detrimental to have different rules in different areas.

Hansen echoed those concerns, and said the city is already requiring an awful lot of anyone who decides to take advantage of the new, increased density.

It’s the developers who are expected to pay to build out the new grid system that planners hope will alleviate traffic in the area while making the newly developed community more transit- and bike-friendly. That’s their cost for building up to the maximum allowable building heights.

“We’re already taking significant value out of the land and in exchange, they’re going to see increased density,” he said. “So we already feel that we have created some balance.”

Dave Potter is a Clairemont resident and former city planner who has been involved in the community planning process along Morena from the beginning.

He’s still sore that the city decided not to make any changes near the Clairemont Drive station, even after his group spent months working with city planners on it. “It seems backward to have more specificity in the community plan than you do in the specific plan,” he said.

Increasing density near the Tecolote Station makes some sense, he said, since the new buildings will be on top of the station and give residents a real chance to forgo car ownership.

Like Campbell, he said it would have made more sense to build transit into dense communities, rather than building it where it’s easy and adding density later.

“Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t,” he said. “I guess we’ll have to see what projects come along.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said one of the new stations was at Morena Boulevard and Balboa Drive. The station is on Balboa Avenue.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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