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The residents of Barrio Logan, San Diego’s historic Chicano neighborhood, are trying – once again – to finally have a say about what is built in their neighborhood.
Since the late 1970s, the rules that govern this (called zoning) in Barrio Logan have favored industry, meaning welding shops and processing plants could be built right next to family homes in the 1,000-acre neighborhood just east of downtown. Normally, cities try to keep land uses separate, so they don’t harm one another, by drawing separate spaces for industries to operate on the outskirts of town.
But that’s not the case for Barrio Logan.
While it’s one of the most culturally rich parts of San Diego, it’s also one of the most threatened by its proximity to industry. The U.S. Navy and industrial port occupy just over half the neighborhood land. As a result, some of California’s highest rates of asthma can be found here.
For a community squeezed between an interstate highway (that literally tore the community in twain in the 1960s) and a busy shipbuilding port, those helter skelter zoning rules promise a scary future. That’s because new dirty business could, say, buy up a bunch of homes and flip them into a manufacturing or processing plant – thereby compounding the air pollution and noise problem.
Barrio Logan residents called for more orderly zoning to keep semi-trucks from barreling down residential streets and industries from popping up next to homes over the decades. Environmental health advocates, industry officials and elected members to a community planning group almost reached a compromise on a new map back in 2014, but the hard-fought battle was undone by a citywide referendum vote against the plan.
At issue was a five-block strip of land between the Port of San Diego and the outskirts of the neighborhood called “the transition zone.” Everyone who lives and works there could never agree how to separate homes from industry.
That was true until May 2020, when the Environmental Health Coalition, the shipbuilding and ship repair industry and the Barrio Logan Planning Group – once warring groups – all drew their swords together and signed a written agreement, called a memorandum of understanding or MOU. The MOU created four new areas so homes and heavy industry all had their designated place in a way everyone could live with.
But while the Barrio Logan Community Planning Group is likely ready to approve the new map with a vote next month, the plan still has a long road ahead. The citywide Community Planning Group has to approve it, as does the city’s Planning Commission, the state Coastal Commission and eventually the City Council.
And at every step in the process, the plan is vulnerable to attack by any member of the public. It’s already been challenged by one of the signers of the MOU.
The Environmental Health Coalition recently called for the plan to require 30 percent of all new housing built in Barrio Logan be affordable (affordable here means set aside for people who make less than 60 percent of the area median income, which was $27,130).
The coalition is worried about luxury condominiums being built over single-family homes often occupied by renters. Landlords might be especially enticed to sell in the recently extra-hot real estate market. Property values in Barrio Logan have more than doubled since 2014, with the median home price topping $495,000, according to data from the Greater San Diego Association of Realtors.
“Barrio Logan is very unique. It’s a California Cultural District and the people that live here now made it so,” said Julie Corrales, a policy director at the Environmental Health Coalition. “If all these same people get pushed out, what’s going to happen to the neighborhood?”
To get that 30 percent affordable housing requirement in the plan would require the City Council to pass an ordinance. The city already has such a requirement, instead of 30 percent, San Diego requires developers reserve 10 percent of their units for low-income individuals. And developers have a choice to either reserve those units, or pay a fee that goes into a city fund intended to build affordable housing elsewhere.
Mark Steele, the Barrio Logan planning chair since 2014, said the planning group has no power here. It can pass a policy saying developers should build more affordable housing, which Steele said “is a good idea,” but he stressed that what the planning group says has no legal teeth like a City Council ordinance does.
The Council member who represents Barrio Logan is Vivian Moreno. Moreno wouldn’t answer questions about whether she supports a new 30 percent affordable housing mandate in the neighborhood, or what should be done to preserve what affordable living already exists there.
Instead Moreno wrote in a statement sent by Deputy Chief of Staff Lisa Schmidt that she’ll “wait to receive the planning group’s recommendation” as well as the other steps of the process before deciding how she’d vote on the plan.
Two years ago, the City Council tried to increase affordable housing this way, via what’s called an inclusionary zoning ordinance. It became a political controversy, and former Mayor Kevin Falconer vetoed an increase to the citywide requirements supported by Council Democrats. Moreno, though, sided with Faulconer. But the politics in City Hall have changed since then, with a new mayor and an even larger Democratic majority on the Council.
There’s another wrinkle. Remember that MOU signed by once-warring parties in Barrio Logan? There’s already at least one business that’s unhappy how the agreed-upon zoning map treats its property. That’s New Leaf Biofuel, a company on Newton Avenue that converts used restaurant cooking oil into biodiesel.
The plant just celebrated its facility expansion in February. It increased biodiesel production from 5 million to 12 million gallons per year, funded in part by a grant from the California Energy Commission. Jennifer Case, the company’s CEO, said the new zoning rules would limit by how much she can expand in the future. The new map also rezones her property as residential, meaning if her business went under or moved, only housing would be allowed there in the future.
“We can’t afford to relocate,” Case said. “In order to make a product efficiently you want to take advantage of existing infrastructure. You have to be expanding on your current site for it to make sense.”
Case asked the Barrio Logan Community Planning Group to include special biodiesel zoning for her business in the new map. But it’s unlikely its leaders are willing to add or subtract any land uses that the shipping industry, planning group and environmental advocates already agreed to under the MOU.
“The planning group is very hesitant to do anything to disrupt that MOU and go toward a different direction,” said Steele, the planning group chair.
Dennis Dubard, who represents General Dynamics NASSCO and the shipbuilding and repair industry on the MOU, echoed Steele’s sentiment.
“It’s been a decades-long issue and we want to get it done,” Dubard said. “We’ve tried to do our best to keep businesses informed as we were going along.”
The planning group will meet again on April 21 to hopefully vote on sending the community plan to City Council, and also vote on the affordable housing piece. Whether there will be additional discussion on adding new land uses or make other exceptions to the map everyone has agreed upon remains to be seen.
“I think we’re going to hold tight to that MOU. That’s my prediction,” Steele said.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Mark Steele.