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Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

Many American cities – despite their unique geography and circumstances – share the same serious, complex problems: things like homelessness, housing affordability, disaster preparedness and inequality. When we talk about San Diego Specials – a unique brand of problems – we’re not talking about those. Rather, the term refers to solvable, long-running issues that have festered here as a result of a lack of leadership and vision. They’re often challenges other cities (or even other San Diego communities) took action on long ago, with far less headaches. In this weeklong series, we are examining five San Diego Specials and the factors that have kept solutions out of reach.


San Diego’s most polluted neighborhood could soon get a new community plan, one that tries to finally separate Barrio Logan’s homes and its industrial businesses.

Then again, Barrio Logan has been trying for decades to update this blueprint for future growth, and it’s faced delays once again this year.

At its core, the Barrio Logan problem is simple. Unlike every other neighborhood in the city, industrial businesses there are allowed to open next door to homes. Between that, the shipbuilding industry on Barrio Logan’s waterfront and the two freeways built years ago that cut through the neighborhood, it has the lowest air quality in the region.

“It’s the poster child for environmental racism,” said Diane Takvorian, executive director of the Environmental Health Coalition. “It’s the plan that continually got put on the back burner; the plan that no one wanted to deal with.”

The neighborhood was here first, a community of refugees from the Mexican Revolution living in what was then a unified Logan Heights. Then WWII brought the U.S. Navy and a shipbuilding and repair industry, converting community land once abutting San Diego Bay into an industrial port. The government built Interstate 5 and the Coronado Bridge, forcing residents off their property and splitting the neighborhood in two — Logan Heights and Barrio Logan, closer to the waterfront.

“Disruptions are deeply a part of communities of color,” said Alberto Pulido, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of San Diego and vice chair of the Chicano Park Museum and Cultural Center in the greater Logan Heights area. “Our story was fragmented and disjointed, so how the hell are we ever going to be able to build continuity over time?”

The final blow was mixed-use zoning, which allowed free-for-all development, further fragmenting the neighborhood.

barrio logan
A school bus drives through Barrio Logan. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

There has been something of a consensus for years that the status quo in Barrio Logan was not acceptable. But in true San Diego Special fashion, that has not led to a solution. That was especially true during a citywide vote in 2014 that raised the question of whether there was in fact a consensus for change in the first place.

Then, the main fight in Barrio Logan was over zoning rules that dictate what kinds of things can be built where. Compromises among industry, environmental advocates and community leaders emerged in 2013, leading to the City Council’s adoption of a new community plan that fixed the zoning, separating homes from industry over time.

But the plan ultimately faced and a politically charged and unprecedented citywide referendum a year later, where it was overturned, and the issue stalled ever since.

Barrio Logan’s community plan, which would have created a buffer zone between homes and certain businesses, faced voters in June 2014 as Props. B and C. The measures failed after aggressive lobbying from the business community. / Photo by Sam Hodgson
Barrio Logan’s community plan, which would have created a buffer zone between homes and certain businesses, faced voters in June 2014 as Props. B and C. The measures failed after aggressive lobbying from the business community. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Once at odds, the community leaders, environmental activists and the shipbuilding industry began hashing out a deal in May on a new plan that grows residential neighborhoods, and still allows industry to expand but creates a buffer that advocates have long demanded between the residential area and the waterfront shipyards. It settled the dispute that eventually led to the 2014 citywide referendum.

Now, though, the Environmental Health Coalition is calling for more changes. It’s seeking ambitious affordable housing requirements and anti-gentrification initiatives as part of the new community plan. Though it delayed the final vote on the plan, the Barrio Logan Planning Group eventually supported a requirement that 15 percent of new housing in two residential villages (a new feature of the compromised zoning map) be reserved for low-income residents.

“We didn’t want (the plan) to take longer, but this is a plan they’ll live with for a long time, so it needs to reflect what the community wants it to be,” Takvorian said.

City staff are now working to add that requirement and the anti-gentrification measures – like relocation benefits, a right to return for tenants who are displaced or outright reserving affordable housing for community residents – into a new draft of the community plan. It could take another three to six months for that to be done, according to city documents, before the Barrio Logan Planning Group can take a final vote.

That vote is step one.

The plan still has to make it through multiple hurdles, including a City Council vote and approval by the state Coastal Commission, due to Barrio Logan’s proximity to San Diego Bay.

Mark Steele, chair of the planning group, said that while he supports the affordable housing push he acknowledged it is delaying a more immediate fix to the neighborhood’s environmental justice woes.

“Every day they push hard on this is another day someone can come in and do whatever they want in Barrio Logan,” Steele said. “The sooner the plan gets done, the sooner those incompatibilities [between housing and industry] can cease.”

City Councilwoman Vivian Moreno, who represents the area, declined an interview request.

Community leaders are hopeful she won’t vote against something the local planning group approves.

Back in 2013, Barrio Logan’s future turned into a political flashpoint in the mayoral election between former Councilman David Alvarez, who represented the area and attributes his asthma to growing up there, and the eventual winner, Kevin Faulconer, who stood with the shipbuilding industry.

Each candidate supported a different zoning compromise. But the community’s status quo eventually won when city voters threw Barrio Logan’s community plan out at the ballot box.

The shipbuilding industry has changed its tune since then.

Derry Pence, president of Port of San Diego’s Ship Repair Association, restated support for the signed written agreement on a zoning map drawn up in 2020 between industry leaders, the Environmental Health Coalition and the Barrio Logan Planning Group. The new zoning would “(create) a healthier community and will provide certainty to residents and businesses by setting a firm path for growth and development in the community,” Pence wrote in an email.

Steele is hopeful the Council will vote on the plan in early 2022, about the same time he’ll term out as the first chair of the Barrio Logan Planning Group, which was started after the referendum.

“There was a quiet period for a long time,” Steele said. “I spent the first few years just trying to get everything going and settled down, and make it into a group that could be successful.”

The plot of land that hosts Steele’s own business, an architecture and planning firm on Newton Avenue, will eventually become space for new residential housing under the agreed-on zoning rules.

(His business won’t be kicked out, it’ll be grandfathered in. But once the land changes hands, housing will have to be built there, under the new rules.) That’s fine with Steele. He said he sees the change as an improvement toward creating a more cohesive community.

Ultimately, generations of San Diegans who watched the Barrio Logan neighborhood be sliced and diced by industry and government projects over generations are hopeful the new plan will stick.

“We were in the way of progress,” Pulido said. “But people came back. That’s what they didn’t expect.”

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