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The North County Transit District is undertaking major redevelopment of the land around its transit stations.
The transit agency is selecting developers to turn the largely empty land surrounding up to 12 of its properties into mixed-use projects with market-rate housing, affordable housing and commercial spaces.
NCTD officials expect the initiative to not only create long-term revenue for the agency, but also provide affordable housing to a region that needs it, and increase transit ridership to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The public agency provides public transportation for North San Diego County. Several of its transit centers and SPRINTER stations sit on acres of land that have been underutilized for decades. With demand for housing continuing to increase and climate reduction mandates bearing down on the region, public entities are facing more pressure to get involved.
NCTD officials say they want to do just that, while also reimagining the way people access public transit. In 2016, the agency’s board approved a policy to develop hundreds of housing units, commercial properties, office spaces, amenities and more on what are currently underused surface parking lots.
“We wanted to identify transit-oriented redevelopment projects that seek to transform our transit facilities into multimodal mobility hubs that can increase our ridership, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and generate a stable source of income for us,” said NCTD Chief Development Director Tracey Foster.
She said the agency is hoping the redevelopment projects change the way North County views and uses public transportation.
“We certainly want to contribute to regional goals,” Foster said. “But we also want to create mobility hubs at all of these spaces so that, today we have a lot of surface parking lots, but we can have so much more that brings benefits to the community … and creates world class public spaces.”
In recent years, there’s been an increased effort by transit agencies to make better use of their real estate assets, said Colin Parent, executive director and general counsel at Circulate San Diego, a nonprofit advocacy group for public transit and affordable housing.
“Maybe in the past the transit agencies thought that they didn’t have to worry about it – that it was someone else’s problem,” Parent said. “But we have multiple overlapping crises, and it’s really important that public agencies of all stripes, including transit agencies, do their part to help address these concerns.”
In 2018, Circulate San Diego criticized the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) for failing to utilize their real estate, urging the agency to turn its underused parking lots into affordable housing.
Now, MTS is in the process of redeveloping several of its transit centers and trolley stations throughout San Diego County into market-rate and affordable housing.
Foster said they weren’t facing much outside pressure from the community or from advocacy groups when the board first adopted the policy in 2016, which could be because they were one of the earlier transit agencies to take the step.
However, she said public transit agencies will increasingly be expected to maximize their resources and assets moving forward.
“One of the things that MTS had been, and I think this is true for NCTD, as well, is that they were fairly passive – they were waiting for people to approach them,” Parent said. “Now, the two agencies are being proactive and saying, ‘we’re going to solicit developers and make that a priority for the agency.’”
There are five redevelopment projects in the works at NCTD, all of them in various stages. The Oceanside Transit Center sits on a 10.2-acre property. Plans for its redevelopment include a hotel, office spaces, hundreds of apartments and retail stores.
NCTD contracted with the developer, Toll Brothers, Inc., to develop 550 market-rate units and 80 affordable units at the transit center. A 140-room boutique hotel is also part of the project.
Toll Brothers will also build 200 market-rate units and 30 affordable units at a second location that is now the NCTD headquarters on Mission Avenue in Oceanside. NCTD plans to move its headquarters to the new offices at the transit center.
The second project is the redevelopment of two transit centers in Carlsbad – the Carlsbad Poinsettia Station, an 11.47-acre site, and the Carlsbad Village Station, an 11.33-acre site.
These sites could yield between 300 to 400 residential units at the Carlsbad Village Station and 140 Residential Units at the Poinsettia Station.
The agency is also pursuing a mixed-use development at the Escondido Transit Center, which has 12.8 acres of developable land. Plans for the site include 414 residential units, as well as commercial spaces and office spaces.
NCTD also plans to redevelop seven SPRINTER station parking lots – four in Oceanside, two in Vista and one in San Marcos.
“The future of public transit is definitely looking toward how we increase our ridership, but also how we make it a better experience for all of our transit patrons, while also contributing to regional goals,” Foster said.
None of the projects have reached the construction phase yet. The Oceanside Transit Center is the furthest along in the process, but it will be two to four years before it is finished.