Denver’s Union Station overhaul attracts 1 billion in private funding, and their transit-oriented development fund builds affordable housing near light rail stations around the city. Washington D.C.’s NoMa TOD project turns around a blighted neighborhood, while southeast D.C. continues its revitalization with the Nationals ballpark and smart growth at The Yards nearby:
Portland, Salt Lake City and even Cleveland have their own large-scale TOD initiatives, and rapidly-growing Austin is also following suit.
Drawn by affordable housing near jobs and seeking alternative transit options, several of these places are among the top cities millennials are moving to. According to a new survey from the Rockefeller Foundation and Transportation for America, younger Americans want “low-cost transit and multiple options for getting around the city“:
More than half of respondents said they would consider moving to another city if it had better access to public transportation. And 66% listed high quality transportation as a top factor in deciding where to live.
Why is it important to attract (or in San Diego’s case, retain) younger Americans? Because the modern industries that drive our economy need a diverse pool of qualified workers. This is particularly true here, where our hourglass economy and lack of middle-class housing has negatively impacted the region. A recent study indicated San Diego was the 8th most unaffordable metro out of 381 analyzed. Millennials are leaving San Diego at the third-highest rate in the nation for cities like Austin, seeking affordable housing and transportation choices beyond driving. Meanwhile, our city is projected to add 1.3 million people by 2050, largely due to birth rates. There’s no stopping this growth, even if you erected a wall around the city.
So, with a $1.7 billion investment in the Mid-Coast Trolley Extension, set to run from Old Town to UCSD/UTC in 2018, it made sense that the city would implement transit-oriented development around stations planned for Bay Park and Clairemont Mesa – not to mention that federal funding for the line could go to another city more willing to do so. Situated at the edge of these communities, along a pollution-spewing freeway, this is hardly a prime area in the heart of an existing community. The trolley line’s cost would be much higher if it ran right through Clairemont, due to land acquisition costs. Instead, Morena Boulevard’s current mix of retail and warehouses offers a potential opportunity to create the city’s next Little Italy.
Proposed building heights ranged up to 60 feet to meet the higher (20-30) dwelling units per acre recommended for transit oriented development, which in some areas exceeded the Clairemont Mesa 30-foot Height Limit Overlay Zone. In many cases, buffers between existing residential areas and the proposed development area exist, and buildings were to be “stepped back”, away from current housing.
So that’s the case for transit-oriented development, let’s see what the above area’s residents think. From the Morena Boulevard station proposal:
(Morena Boulevard Station workship) attendees were adamant that the existing 30’ height limit (in the Clairemont planning area) be enforced. Of particular concern to this group were blockage of views and the introduction of too much development in an already established neighborhood
Uh-oh. Surely there are some Clairemont Mesa folks who recognize the value of smart growth and sharing the region’s new population; after all, from 2000-2012, the neighborhood only added a couple hundred housing units over and above the 20,000 that existed prior to that. They do realize they’re located in the center of a city, not in some distant exurb, right? Here’s a Bay Park resident who’s twitter profile says he’s “open-minded”:
Well that’s… not so open-minded. People in Clairemont Mesa can’t really think we should shut the door behind us because we got here first. I mean, what if someone did that before we arrived? Surely they’ll offer their own alternative… maybe propose a reduction in some building heights, but at least make a token effort to work together for the city’s economic future. This Voice of San Diego commenter seems to address this:
It is not the responsibility of the residents to offer an alternative. You want to take a regional problem and dump it on them. And offer them nothing. And yes, it IS a good thing (we) got in (before we closed the door on others). I sure hope you’re planning your life as well as (we) did.
Yikes… so maybe it’s really not just about building heights and views, or even putting all new growth solely downtown – not that we could realistically fit another 1.3 million people downtown anyway.
They’re actually advocating no-growth. But since much of our growth is going to come from within, do we somehow prevent other people from having children? Also, it puts us in line with zero-growth (and economically suffering) Detroit and Buffalo rather than forward-looking, economically diverse cities like Austin and Denver.
Many San Diegans simply don’t want anyone else added to the city (unless it’s their children, of course). They want the amenities a city has to offer, but they don’t want the potential inconveniences of a successful city – traffic congestion, fighting for parking spaces. Car dependent neighborhoods might seem great in low-density suburban settings, but the resulting traffic and parking tends to “suck” once you add things like “jobs” that large cities offer.
Since established San Diegans drive everywhere, they assume any new residents will too – even those who’ll live right next to a new rail line serving job centers downtown and at UCSD (and is part of the seventh-most used light rail system in the nation). Every new resident is just another person on the freeway on-ramp in their minds. Yet after decades of low-density sprawl that have filled the freeways to capacity, including voter-approved 4S Ranch, it’s the public transit development that must be stopped. Demolish blocks of mid-city for the SR-15 freeway? No problem! Build middle-class housing along a new trolley line? Never! They’re fighting alternative transit options and forcing their car dependency on younger Americans who can’t afford it – and likely don’t want it in the first place.
Last week, the above recommendations for higher building heights in the Morena Boulevard Station Area were killed by the City Planning Department, with nationally-recognized smart growth leader Bill Fulton writing the obituary to City of San Diego Smart Growth Committee chairperson Lorie Zapf (Zapf represents part of the Station Area). Zapf’s role on this Committee is laughable given this development, but her upcoming election opponent, Sarah Boot, caved to the NIMBYs too – as did temporary councilperson Ed Harris, who represents the southern part of the Station Area (Harris has a meeting about the project this Wednesday). Was there even any effort by our elected leaders to discuss larger regional growth issues with their constituents, or was it impossible over the screaming?
As long as younger San Diegans remain disengaged, and community planning group meetings look like the set of a Geritol commercial, our elected leaders are going to continue to cave to the loudest voices and folks who turn out for every election, not just the presidential ones. Meanwhile NIMBYs are putting on-street storage of private vehicles over safe bike lanes and preventing dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit:
The El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association surveyed local businesses and found 74 percent didn’t want to surrender a traffic lane. Stephen Russell, an architect, was executive director of the El Cajon BIA who later worked in Councilwoman Toni Atkins’ office when she represented the mid-city area. He said the project didn’t have the support it needed. “I think it was a shame that it got dumbed down, but it’s hard to hoist changes onto a community when you don’t have a constituency that’s participatory,” he said. “The people who are most loud simply don’t use the system, and don’t see it as relevant to their lifestyle. There are class issues in that. I heard businesses who didn’t want ‘bus people’ there.”
To justify their no growth approach, NIMBYs say they’re protecting the environment. In reality, they’re just protecting their car-dependent, resource-intensive, low-density lifestyle. Higher density development near public transit is far less resource-intensive than the unsustainable miles of roads and utilities required by our sprawled city – not to mention the additional issues of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The same can be applied to their “infrastructure before development!” arguments, which ring a bit hollow now.
The NIMBY epidemic isn’t limited to Clairemont Mesa. It’s a city-wide problem, with examples of residents fighting density increases in near-downtown (or transit-served) neighborhoods like Hillcrest, Mission Hills, Golden Hill, and Grantville. Then there’s the Allied Gardens residents opposing senior housing because it threatened their community pool parking (and because “we’re a unique community of single-family homes only”), and OB Rag deploring “horrendous parking and traffic” impacts from an 8-unit mixed-use project.
In Hillcrest, Uptown Planners recently elected a slate of anti-growth older white men to the board. Meanwhile, on that Mardi Gras night, an ethnically diverse crowd of young folks partied just outside, unaware that their chances of securing affordable housing in Hillcrest someday just became even more remote. Middle class housing is of little concern to “progressive” Uptown residents like the couple who run Hillquest.com and rail against reasonable height limits, density and bike lanes. They’ve got their own little piece of paradise overlooking a canyon in Bankers Hill, so why should they accommodate anyone or anything else that might inconvenience their car-dependent lifestyle? It’s the same progressive NIMBY hypocrisy of Berkeley’s Zelda Bronstein, who’s profiled in the new book “Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of Urbanism“. Author Benjamin Ross describes her fight against both transit-oriented development of a BART parking lot, and bike lanes.
Real progressives embrace change, and we owe it to our city and its future generations to think beyond ourselves. Let’s participate in community planning group meetings – you can sign up for email notices here. And check out Circulate SD, the merger of Move SD and Walk SD, who advocate for public transit, bike infrastructure, and walkable neighborhoods.
To end this long rant on a positive note, check out the transit-oriented development going on in Lemon Grove. The five story Citronica development (shown below) next to the trolley is an affordable-housing success, there’s a new senior facility nearby, and a new linear park and Main Street promenade is planned for the area. Hopefully projects like this can serve as a model for other communities to consider.