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The do's and don'ts of smart growth for San Diego

With the San Diego Planning Commission considering the mixed-use One Paseo project in Carmel Valley, and Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2035, the city and businesses are dealing with smart growth and density issues.

What is smart growth, what benefits does it bring to a community and what can — or should — San Diego do to get more of it?

“Density is just a math problem: the number of front doors we have per acre,” said Dave Gatzke, vice president of acquisitions for Community Housing works at a recent San Diego County Taxpayers Association discussion. He said that limits on density or implementing building-height ratios can have perverse unintended consequences.

“A developer is going to maximize that out — it’s the only way to make a return on the project to be competitive to buy the land,” Gatzke said. “So we end up living in larger homes.”

With land in San Diego already at a premium, and 1 million more people projected to live in the region by 2050, building out isn’t an option anymore. Erik Bruvold, president of the National University Institute for Policy Research, said this leaves two options.

“We can either, with limited land and restrictions on the growth, do things like build around trolley stations, look at our first-ring suburbs and improve them and densify them,” Bruvold said.

“Or we can shove off our population growth requirements and housing needs, put them in southern Riverside County, where there’s plenty of land still and where you can continue to sprawl out.”

Assuming that building a double-decker Interstate 15 and increasing the number of commuters from Riverside to San Diego — which already stands at 40,000 daily — isn’t the vision people would choose for the region, that leaves smart growth as the more palatable option.

It’s worth noting that most of the 1 million additional people expected to be living in the region in 2050 will be descendants of those already here, not an influx from outside the area.

The notion of building transportation hubs and then increasing community density with housing, retail and office space isn’t always accepted by people who would be most affected.

“People support the notion of a city of villages in the aggregate, but then when it comes for any specific application of it, the response is ‘This won’t solve the whole problem,’” said Andrew Keatts, land use reporter at Voice of San Diego and a former Daily Transcript reporter, who moderated the discussion.

“And that will always be the case, but does that necessarily mean that you can dispel any project you don’t like for one reason or another because it isn’t a panacea?”

That’s what happened with the Morena Boulevard Plan in Councilmember Ed Harris’ Second District. Residents opposed adding 5,000 new apartments in a roughly two-mile stretch, instead supporting smart growth development elsewhere — wherever that is.

“In my opinion, there are places for it in the general plan. We call for increased density and say ‘city of villages,’ but there’s flexibility also; it’s not a cookie-cutter approach,” Harris said, noting that part of the problem with the Morena Boulevard Plan was poor communication with local residents.

“You have to be honest with people there, and if the SANDAG numbers are the ones we’re going to go by, than the city can’t come in and double the amount of housing and reduce the jobs by 2,000. You have to have solid data; smart growth has to be defendable,” Harris said.

Bruvold said that even where smart growth is defendable on the books, residents of the proposed densification area have still been hesitant, citing weak reasons for their opposition.

“There was a great project -- a really good project -- just up the hill from the trolley station we’ve just been talking about, and in that case the residents opposed the re-modification of a shopping center to add two- and three-story townhomes on the end … because the redevelopment of that shopping center would take away the excess parking lots that they park their RVs on. And that was really wrong,” Bruvold said.

Matt Adams, vice president of the Building Industry Association of San Diego, said he thinks the solution to this communication and cost-benefit problem is to emphasize the benefits for communities.

“We’ve got to stop talking about the numbers and start talking about the community and the benefits that come with densification,” Adams said.

“Want to have a trail along the river? Want to be able to fish along the river? Want to change the decomposed granite field to field turf or something else? Then we have to embrace change, we have to embrace densification.”

Even if this were to happen, implementation can be easier said than done, in part because of the many community planning groups a developer would have to meet for approval. Gatzke said there were seven different groups involved in the new Metro Transit System bus route, adding that if this process continues without change, “we are dead in the water.”

Elyse Lowe, former executive deputy director of Circulate San Diego who has just been named deputy director for the City of San Diego’s Development Services Department, said the issue has been solved in other parts of the country by looking at planning from a higher level.

“What’s happening successfully in other states is they’re doing the planning … at the corridor level,” Lowe said. “So where we have seven different community groups, other transit projects are going though just as many cities, so in order to solve that problem they do corridor planning groups.”

She also said Circulate San Diego’s attempt to involve more Pacific Beach residents through its new online ConnectPB tool has been successful.

Another impediment to implementing smart growth is the affordable housing component. Simply building more housing may not mean San Diego residents can afford them, given the high cost of living.

With the demise of state redevelopment funds, Gatzke said finding funding for the subsidized units has grown increasingly tough -- an 80 percent drop from three years ago -- although several panelists said that supply and demand would dictate that increasing supply would lead to more reasonable prices as demand wanes.

“You either believe the whole equation or not — that supply and demand affects price,” Adams said. “And we’re seeing it right now: Strained supply, you have growing demand you have escalating prices. So if you believe that scenario, than you have to embrace the opposite of that. We have to start to meet the supply, and prices will adjust accordingly. That’s how the free market works.”

Continuing with the economic benefits of smart growth, Gatzke said density means taxpayers save money.

“From the taxpayer’s perspective, this is exactly what we want,” he said. “The home I grew up in, there were potholes, sidewalks. … That was one house paying one property tax for 60 feet of street frontage the city needed to maintain.

“We’re just finishing entitlements on an almost 200-apartment project in North Park with five feet of street frontage for every apartment. So even if those apartments are a third of the value of a single-family house, that’s still eight times more tax revenue out of this smart growth development. Taxpayers have to get behind this.”

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