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Planners approve 194-unit North Park housing project

The San Diego Planning Commission voted Thursday to recommend city council approval of a 194-unit housing project in North Park that includes a larger density bonus than what city code allows.

Community HousingWorks’ proposed Arizona Street project won praise both for its planned affordable housing, as well as the plans for the development to be LGBT-friendly and adhere to smart-growth principles.

The project, which will feature two buildings at the corner of Texas Street and Howard Avenue, is scheduled to go before the San Diego City Council in late January.

The state’s density bonus law permits developers to build more units on a property than allowed by local regulations in exchange for a pledging to make a percentage of the units affordable.

Laura Black, the city’s project manager on the North Park development, told The Daily Transcript this is the first time San Diego is allowing a density bonus greater than what is permitted by city ordinance.

Community HousingWorks is slated to receive the maximum 35 percent density bonus for its initial pledge to build 20 affordable units.

The experienced affordable housing developer is also seeking an additional density increase through a site-specific ordinance.

That ordinance would provide for 14 additional units, including three affordable ones, bringing the project to 194 units. The added density would bring the planned affordable units for very low-income persons to 23.

Black said Thursday the total density bonus that Community HousingWorks is projected to receive is about 46 percent.

She said the density bonus law permits a city to provide a density increase greater than 35 percent if the local ordinance allows for it.

Because San Diego’s ordinance does not include that language, a site-specific ordinance is required to provide an extra density increase.

The city is considering changing its density bonus ordinance so future projects would not need a site-specific ordinance, said Dan Normandin, a senior planner in the Development Services Department.

Normandin said that change is among several amendments being considered by a working group. The specifics still need to be vetted, he wrote in an email.

Community HousingWorks' project calls for 118-market rate units in one building and 76 senior units in the second building that will house the affordable units.

The developer is pursuing additional funding, including low-income housing tax credits, so that it can make all of the senior units affordable, said Dave Gatzke, CHW's vice president of acquisitions.

Gatzke said organizations like his have to find creative ways to fund and develop affordable housing following the dissolution of redevelopment agencies and cutbacks in federal funding.

“We proposed what will be Community HousingWorks' first mixed-income development and also proposed a fairly aggressive use of the density bonus to really deliver both the smart growth and the responsible use of land that these sites called for, but also maximize our ability to deliver the affordable units,” Gatzke told the Planning Commission.

Community HousingWorks will bring on another developer to build the market-rate building.

The commission approved the project with a 5-0 vote. Commissioners Douglas Austin and Susan Peerson recused themselves from the discussion and vote.

The development drew praise from the public and the commission because the senior housing will be considered LGBT friendly.

While the apartments will be available to anyone who meets the age and income requirements, the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center will provide on-site services and support.

Robert Bettinger, an 86-year-old gay man, said such a project was many years in the making and is much needed for people like him who often struggle to find safe, affirming housing.

“I live in a senior high-rise now and the issues of isolation and other things are still a question,” said Bettinger, while on the verge of tears. “This model will help all the other high-rises also be more open and provide more community consciousness.”

Planning Commissioner Anthony Wagner said he owed a debt of gratitude to Bettinger.

“There is a whole world of adversity that you had to deal with that somebody like myself — as a white, straight male — will never have to deal with,” Wagner said. “You absolutely, through your spirit and demeanor, teach me how to be a more culturally rich and understanding person in every aspect of culture and diversity.”

The project also has the backing of the pro smart-growth group, the MOVE Alliance, which supports projects that provide "Mobility Options Viable for Everyone.”

Colin Parent, policy counsel for Circulate San Diego, the MOVE Alliance's parent organization, praised the project for its walkability and its proximity to transit. The two buildings would be just a short walk away from the Mid-City Rapid bus line.

“We want our density near transit,” said Vicki Granowitz, chair of the North Park Planning Committee, which previously voted resoundingly to support Community HousingWorks’ proposed development.

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