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Transit choices, density to transform SD communities

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Although San Diego has invested billions of dollars in transit-oriented development, the plans don’t resonate at the ground level where communities are reluctant to accept density.

A panel of the ULI San Diego/Tijuana District Council discussed “Community Planning Along Transportation Corridors” Tuesday at the University Club.

A main point of the discussion is the disconnect between the benefits of growth in a community and what the community desires. Joe LaCava, chair of the City of San Diego Community Planners Committee, said community members often prefer their current lifestyle, which lets them jump in their cars and go.

While everyone wants community plan updates, LaCava said, developers and government want to increase density, and communities want to lock in what they have.

Robin Madaffer, a shareholder of San Diego Land Lawyers Inc., said statistics demonstrate a clear need for change. SANDAG’s 2013 forecast sees almost 1 million new residents by 2050, bringing the regional population to more than 4 million people.

The population influx will mean 330,000 additional housing units, 89 percent of which will be multifamily units. The 2011 regional transportation plan estimated that 80 percent of the new housing units will be built within a half-mile of transit that comes every 15 minutes, she said.

Billions of dollars are being invested in a first-class transit system, Madaffer said, as well as pedestrian and biking systems, said Coleen Clementson, principal regional planner with the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).

LaCava said he prefers to call the plans “person-oriented development,” in which neighborhoods are re-created to give people more transportation options.

The expansion to the San Diego trolley, the Mid-Coast Corridor Transit Project, is the county’s biggest upcoming project, Clementson said. New tracks will connect Old Town to the VA hospital in La Jolla, UC San Diego and Westfield UTC. Now in the final phases of environmental analysis, the new line is planned to be up and running in 2018, Clementson said.

“I think the opportunity there … is really to make an important connection to a major job center, if not the biggest job center in the region, and it’s moving in through an area [where] the population hasn’t really had a really good transit system in place,” Clementson said.

“We’re talking about higher-income folks having access to the trolley. I think how that evolves will be an important part of the story in the San Diego region.”

Studies have shown that the Mid-Coast project will be successful because it will make connections in already dense areas in the region, Clementson said.

Anyone who tries to drive to the split of interstates 5 and 805 in the evenings is in for a long haul at any point in the year, said Brendan Hayes, vice president at Fairfield Residential.

Fairfield Residential is a national company based in San Diego that focuses on multifamily development and has construction underway in the county. The Mid-Coast project will change people’s ability to move around the county and could encourage people to live near transit opportunities, he said.

The convenience of living and working near public transit will drive demand for development, whether it’s residential or office, Hayes said.

“More than half of the region’s plans have been updated so the planning and zoning is in place to allow for higher density, mixed-use development that’s transit-supportive,” Clementson said.

She also said the smart-growth concept map identifies about 200 areas in the region for higher-density development, with 70 percent having zoning and plans in place.

“I think from at least the SANDAG perspective, we recognize that these things take time, and through incremental change by this Mid-Coast project getting more people access to transit, perhaps that can be not only a game-changer in terms of giving more people options, but in sort of the view of how transit can be used,” Clementson said.

Hayes said there seems to be a generational gap when it comes to desirable features in a neighborhood. Millennials and retirees want similar features: a community that is as close to everything as possible and is walkable and bikeable.

“Where it used to be space was king — you wanted to have a bigger and bigger place — now we’re seeing that there is a trade-off for, I’m perfectly happy having a smaller living space if I’m 5 minutes to work and there’s six restaurants within a 10-minute walk from my house,” Hayes said.

Madaffer responded that “those in the middle need to get out of the way.”

LaCava said it’s a mistake to say people are afraid of density — they just don’t want it. Many people chose their neighborhood because of its characteristics and don’t want that to change.

Hayes said, and others agreed, that there aren’t many examples of density in San Diego to show communities faced with this change. People are caught up in the height numbers and aren’t able to visualize what it would look like, Madaffer said. A three-story apartment building might not be much taller than a two-story house, Hayes said.

A struggle has been concentrating development in communities that want it, LaCava said. Developers aren’t able to make a project happen in the communities that would embrace development — such as on the trolley’s orange line from downtown to Santee — and need economic development, LaCava said. Linda Vista and Clairemont, for example, would make sense for development, but residents say they’re happy the way they are.

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