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Otay Mesa community plan update embraces smart growth principles

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An ongoing update of the Otay Mesa Community Plan represents one of the most significant efforts by the city of San Diego to incorporate smart growth principles into the urban planning process.

City planners have been working with business and community groups, residents and other interested parties for more than five years to update the Otay Mesa Community Plan, which was originally adopted in 1981. The plan covers an area of 9,300 acres in the southern portion of the city -- adjacent to the U.S.-Mexico border -- which is now home to some 13,600 residents. The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), a regional planning agency, forecasts that Otay Mesa's population will rise to 43,000 by 2030.

Many in the community are convinced an updated community plan is needed not only to accommodate projected population growth, but to help Otay Mesa create high-paying jobs and build needed infrastructure, such as roads, parks, schools, sewer lines and drainage facilities.

SANDAG defines smart growth as "a compact, efficient and environmentally sensitive pattern of development that provides people with additional travel, housing and employment choices by focusing future growth away from rural areas and closer to existing and planned job centers and public facilities."

That definition fits in well with the city of San Diego's "City of Villages" planning strategy, a cornerstone of its updated general plan, which seeks to promote development that mixes housing, retail, jobs, schools and civic uses within walkable communities that have easy access to transit.

Smart growth principles are clearly in evidence in the planning documents related to the Otay Community Plan update. Currently, city planners are circulating three draft "scenarios" for updating the plan, along with the existing community plan. Later this year, the San Diego City Council is expected to adopt one of these options as the new, updated community plan that will serve as a blueprint for the Mesa's development over the next 20 to 30 years.

The Otay Mesa Planning Coalition, a group of four development companies funding technical studies needed for the update under an agreement with the city of San Diego, supports Scenario Two, which embodies the most smart growth principles and conforms to the City of Villages strategy.

Scenario Two includes the most housing units and a variety of housing types, along with the largest village centers of the three new scenarios. These village centers are designed to include homes, shops, offices, schools and parks, and are built along proposed transit corridors to create walkable neighborhoods as envisioned under the City of Villages concept.

A proposed bus rapid transit line would run through these village centers, and transit stops would be centrally located for easy access. This scenario also incorporates additional educational facilities with a new higher education center now under construction by the Southwestern Community College District, which will ultimately house 5,000 students. Incubator businesses and student housing could be built around the campus, which will also be linked to the transit system.

Industrial sanctuaries would provide dedicated areas for different types of industrial uses, such as heavy industrial (a category that includes auto dismantlers and truck storage lots), light industrial (warehousing and distribution facilities), business parks and scientific research facilities.

Planners say this would allow adequate separation of industrial and residential areas, which would help avoid conflicts between incompatible uses.

According to the city's Planning and Community Investment Department, Scenario Two offers the most change from the existing plan, followed by Scenario One and Scenario Three, which is most similar to the existing plan. Both Scenarios One and Two propose increases in land designated for residential and mixed use.

A November 2006 city report about the Community Plan Update notes that housing has become increasingly "unavailable and unaffordable" within the San Diego region, and that the city declared a "Housing State of Emergency" in 2002. One of the key benefits of the Otay Mesa Community Plan Update, according to the report, is that it provides the city an opportunity to determine appropriate locations and designations for villages based on good planning principles that can provide balanced, pedestrian-friendly communities near employment centers, served by transit and that have adequate public facilities. An important part of this effort is creating work force housing, providing affordable housing options for hard-working San Diegans.

SANDAG forecasts that employment in Otay Mesa will increase from 10,200 jobs in 2004 to more than 40,000 jobs by 2030. New housing and infrastructure improvements are needed to keep up with anticipated growth in both jobs and population.

The updated Otay Mesa Community Plan is taking shape through discussions involving all aspects of the community, from business leaders and educators to developers and residents. Dozens of community meetings have been held, a process that is expected to continue until public hearings before the City Planning Commission and City Council later this year.

Porreca is director of public affairs for Southwest Strategies LLC.

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