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San Diego City Council Approves 500 Percent Increase In Fees For Mid-City Parks And Facilities

Above: Home development

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Aired 6/11/14 on KPBS News.

City Council has approved a 500 percent development fee increase to help build parks in the mid-city area. But the increase could scare off the very developers needed to pay those fees.

Developers are about to pay a whole lot more in fees to build homes in San Diego's mid-city area. The City Council approved a plan Tuesday that will increase fees there by about 500 percent. It will take up fees in other communities over the next two years.

It's a risky bet that could pay off in more parks – or further stagnate investment in older communities.

The decision came via an update of the community's 1998 Public Facilities Financing Plan. Community plans each come with a financing plan to lay out how to pay for their long wish lists of parks, fire stations and libraries.

Fees paid by developers are supposed to cover a big chunk of those, but the outdated plans mean fee rates haven't kept pace with inflation — or much of anything, judging by the exponential increase.

Residential developers will now have to pay $11,925 per unit, up from $2,545, if they want to build in Normal Heights, Kensington-Talmadge, City Heights and the Eastern Area. If city planners were only adjusting for inflation, the fee would be $3,701.

Councilwoman Marti Emerald represents the neighborhoods in the plan and said it was time to level the playing field with newer communities.

"There are many planned communities in San Diego, predominantly north of (Interstate) 8, that have been collecting higher fees for many, many years and because of that they do have all of these wonderful public facilities," Emerald said. "Many of these older neighborhoods haven't had that advantage."

Mid-city communities have a shortage of park acreage – a shortage that, Emerald pointed out, will only be compounded by the dense development the community is slated to take on as the region's population grows. Currently, the fees provide about 10 percent of the funding for new parks and other facilities, according to an Independent Budget Analyst report.

But the report also warns a sharp increase in the fees could slow development. And Dave Gatzke, who negotiates land deals for affordable housing developer Community HousingWorks, said that could defeat the purpose of the fee increase altogether.

"It's really a conundrum, because mid-city neighborhoods need the parks and the investment in infrastructure that the fee provides," Gatzke said. "So you can increase the fee and feel like you've got the budget to provide those, but if you don't have the development that pays the fee then you're exactly where you started to begin with."

And Gatzke added that thwarting development means thwarting affordable housing, the lack of which has caused City Council to declare a state of emergency for years. He said the margins on affordable housing projects are already razor thin because the final product will rent for less than the market rate. And the loss of redevelopment programs statewide has eliminated the industry's only reliable source of funding.

"It just makes the gap to produce affordable housing that much bigger," Gatzke said.

Matt Adams, vice president of the Building Industry Association of San Diego County, said the city needs to consider what the fee increase means for housing at all income levels.

"SANDAG says we should be averaging about 1,000 units a month just to keep pace with a growing population. We haven't hit that mark since 2006, so as ironic as it sounds, you're actually creating a new housing deficit," Adams said.

He called for the increase the be phased in over time.

"That's a significant amount of money that has to be added to your project literally overnight, because one day the fee is 'x' and the next day the fee is 'x times three,'" Adams said. "That's very difficult for some projects to absorb."

But Emerald said residents have waited long enough. She and her colleagues are scheduled to take up downtown's financing plan next week and Ocean Beach's later this summer.

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