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MTS Parking Lots Could Be Key To San Diego Housing Crisis

A surface parking lot at the Grantville trolley station sits mostly empty, Ma...

Photo by Andrew Bowen

Above: A surface parking lot at the Grantville trolley station sits mostly empty, March 28, 2018.

MTS Parking Lots Could Be Key To San Diego Housing Crisis

GUEST:

Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News

Transcript

Parking at the Grantville trolley station is easy. Perhaps a bit too easy.

The stop is on the Green Line trolley, which serves downtown and Mission Valley and logged more than 11 million passenger trips last fiscal year. It has about 250 free parking spots, and most of them sit empty all day.

The 9.4 acres surrounding the Grantville trolley station are owned by the Metropolitan Transit System, the county's main public transit operator. And they are a prime example of underutilized public land that is ripe for the kind of "smart growth" development needed to carry San Diego out of its housing crisis, according to a new report released Wednesday by the nonprofit Circulate San Diego.

"This is public land. Taxpayers bought this land," said Circulate San Diego Executive Director Colin Parent. "We should be using it for public purposes. And sure, maybe it's a public purpose for the parking that's actually being used. ... But these empty lots aren't doing anything for anyone."

Parent is the chief author of the study, titled "Real Opportunity," which recommends improvements to MTS real estate policies. One recommendation is to lower the parking requirements the agency places on developers who are seeking to build on MTS land.

Circulate San Diego conducted spot surveys of MTS parking lots and found many were underutilized. MTS's own passenger surveys have found most riders don't own cars and typically get to transit on foot. They have also found among non-riders that the availability of parking at transit stations is the least of their concerns, compared to the length of travel time or convenience of transit stop locations. Parking spots can also be an expensive amenity for developers that can make the difference between a project's financial success or failure.

RELATED: San Diego Transit Stations Get Poor Grades

The study also recommends MTS issue requests for proposals, or RFPs, when it is seeking to develop a property. This would allow the agency to lay out its ideal development scenario upfront and could result in a more competitive bidding process that would get MTS a better deal. Current policy allows MTS to issue RFPs for its properties, but it has never done so in the past 10 years, the report found.

Lastly, Parent said, MTS should require developers to include affordable housing for low-income renters in their projects. The study cites BART and San Jose's VTA as examples: Both transit agencies require 20 percent of homes built on their land to be low-income. They and LA Metro also aim to have between 30 and 35 percent of all homes built on their real estate to be for low-income people.

"We need to make sure that working people are able to continue to live in San Diego," Parent said. "There's also an environmental reason – people who are low-income are much more likely to not own car, and to ride transit. So it's better for the agency's bottom line, and it's better for greenhouse gas emissions, to make sure we have some low-income opportunities adjacent to transit."

MTS spokesman Rob Schupp said the study was well received by MTS staff and pointed to a low-income housing development under construction in Encanto as one recent example of successful development on MTS real estate. The housing is being built on a former parking lot adjacent to the Encanto/62nd Street trolley station.

Schupp added that the MTS board had approved the new homes nearly four years ago and that developers often face multiple hurdles that can delay their projects.

"It's incumbent on (the developers) to get the entitlements and to get financing — and sometimes that's what takes so long," he said. "Everybody has great ideas, but you've got to get a bank behind you ... to build."

RELATED: California's Housing Crisis Builds Appetite To Limit Local Control

MTS staff have received two unsolicited development proposals for the Grantville trolley station property, which the city of San Diego zoned for relatively dense development in 2015. Neither proposal would build the maximum number of homes allowed.

"We are open to all development suggestions," Schupp said. "Our properties are big, they're very apparent, people know about them. And so we welcome all comers to get the highest and best use out of our properties."

If progress on developing MTS land has been slow, Parent does not blame the agency's staff. He said ultimately it is up to the 15 elected officials who make up MTS's board of directors to improve policy.

"It's challenging to do development, it's challenging to have these conversations with neighbors and people who are going to be impacted, and so it's just easier not to take any action," he said. "But that's just not an option anymore. We're in a housing crisis, have a climate action plan in a variety of jurisdictions. If we're going to take any of these things seriously, we have to take these resources that we have and do something with them."

MTS board chairwoman and San Diego City Councilwoman Georgette Gomez said she wanted to ensure the agency did its part to increase housing opportunities and grow transit ridership. She said the recommendations in the Circulate San Diego report would be docketed at a future board meeting.

"MTS has a great opportunity to reevaluate our policies in order to promote transit-oriented development, especially with affordable housing," Gomez said in a statement. "I look forward to bringing this conversation to the MTS board and working to activate MTS properties for the best interest of the general public while reducing our greenhouse gas emission impacts."

San Diego's main public transit operator owns acres of prime real estate across the county, much of it in the form of surface parking lots. A new report says the agency's board of directors should do more to ensure the land is put to better use.

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