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North Park Offers Early Test Of Climate Action Plan

San Diego still uses outdated methods for analyzing traffic

Reported by Katie Schoolov

North Park Offers Early Test Of Climate Action Plan

GUEST:

Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS

Transcript

If you want some perspective on the recent history of North Park, talk to Vicki Granowitz. The 27-year resident of the neighborhood has seen it change from a rundown hub for drug dealing and prostitution, where houses kept metal bars on their windows, to the trendy hipster haven it is today.

Yet as Granowitz surveys the liquor stores and fast-food restaurants at one of North Park’s main intersections, 30th Street and El Cajon Boulevard, she sees a missed opportunity.

“The area has had a lot of empty storefronts, vacant lands, underutilized spaces,” she said. “We’ve had the same zoning here for 30 years, and yet nothing has happened. So we’re really hoping that with the new interest in increasing density and bringing vibrancy that this can become a really amazing area.”

The intersection of 30th and El Cajon is one of the areas targeted for high-density housing and mixed-used development in an update to the North Park Community Plan — a 200-page document meant to guide the neighborhood’s future growth. The last update was in 1986.

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North Park Community Plan

North Park Community Plan

The North Park Community Plan lays out a smart-growth vision for the neighborhood's future development.

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Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office has identified community plan updates like that of North Park as one of the key ways the city will meet the goals of its Climate Action Plan. North Park is already served by several bus routes, making it ripe for the kind of transit-oriented development the city needs. The idea is with more people living within walking distance of jobs, or close to bike lanes and public transit, fewer will need to drive to work, reducing tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions.

Granowitz serves as chairwoman of the North Park Planning Committee, a volunteer group that advises the city on development decisions. She said committee members have been asking for higher density for nearly a decade, but it wasn’t until the City Council passed the Climate Action Plan in December that their calls were taken seriously.

“We don’t have enough housing in San Diego,” she said. “We believe North Park, particularly along El Cajon Boulevard, can handle high density.”

How is nixing bike lanes good for the environment?

Accompanying the North Park Community Plan Update is its Program Environmental Impact Report, which the city published on May 31. In 836 pages (and more than 2,000 pages in appendices), the city analyzes how all the new development would affect everything from water and air quality to noise pollution.

A key section is the report’s traffic analysis — specifically, how the city might mitigate for increased congestion. Granowitz and her colleagues were surprised when they read some of the ideas: taking away space for bikes and widening roads.

“I went, ‘Oh, my God, that’s exactly the opposite of everything in our community plan,’” Granowitz said. “We are doing nothing but asking for bicycle facilities. I mean, the idea is to get people out of cars.”

The report acknowledges that most of the traffic mitigations are unlikely to be built because there’s no money for them, and because they’re contrary to the plan’s goals of shifting away from car dependence. So what’s the point in suggesting them?

The answer lies in an outdated method the city used to analyze traffic impact called “level of service.” Under this method, high-density housing could be seen as bad for the environment because the surrounding streets may get more congested. Slow-moving cars pollute the air, so adding car lanes to speed up traffic would appear to reduce pollution.

One of the unintended consequences is to cede more and more space to the automobile, reinforcing the city’s car-dependent culture. The method also encourages sprawling development in areas with little to no existing traffic.

Transportation, meanwhile, has become California’s biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Photo caption: Vicki Granowitz, right, reviews the North Park Community Plan Update's enviro...

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Vicki Granowitz, right, reviews the North Park Community Plan Update's environmental impact report with KPBS reporter Andrew Bowen, June 15, 2016.

Change is coming — but how soon?

Level of service has been the standard across California for decades, but the Legislature recently acknowledged it was one of the biggest barriers to combating climate change.

In 2013, state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 743, officially eliminating the method from environmental analysis. In January, the state came out with its latest set of guidelines for a newer metric of traffic analysis called “vehicle miles traveled.”

Under this method, slower traffic is irrelevant to the environment. Instead, it measures the distance cars have to travel because of a new development. The effect is to encourage “smart growth” — high-density housing near job centers and public transit.

Amanda Eaken with the National Resources Defense Council environmental group said level of service cares more about moving cars than moving people.

“And we will go ahead and we will eliminate safe crosswalks for people, for the elderly, for the disabled. We will eliminate bike lanes. We will eliminate transit lanes in the name of moving vehicles,” said Eaken, the council’s transportation and climate director. “I think in the year 2016 in California, we’ve moved on from that antiquated planning paradigm, and we’ve realized that it really is about moving people.”

Vehicle miles traveled is expected to become the mandatory standard by 2019, but cities are welcome to adopt it sooner. San Francisco did in March.

San Diego hasn’t made the same commitment. The city declined an interview request, but spokesman Arian Collins said in an email:

“The City is doing what many cities throughout the state are doing — relying on (the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research) for guidance on using VMT as an alternative method of analysis of Transportation Impacts under (the California Environmental Quality Act). When that information is released in the fall, we will have a clearer path forward on using VMT for traffic analysis.”

Collins acknowledged that the newer metric would provide a more accurate picture of a project’s real environmental impact, but that it should not have any effect on the city’s efforts to carry out the Climate Action Plan. Under that plan, half of San Diegans living in “transit priority areas” are expected to commute to work without a car.

Photo caption: Passengers board the 215 mid-city rapid bus at 30th Street and El Cajon Boule...

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Passengers board the 215 mid-city rapid bus at 30th Street and El Cajon Boulevard, June 15, 2016. High-density housing near public transit is key to shifting people away from cars.

Are the changes in North Park enough?

Nicole Capretz is executive director of the Climate Action Campaign, a San Diego environmental nonprofit. She said she understands the city needs time to adjust to a new way of operating, and that switching methods of traffic analysis could delay other updates to community plans.

“I don’t think there’s any bad intentions. It just takes time,” Capretz said. “But from my organization’s perspective, we don’t have the luxury of waiting, because these 2020 targets are coming up immediately. So we actually do have to fast track everything, which is hard for a large institution like the city of San Diego.”

Beyond a more modern analysis of traffic impacts, Capretz said what concerns her most in the North Park Community Plan Update is its lack of a data-driven, quantitative analysis linking the changes to the Climate Action Plan. She called the city’s analysis qualitative.

“The key question for me is, ‘Is it enough?’” she said. “And another key question is: Are they pairing (new development) with the right kind of new transportation infrastructure to make sure that there’s that synergy to allow people ... to actually take a different mode of transportation to work. And I’m just not sure that that is accomplished in this plan.”

The North Park Community Plan’s environmental impact report is open for comment until July 28. The community plan update is expected to go before the City Council in October.

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