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North Park Offers Early Test Of Climate Action Plan

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

San Diego still uses outdated methods for analyzing traffic

North Park Offers Early Test Of Climate Action Plan
North Park Offers Early Test Of Climate Action Plan
North Park Offers Early Test Of Climate Action Plan GUEST:Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS

Chances are good you're listening to this radio program in a car. The car has been king in San Diego. Under the cities climate action plan that has to change. The plan once more people to ditch their cars in favor of walking, biking and writing public transit. It also promotes denser urban neighborhoods. KPBS Metro reporter Andrew Bowen says North Park offers a nearly -- an early test of the city's commitment to its Climate Action Plan. So we are in the heart of North Park at 30th and El Cajon Boulevard. If you want some perspective on how North Park has changed over time, Dr. Vicki. She has lived here for nearly 30 years. Most of that time she has also sat on the North Park planning committee, a volunteer group that advises the city on growth and development. Here at 30th and El Cajon development has not been very efficient. The area has had a lot of empty storefronts, vacant land, underutilized spaces. We have had the same zoning here for 30 years and yet nothing has happened. We are really hoping that with the new interest in increasing density and bringing vibrancy that this can become a really amazing area. Brittany Woods has been active in helping the city craft an update to the more -- to the North Park community plan that aims for denser housing and mixed use devolvement along the main transit corridors. The idea is within more people licking -- living within walking distance of jobs more will be able to get to work without a car. So, let's take a look. Where you want to start? Reporter: Accompanying the community plan update is its environmental impact report. Granowitz and I flipped through the pages looking for a key section, the traffic. Is that in a different section? Transportation is a huge driver of greenhouse gas emissions. Remember, the whole point of this community plan update is to get people out of cars. Granowitz and her colleagues were surprised when they read some of the reports ideas for easing traffic, taking a bikes and widening roads. I went almight God, that is exactly the opposite of everything in our community plan. We are doing nothing but asking for bicycle facilities in the idea is to get people out of cars. Why would the city think that widening roads and mixing bike lanes could actually improve the environment? The answer is complicated and wonky but try to bear with me. The city used an old method for analyzing traffic called level of service. Under this method high density housing could be seen as bad for the environment. The surrounding streets make it more congested. Slow-moving cars pollute the air, so adding car lanes to speed up traffic would appear to reduce pollution. This has been the thinking across California for decades. Level of services are really how do we get people from point a to point B in their cars as fast as possible. It is a one-dimensional analysis. Reporter: Nicole leaves it actions campaign in San Diego. They want the city to switch to a newer way of analyzing traffic called vehicle miles traveled. Vehicle miles traveled is how do we enable people to use different modes of transportation? And get there also in a reasonable amount of time, but using not just the car, but also biking, walking in public transit. State was expected to make this new method mandatory by 2019. There is nothing stopping cities from adopting it early example Cisco did it in March. Catherine says she understands San Diego needs time to adjust to a new way of doing things. As we do these new community plan updates the concern is that we are still deciding where we are going to do our community build out and our growth based on old modeling standards for the city hasn't quite caught up to the latest and greatest evaluation tools to help us transforming our communities. Reporter: San Diego declined an interview for this story. A spokesman said in an email that San Diego, like many other cities in California, is following the states lead regarding vehicle miles traveled. And he said switching to this new method in itself shouldn't affect the city's efforts to get people out of cars. Experts I talked to say that misses the point in that the city needs more numbers and data on whether the changes in North Park will be enough to meet the cities climate goals. The North Park community plan update those before the city Council this fall. And now Andrew Bowen joins us in studio. Thanks for coming in. Sure. You were talking about North Park. What other neighborhoods are working on community plan updates? There is one in San Ysidro coming up. Uptown is not far behind that. That covers Bankers Hill, Mission Hills, Hillcrest. North Park has combined with Golden Hill there are a lot of different neighborhoods, southeastern San Diego this past year, all of these committee plan updates are really one of the key areas or mechanisms that may or Kevin Faulconer's office has identified asways that the city can actually implement the Climate Action Plan. Which is a -- which is reducing greenhouse emissions in half by 2035. When talking about these plans we spend a lot of time talking about density. What does density man? That is a good question and maybe not everybody understands. Density is technically how many dwelling units, apartments, condos or houses, you are allowed to build per acre of land. High density housing is generally more profitable for developers to build because you are collecting rent on 100 apartments on a single parcel of land as opposed to just one house. Putting that into the context of the zoning changes in North Park, one of the problems with development along El Cajon Boulevard, for example, which is one of the main transit thoroughfares, is fast food drive this. A lot of residents don't like him. For example, there's a Carl's Jr. at the corner of El Cajon and 30th. That land could be high density housing, maybe even affordable housing. It is really ripe for this type of smart growth transit oriented development the city needs. The city can't just sees the land and build an apartment and tear down Carl's Jr. and build apartments. It has to use it zoning. They make that more attractive to actually build housing and commercial development there. Is their white community support for high density in North Park? North Park Planning Committee has been one of the few pro-density groups in the city when you compare the equivalence in Everett -- in other neighborhoods. There are anti-density people in every neighborhood. Some of their fears are rational. Some are not entirely based on fact. Increasing density along the transit corridor, which is really what this community plan update does, actually can relieve some of the pressure on redeveloping the land in the single-family home neighborhood. If you are living in a house that is several blocks from El Cajon it is probably better for you to have all the density: transit corridor. There are also things like urban design guidelines. Let's say you are at -- a developer and you want to build a skyscraper, you can't tell that next to a single-family home because there are restrictions on the designs of the buildings you can actually build. In your story you talked about the fact that widening streets is inking grist to the climate action plan. Why are we even talking about that possibility? Yeah. That's a very good question. Not only is it incongruent with this committee plan but also a lot of them are infeasible. One of them would actually require eminent domain. The city would have to seize private property to widen one of the streets. That is acknowledged in the environmental impact report. We know you don't want these street widening is, but we kind of have to present them to you as under state law. That state law is the roots of this are in a California environmental quality act that was passed in 1970. It was a landmark law they did a lot of really gate great things for the environment at one of the things it requires you to do is assess how new projects will impact the traffic flow. You have to look for ways to ease that traffic. The way this law has been used since 1970 is with this method called level of service. That basically means when you slow traffic down that is bad for the environment. The way to fix slower traffic is to widen streets. Sometimes at the expense of bike in transit lanes. Right. Now we have a concept that is called a vehicle miles traveled, which you mention in your story. The state is expected to make vehicle miles traveled mandatory standard by 2019. What we mean by that? Vehicle miles traveled. Vehicle mild travels is essentially measurement of how far a car has to drive because of a new development. If you build it far in the suburbs the car will have to drive a lot further to get to other places than if you build it in an urban core. The state law I was talking about is called SB 743, it was passed in 2013. It came from an understanding among lawmakers that seek the, this landmark environmental law, really had some bad unintended consequences. In some cases the law is being used to stop bike lanes or transit only lanes because those by nature, when you take a cars, you slow down traffic. Another state law several years ago already established these really ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. And level of service has been a huge barrier to action meeting those. The state legislature said we need to change things. Vehicle miles traveled came out as the new standard. The state has released a few versions of the guidelines and later this year they're going to become actual state law. There is this grace periods that allows cities to have a little bit of time to catch up with him. The question among many environmental groups in San Diego and transit advocates is when will San Diego make that switch? Right away or will it take some time? A lot of these community plan updates are already in motion and switching Halfway mightily their implementation. San Diego has a very ambitious plan for reducing greenhouse gases. It is called the climate action plan. You have said that this North Park plan will be a test for the climate action plan. How will we know if it is successful in meeting those goals? Under the Climate Action Plan there are annual tests for greenhouse gas emissions that surveys how we are doing. I believe the next one is coming later this year around November. The first targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions come in 2020. That aims for 22% of people who live in so-called transit priority areas. To commute to work without a car. Currently that is 13%. We have to go from 13% to 22% in a matter of four years. That is a lot of work to do. We should know fairly soon whether or not this community plan update or all of these community plan updates are actually working. Okay. Andrew Bowen is the KPBS Metro reporter. Things for coming in.

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.

North Park Community Plan
The North Park Community Plan lays out a smart-growth vision for the neighborhood's future development.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

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.

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.

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.
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.