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Report Calls For Improvements To San Diego's 'Smart Growth' Policies

Commuters board the San Diego Trolley near Old Town on June 20, 2013.
Susan Murphy
Commuters board the San Diego Trolley near Old Town on June 20, 2013.
Report Calls For Improvements To San Diego's 'Smart Growth' Policies
A study by the nonprofit Circulate San Diego has found the city needs broad changes to its development code to better encourage transit-oriented development.
Report Calls For Improvements To San Diego's 'Smart Growth' Policies
Report Calls For Improvements To San Diego's 'Smart Growth' Policies GUEST: Colin Parent, policy counsel, Circulate San Diego

New numbers show fewer people are using public transportation in San Diego. That makes the city of San Diego's ambitious goal in the next three years of increasing ridership to 12% of meters who live near transit lines nearly impossible. One way planners hope to eventually boost ridership is to build housing closer to transit stations. A new report on transit oriented development says there are barriers to that idea. Joining me is Colin Parent policy counsel with circulate San Diego a nonprofit which released the report and he's on Mesa city Council. When we talk about transit oriented development meant what are we talking about? There's a variety of definitions, generally speaking and what the report suggests is that transit oriented development is developments where people can live or work or play within a half a mile of high-performing transit stop. A high-performing transit stop is either a rail line and a real stop or the intersection of two bus lines that have 15 minute service during peak hours. This transit oriented development go hand-in-hand with high density housing? Many neighbors are actually trying to incorporate that. It could. It doesn't have to. It's an open question what people mean by high density. Something like, Manhattan is very high density. Is the four stories that are in the East Village, is that high density? It's an open question a matter of interpretation. There is a question, which comes first, the more dense housing or the transit stops. Which side are you on when that comes to it? It's a good question. What we are -- we don't have to answer that question for the purposes of our report. The city of San Diego has answered that in its climate action plan. In its plan that calls for relatively high number of people writing transit to get to work within the areas of existing transit stops. That's the area of concern in the focus of our report. If there is so much interest behind this concept, why aren't we seeing more transit oriented development? There's a lot of barriers to achieving those kinds of goals and those have been there for a long time. It's not just the climate action plan. It's been a part of the general plan for quite some time. There's a couple of barriers. The one that people talk about the most is probably the community plan in San Diego, the land-use rules for different various neighborhoods and there's a process of updating them. That's helpful but also insufficient. There's a variety of policies that are barriers to even achieving the development capacity that is contemplated by general plans and those exist in citywide codes and documents. What we suggest through our report is that the city needs to continue with there's plan update but develop a parallel focus on some of these citywide policies that are additional barriers to achieving that kind of growth. Your ideas that you don't have to wait for 50 different community plan updates to move forward with this idea. Give us examples of those barriers that the city could ameliorate without waiting for the plan updates. A good example is parking requirements. The parking requirements for new developments are possible and they are necessary and a lot of circumstances to make sure those developments don't impact existing neighbors. If the requirements are too high they can be barriers to seeing the developments that people want to see happen. The city of San Diego already has a set of rules that provide parking relief for new developments near some transit stops. It's old and it doesn't reflect the current transit system. There's a variety of exceptions to it. What we propose is why don't we re-examine that policy, make it apply to all areas near high-performing transit stops and take out the exceptions. Say that, this is an important policy we want these developments in the should take residence over some of these other barriers. What else might the city do? Another one we have talked about is about how we calculate fees for new developments. Right now for residential developments, developers pay a certain number of these for transportation improvements, sidewalks and parks. Things that they should pay for an they are calculated per unit of housing. For every apartment you pay $10,000 or something like that. They are different for different groups. What we suggest is why don't we make sure the city keeps getting say money but instead of charging it per unit, let's charge it per square foot of that unit. Then you have, you assume you have the same size building that's being built -- plan for and it's going to get the city $1 million in impact fees. Would it be better if we had more units in that same building with the same amount of fees than fewer units with the same amount of fees because you give opportunities for more people to live adjacent to a transit stop. You are a city council member in La Mesa and what you are talking about his ideas for the city of San Diego. The issue of public transportation is adjusted issue -- Justa San Diego issue. How do you work together to form a group that works? There is public transportation system that is not confined to the city of San Diego, there are two of them the NTS system that eliminates -- the NTD system represents jurisdictions in North County. Most of the land-use decisions, not all but almost all called are determined on a city by city basis. Even though the trolley line runs from San Diego into major blood -- La Mesa what's allowed to be developed it is determined by La Mesa or the city of San Diego. We decided as we conceptualized this report we wanted to make specific actionable policy recommendations for a city to implement because the city of San Diego is the largest, we wanted a deep dive into the city. How is your transit oriented development report been received? It just came out yesterday. We haven't had a ton of conversations with people. We have -- we did share copies before it was publicly released and got feedback from decision-makers in some of them came to our release party last night. It's a 30 page report, five very specific recommendations I don't think we will see all of them happen this year. I think we are going to see this report drive a conversation around the city about what sort of citywide approaches they can take to make these improvements. I've been speaking with Colin Parent policy counsel with circulate San Diego.

San Diego needs changes to a number of development policies if it hopes to get more housing and job growth around public transit, according to a report released Monday by the nonprofit, Circulate San Diego.

Transit-oriented development is a key component of the city's Climate Action Plan, which requires the city to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. To achieve that goal, the report recommends changes to policies governing affordable housing, parking, traffic and development fees.

RELATED: San Diego Transit Stations Get Poor Grades


San Diego's Planning Department is in the process of updating several community plans, which guide growth and development on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. The City Council last year passed updates to the plans for North Park, Golden Hill, Uptown and San Ysidro.

Transit-Oriented Development Report
A report from Circulate San Diego recommends changes to San Diego policies to encourage more growth around public transit.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

Colin Parent, the Circulate San Diego's policy counsel and the report's author, said while the community plan updates are critical to encouraging the right kind of growth, the city can't rely on a piecemeal approach.

"We identified some citywide policies that could be brought to bear to achieve transit-oriented development that wouldn't require having to go through 50 different individual community plan updates in order to be implemented," he said.

City Councilman Scott Sherman, who was recently appointed chairman of the council's Smart Growth and Land Use Committee, said through a spokesman he had received the report and looked forward to reviewing it. A spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in an e-mail: "Mayor Faulconer and Circulate San Diego share many of the same goals, including encouraging transit-oriented development and improving housing affordability. The Circulate report demonstrates that we continue to work with all stakeholders to bring forward policies to create more affordable, walkable and bikeable neighborhoods."