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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, March 28, 2018.
Andrew Bowen
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
MTS Parking Lots Could Be Key To San Diego Housing Crisis GUEST:Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News

>>> There's a growing consensus in San Diego that a lot more housing has to be built to emerge from the housing crisis. >> They want to allow it to be built near public transit -- public transit. The county's main transit operator MTS owns acres of vacant land they could play a key role in solving the housing crisis. >> We are at the Grantville trolley station. This is a nine acre parcel of land that MTS owns. Most of that land is taken up with about 250 parking spaces. >>Reporter: Coline Parent is a partner of circulate San Diego without -- with -- which advocates for smart growth. It is just west of SDSU. Two thirds of the parking spots are empty. It is similar to other parking lots and pieces of land owned by the MTS. >> It is not doing anything . This is public land. Taxpayers bought this. We should be using it for public purposes. Maybe it is a public purpose for the parking that it is being used for, but for these empty lots, they're not doing anything for anyone. >>Reporter: Circulate San Diego released a report on how MTS can do a better job on encouraging more smart development on its land. It recommends MTS more actively seek out proposals through a competitive process. Second, it recommends lowering unnecessary parking mandates. Third, it recommends requiring developers to include low income affordable housing in their projects. >> It is an affordability crisis. We need to make sure working people are able to continue to live in San Diego. There is an environmental issue. People who are low-income are much more likely to not own a car into right transit. It is better for the agency's bottom line and better for greenhouse gas emissions to make sure we have some low-income opportunities adjacent to transit. >>Reporter: MTS has been successful in getting some land developed for housing. At this Encanto trolley stop, 67 apartments reserved for low income renters are currently under construction. MTS Rob Schupp says they approved the project in 2014. >> We like to keep some of our assets for people to park. We were together with developers to preserve some parking for our transit riders. The developers -- it is incumbent upon them to get financing and sometimes that is what takes so long. Everyone has great ideas but you have to get a bank behind you to give you the money to build. >>Reporter: MTS has a real estate department. They are looking for development partners. >> We are open to all development suggestions, we are open to developers and brokers coming to us. Our property is all on our website. Our properties are big, they are very appearance, people know about them, and we welcome all comers to get the highest and best use. >>Reporter: MTS has not made a habit of issuing West for proposals or RFPs . That would allow them to lay out their ideal scenario for development to get a broader range of responses from developers. If progress on developing MTS land has been slow, Coline Parent does not blame the staff. It is up to the board of directors, made up of local elected officials to demand better. >> It is challenging to do development and how these conversations with neighbors and people will be impacted. It is easier not to take any action. But, that is not an option anymore. We are in a housing crisis and if we are going to take any of this seriously, we have to get the resources that we have and do something. >>Reporter: The MTS board is due to discuss the recommendations in a future meeting. Andrew Mellon, KPBS news. >>> Joining me, Andrew Bowen. >> What is most of the MTS land used for X >> A lot of the land is used for parking lots. Some is completely undeveloped and is not even paved over. Other parcels of land may have some degree of development but MTS recognizes it is not really the best use of that property. An example could be the Greyhound bus terminal right next to MTS headquarters near Penfield Park downtown. It is a low-slung building in an area where the land-use calls for much greater intensity of development. The potential or things like low-income housing or housing that is next to a trolley station, it could be better than just a Greyhound station. >> What was the original intent of dividing the MTS with additional land adjacent to its stations? >> Parking is one intense. Certainly with an eye towards the future, maybe turning it into something else. MTS is taking a fairly conservative approach towards preserving some of that parking looking towards the future. They say these lots may be empty now, what about the future? We will have a growing population. We want to preserve some of this parking for decades in the future when more people be driving to these trolley and bus stops. I think the point of the circulate San Diego report is that these decisions, things like the formulas to use, those should be made by the elected officials on the MTS board with input from the public. >> Do most MTS passengers park their cars before they get on the trolley? Two no, quite the opposite. The majority of MTS passengers get to the bus or trolley by walking or biking. They may use rideshare or taxi, and many writers don't own cars. It is heavily transit dependent population. MTS recently asked people what was the greatest barrier to them accessing transit? You hear things like the convenience, the frequency of the buses or trolleys, length of distance they have to travel, the availability of parking at the stations was dead last. Two he began he reports that the rent field -- Grantville station. Without MTS issuing a request for proposals, they got a couple of puzzles for that stations land. >> Yes. MTS has a list of inventory of real estate on his website and have real estate department that goes out and looks for things ad hoc. Two developers approached MTS with ideas for this land. One proposed a mixed income development, so that 42% of the units on site would be affordable for low income renters, the rest would be market rate. The other developer put forward a couple different scenarios, both of them apparently have -- so no affordable housing. Neither of these proposals would actually build the land up to its highest allowable density. If the goal is to provide the maximum number of housing units or homes for San Diego's, which is what the policy makers tell us is going to be necessary to get us out of this housing crisis, this is perhaps an instance where MTS might have benefited from issuing a request for proposals telling developers, we want as many homes as possible, we want some of those homes to be of audible, so please don't come with us -- come to us with anything other than that. >> What is the challenge like for developers to work with MTS? >> I think MTS is one hurdle the developers have to go through. The board of MTS is probably fairly open to developing on this land. They recognize the benefits of it. MTS gets not just greater potential for ridership, so if you have more people living next to the station, more people arrived, they also get lease payments. They typically do not sell off the land, they allow a developer to build on it and the developer pays them a lease. They retain ownership of it. Developers have to go through a lot of different hoops and work with the city itself where the property is. The city has the authority over zoning, building permits, and those processes with the city approval can often get politicized. Neighbors may be opposed to a large-scale development next year. -- Next door. Unions may want concessions paid to workers. And financing can be difficult -- public subsidy and financer who is going to believe you when you say this project will be profitable. >> MTS spokesman Rob Schupp told you MTS properties are big. >> The total lands mentioned in the circulate San Diego report is 57 acres. They say could support more than 8000 homes and more than 3000 of those would be reserved for low-income renters. That is a fairly crude analysis of the land. It assumes cities would increase the allowable density in a lot of these parcels. It assumes the developers which used to build up to that density. They would have to also take advantage of a state law that allows a density bonus, if you reserve more homes for low income folks. The point overall is that MTS has this land that it will not sell on its own. Because this real estate is so valuable because it is right next to transit and we have these goals of getting people to write more transit, it has a big potential for smart growth and this is exactly where the city of San Diego and many other cities in the state of California say all of our new housing should be built. >> Andrew Bowen, thank you.

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.

MTS Parking Lots Could Be Key To San Diego Housing Crisis

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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."

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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."

MTS Parking Lots Could Be Key To San Diego Housing Crisis
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.