In Search Of Makeover, Midway District Says 'Yes' To New Housing
As Cathy Kenton surveys the expansive parking lot that surrounds the Valley View Casino Center in the Midway District, she sees opportunity.
The massive plot of land is prime real estate, across the bridge from Mission Bay and not far from the Old Town Transit Center. But the land sits practically empty most of the time.
"There's a lot of opportunity to take big chunks of land and do something really special and revitalize the area, eliminate the blight that we're also well known for," said Kenton, who owns property and businesses in the Midway District and chairs the neighborhood's volunteer planning group.
A proposed update to the Midway/Pacific Highway Community Plan has a radically different vision for much of the neighborhood, which is known for big box retailers, large industrial lots, traffic congestion and strip clubs. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the plan update Monday.
On the city-owned land that currently houses the sports arena, city planners envision a pedestrian-oriented community village with a mix of office space, retail, parks and homes. The private leases on the land expire in mid-2020.
Overall, the community plan update would set the stage for some 10,000 additional houses and apartments in the area beyond those that currently exist. And while other neighborhoods in the city have fought against efforts to build denser housing, the Midway District has rallied behind so-called "upzoning" as a chance to shed its seedy reputation.
"It's certainly not controversial within the community," Kenton said. "We have these huge swaths of land that are largely going underutilized that present an opportunity — not just for us as a community, but also for the city to meet some of its goals."
Those goals include greatly increasing the city's housing supply — a step most experts say is necessary to make the region more affordable — and encouraging residents to bike, walk or ride public transit by concentrating those new homes near transit hubs.
Marcela Escobar-Eck is a land use consultant who has pushed for new housing in neighborhoods that are sometimes resistant to it. She said Midway residents may be more tuned into the benefits of new housing because the neighborhood loses most of its population after work hours.
"Bringing in residents is going to bring in that sense of neighborhood that you sort of lose after 5:00, and you kind of get a little shadier crowd in some of the areas," Escobar-Eck said. "Once you start bringing in that different activity at different times of the night, it starts revitalizing a neighborhood, it starts bringing in people that want to go around at night and shop."
With the potential influx of new residents come concerns over traffic congestion. The community plan's environmental impact report predicts worsening traffic over time with no feasible mitigation — something Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, who represents the district, said was a concern when the plan update was reviewed at the council's Smart Growth and Land Use Committee in May.
"The most critical element of this plan is going to be transportation," Zapf said. "What has concerned me from the first day to today is the same. It's lack of traffic mitigation."
Kenton said the Midway community wanted to be good neighbors to Point Loma and Ocean Beach residents, many of whom have to crawl through Midway's congested streets to reach other neighborhoods. But she said the growth would be gradual, and that policies in the community plan would allow more residents to be less dependent on cars.
"One of the primary goals of the plan is to really go deeper into the mobility and transit opportunities that could exist and find solutions, whether they're local, regional, to bring those to the forefront so that we can really start to fix problem," she said.
While the City Council's vote on whether to approve the plan update comes next week, it may not be the end of the story. The city's Planning Commission and some community members have suggested exempting the Midway District from the city's 30-foot height limit, which applies to neighborhoods west of Interstate 5 except downtown.
"The height limit was put in place to protect people's views," Planning Commissioner Vicki Granowitz told council members at the May committee meeting. "I would ask you what views are we protecting? ... If we got rid of that height limit, you actually could have views."
Granowitz added that allowing developers more flexibility with building height would create more interesting architecture.
"Imagine everything at (the) 30-foot height limit for this area," she said. "All you have to do is go to Chula Vista. No offense to Chula Vista, but it is a little on the boring side."
Kenton said the boundary of Interstate 5 was arbitrary, and that she would support raising the height limit because it would allow for more open space and parks. Councilman David Alvarez said he would be open to further discussion of raising the height limit, potentially in conjunction with higher housing affordability requirements.
The height limit is sacrosanct in San Diego since it was approved by voters in 1972, however, and any changes to it would require a citywide vote.