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Property In San Diego’s Clairemont Neighborhood Cleared For Affordable Housing

The sheriff's crime lab on Mount Etna Drive is seen here, Dec. 6, 2018.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: The sheriff's crime lab on Mount Etna Drive is seen here, Dec. 6, 2018.

San Diego City Council members voted 8-1 Tuesday to rezone four acres of county-owned land in Clairemont for hundreds of new affordable apartments.

The parcel on Mt. Etna Drive, near the intersection of Genesee and Balboa Avenues, was used as a crime lab before the Sheriff's Department vacated it in 2018. County officials decided the best use of the land would be for affordable housing, but the underlying zoning did not allow for residential development.

The council voted to change the zoning and grant exemptions to the neighborhood's 30-foot height limit to allow for the project to pencil out.

The possibility of more than 400 new low-income apartments in a neighborhood dominated by single-family homes sparked opposition from residents. An organization called Clairemont Cares sprung up to oppose the project, raising nearly $9,000 for a potential legal challenge.

Opponents told council members the additional housing would worsen traffic in the area and the potential size of the building was out of scale with nearby homes.

"Putting a 70-foot tall building in a site zoned for 30 feet is immoral," Clairemont resident Stuart Johnson told the council. "The size of this project should be reduced to conform with the natural character of the community."

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Others spoke in favor of the proposal, saying it is exactly the kind of infill development that San Diego needs to meet its goals of building more affordable housing near jobs and public transit stops.

City Councilman Chris Cate, whose district includes much of Clairemont, said the project would set aside some of the units for low-income seniors and people with disabilities, who are in dire need of affordable housing.

"This is an opportunity that we can’t let go to waste," he said.

Council President Georgette Gomez agreed, saying that while residents are divided over the project, the city has to allow for more housing.

"I want to remind our council that we do have a housing crisis in our city, and whether it be seniors or family homes, we need more homes, period," Gomez said.

Councilwoman Barbara Bry cast the only "no" vote, saying she was sympathetic to opponents' fears that the new housing would not be matched with sufficient infrastructure improvements. Bry is running for mayor and has made skepticism of new development part of her platform.

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"This is a hard one for me, because I understand the need for the housing, and I understand at the same time the impact on the community," she said.

Initial results from the March 3 primary showed Bry coming in third place, thus not making the November runoff against the frontrunner, Assemblyman Todd Gloria. But as more votes are tallied, Bry has been steadily closing the gap between her and current second-place finisher, Councilman Scott Sherman.

The tensions over the Mt. Etna site are likely a preview of a much bigger fight over the Clairemont Community Plan update. City officials and residents are currently preparing to rezone much larger parts of the neighborhood, with a goal of adding capacity for at least 5,000 new homes.

Of particular concern are the neighborhoods immediately east of Interstate 5, where a new trolley line connecting to UCSD is set to begin service in late 2021. City officials want to allow denser and taller development adjacent to the new trolley stops, but have faced opposition from Clairemont residents determined to preserve the current 30-foot height limit.

Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.

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Photo of Andrew Bowen

Andrew Bowen
Metro Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover local government — a broad beat that includes housing, homelessness and infrastructure. I'm especially interested in the intersections of land use, transportation and climate change.

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