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Politics

City Council Approves 'Complete Communities' Housing Plan

New housing under construction in downtown San Diego on May 28, 2020.
Matthew Bowler
New housing under construction in downtown San Diego on May 28, 2020.

The San Diego City Council on Monday approved two changes to the city's development rules aiming to incentivize more growth near public transit and in walkable neighborhoods, giving Mayor Kevin Faulconer a significant policy win before he leaves office next month.

At the same time, a third component of the mayor's initiative dealing with parks failed to win a council majority, leaving up in the air whether it would return after a new mayor and council members are inaugurated.

City Council Approves 'Complete Communities' Housing Plan
Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.

The three proposals were all branded as part of Faulconer's "Complete Communities" initiative. The housing component is an opt-in program that allows developers to exceed height and density limits if they restrict 40% of the homes allowed under a project's zoning as affordable to low- and moderate-income households. The incentives are available only when a parcel is within a half-mile of a major transit stop and is already zoned for apartments or condos.

The transportation part of the program is not optional. It establishes a new system of fees charged to developments in the city's most car-dependent neighborhoods. The revenue then funds bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in denser, more urban areas, with special consideration for neighborhoods with less access to opportunity.

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"For far too long our underserved and minority neighborhoods have been neglected when it comes to new infrastructure," Faulconer said in a statement. "We will now prioritize and reinvigorate those neighborhoods through this initiative because we cannot truly prosper as a city until every community is complete."

The program won strong support from environmental groups and small-scale developers, but ran into intense opposition from some members of the city's volunteer community planning groups. A number of them testified in opposition to Complete Communities, saying it was rushed and that the city did not do enough public outreach.

The program had changed significantly since it was first announced last year, including a doubling of the share of affordable homes required to receive the housing incentives. Councilmember Chris Ward said he was initially skeptical, but was pleased with the final proposal.

"Other significant changes have been made to ensure more protections against displacement and prioritize lower income families living in the neighborhood of the proposed project to have the right of first refusal to some of the new units being built," Ward said. "So I really appreciate those changes."

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The transportation plan passed the council 7-2 and the housing plan passed 8-1. Councilmember Vivian Moreno voted against both, saying she supported the programs in concept but opposed the fact that they were being considered a month before a new council is inaugurated.

Councilmember Mark Kersey voted against the transportation plan, saying it would make development in his suburban-style district more expensive while not providing revenue for improvements there.

Faulconer's attempt to amend the city's Parks Master Plan failed in a 4-5 vote. The proposal would have established a uniform citywide parks fee on new development, as well as a scoring system that incorporates a park's quality and amenities in addition to its mere size.

The program may still return to council in a different form next year, depending on the priorities of Mayor-elect Todd Gloria.