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Quality of Life

MTS Board Delays Vote On Affordable Housing At Trolley Station Over Parking Concerns

An artist's rendering shows the proposed affordable housing complex adjacent to the Palm Avenue trolley station.
Metropolitan Transit System
An artist's rendering shows the proposed affordable housing complex adjacent to the Palm Avenue trolley station.

Board members of the Metropolitan Transit System voted unanimously Thursday to delay a vote on an affordable housing project at a South Bay trolley station over concerns about the loss of parking.

The project would build 390 affordable apartments — 288 for low-income households and 102 for moderate-income households — on the four acre parking lot at the Palm Avenue trolley station in San Diego's Palm City neighborhood. It would also include ground-floor retail, a child care facility and outdoor recreation space.

MTS has been in negotiations with developers National CORE and Malick Infill over the project since March 2019. It estimates at completion the project would provide affordable housing for 1,410 people.

RELATED: MTS Approves Affordable And Student-Oriented Housing On Trolley Parking Lot

Last summer board members praised MTS staff and the project’s development team for increasing the number of homes in the project compared to an earlier design, even though the additional density meant less parking. The developers have also since agreed to a project labor agreement that ensures construction workers are paid union-level wages and benefits.

The developers won support for their project from the MTS board's executive committee on Sept. 9. On June 9 they won support from the volunteer Otay Mesa-Nestor Community Planning Group.

But San Diego City Councilmember Vivian Moreno, whose district includes the site, said Thursday the developer had not done enough to assuage her concerns about the net loss of parking spaces.

"While I support the project, I think we must make sure that the transit stations have enough parking to effectively function and attract more choice riders," Moreno said.

RELATED: San Diego Pledged To Shift Away From Cars. So Why Is It Still Widening Roads?

At Moreno's request, the project is expected to return to the MTS board on Oct. 14 after agency staff and the development team further discuss the parking issue. The developers face an Oct. 29 deadline to apply for local affordable housing grants that would help finance the project.

Last summer, Moreno supported the project's design with more housing and less parking, agreed the parking lot was underutilized and said affordable housing was a better use of the land.

After Thursday's meeting, Moreno spokesperson Lisa Schmidt said in a statement that the councilmember had not changed her mind on the project, and that her motion "allows for MTS staff to work with the development team to ensure that ridership at the Palm Avenue trolley station won’t be adversely impacted when the development is completed."

The Palm Avenue station parking lot has 499 parking spaces and had an average utilization rate of 54% in 2019, according to MTS estimates. MTS does not control entry to the lot or charge for parking, so it's unclear whether all the cars that are parked there belong to trolley passengers.

RELATED: MTS Updates Real Estate Policy To Spur More Housing Near Transit

The housing development, branded as the Palm City Village, would include 111 residential and commercial parking spaces and 80 parking spaces for MTS passengers. The project's four buildings would be constructed in phases so the parking loss would be gradual.

John Seymour, vice president of acquisitions for National CORE, said increasing the number of parking spaces would require a project redesign that would increase construction costs, making the project financially infeasible. Or, he said, they could reduce the number of homes in the project.

"If we reduce the density from 390 (units) back down to the original proposal, yes, parking onsite would increase," Seymour said.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria was absent from the MTS board meeting Thursday. Mayoral spokesman Dave Rolland said in a statement: "Due to demands on the mayor's calendar, he generally entrusts MTS board meetings to his alternate, Council President Pro Tem (Stephen) Whitburn. Mayor Gloria supports the project."

A 2019 survey of transit riders found the availability of parking at transit stations ranked last among their biggest obstacles to riding transit more often.