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State housing officials seek redevelopment ideas for downtown San Diego lots

Boards cover up the windows of a dilapidated vacant building owned by the state of California in downtown San Diego, Nov. 24, 2021.
Andrew Bowen
Boards cover up the windows of a dilapidated vacant building owned by the state of California in downtown San Diego, Nov. 24, 2021.

State housing officials this month put out a call to developers interested in transforming two blocks of blighted real estate in downtown San Diego into affordable housing.

State housing officials seek redevelopment ideas for downtown San Diego lots
Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.

The 2.7-acre state-owned property just outside Little Italy includes two dilapidated vacant buildings, surface parking lots and an office building where employees from more than a dozen state departments have worked.

The state's Department of Housing and Community Development on Nov. 17 announced it was seeking partners that can build a mixed-use development on the site. Applications will be scored based on "housing affordability, community development, sustainability, equity, innovation and feasibility."

Stephen Russell, executive director of the nonprofit San Diego Housing Federation, said he's excited to see what comes out of the process, officially called a "request for qualifications," or RFQ.

"It's really creating a laboratory for experimenting with different ideas," Russell said. "The affordable housing sector here in town is the most creative set of developers there are because of the challenges that we constantly face."

RELATED: State Moves To Turn Dilapidated Downtown Properties Into Affordable Housing

The state is also encouraging developers to come up with innovative financial models, such as incorporating commercial space, retail and market rate housing that can help subsidize the affordable housing. The state intends to retain ownership of the land and lease it to the redevelopment team for as little as $1 per year.

The property is bordered by West Ash Street to the north, Front Street to the east, West A Street to the south and State Street to the west. Union Street bisects the two lots.

Russell said the large size of the lots opens up a multitude of possibilities for incorporating amenities into the project, such as park space, child care or family-oriented housing.

The state's emphasis on innovation and sustainability could inspire San Diego's first "mass timber" project, Russell added. California building regulators recently legalized buildings of up to 18 stories made out of a type of reinforced wood. The cutting edge practice can lower construction costs and benefit the environment by eliminating carbon-intensive materials like concrete and steel. Mass timber buildings can also be considered "carbon negative," since the wood essentially stores carbon that trees have already removed from the atmosphere.

But despite its benefits, mass timber is still a relatively new and unfamiliar construction material for most developers. Russell said that's where the government can step in to spur innovation and create a proof-of-concept project that could be replicated elsewhere.

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"Those are techniques that are not being used widely right now that someone, in order to prove the point and get the extra points in the RFQ, may stretch themselves to try some experiments that they wouldn't otherwise try," Russell said.

Local zoning rules do not apply to the property because it is owned by the state government, although the state says local input will be a priority. Mayor Todd Gloria has had his eyes on the site for years, authoring a law while he was a state assemblymember that designated the property as surplus land.

“The city of San Diego is proud to partner with the state of California to ensure we are doing everything we can to leverage public lands to tackle our housing crisis head on," Gloria said in the state's press release. "The two blocks being offered up today present a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a significant number of homes San Diego families can afford."

State housing officials seek redevelopment ideas for downtown San Diego lots