State housing officials seek redevelopment ideas for downtown San Diego lots
Speaker 1: (00:00)
To lots being offered for redevelopment in downtown San Diego may turn an eyesore into a new model for affordable housing. The almost three acre stretch of dilapidated buildings and parking lots sit just outside little Italy. The state owns the land and the California department of housing and community development is looking for private partners to transform the site into a mix of housing, commercial property, and some open space. The effort has the full support of San Diego city leaders who hope the project will lead toward innovation in affordable housing development. Joining me is KPBS Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen, and welcome
Speaker 2: (00:40)
Andrew. Hi Maureen. Thanks.
Speaker 1: (00:41)
Could you describe and locate this redevelopment site with some more detail than I do?
Speaker 2: (00:48)
Sure. Uh, to the north is Ash street, south, uh, is a street. The two lots are bounded by front street, then to the east state street to the west, and then union bisects, the two lots, it's kind of a dead zone in downtown. You called it an eyesore and that's absolutely the case, you know, but at the same time, it's surrounded by a ton of amenities and destinations like little Italy, of course, all the downtown office buildings and hotels, the trolley, the Amtrak station. So it's a really great location with a lot of potential. And what
Speaker 1: (01:17)
Has the area of venues for in the past?
Speaker 2: (01:19)
Well, the Eastern lot has been an office building that has housed more than a dozen state agencies. The employees there have been using it in some early reporting that I did on this property are now mayor Todd. Gloria said that half of the office space in that building was unused. So, you know, it was already under utilized, even the developed portion of it. Uh, the portion of the lots that doesn't have a building on it are mostly parking for state employees. And then on the Western law, there were two vacant buildings that were purchased by the state in the sixties. But I was told when I reported on this two years ago by a spokesperson that they had been vacant since the seventies, it's not entirely clear why. It's also not really clear to me why the state didn't try and redevelop these properties sooner, but it has been on the radar of our now mayor, Todd Gloria for several years. And two years ago, he'd got a bill signed by the governor when he was in the state legislature that declared this property surplus land.
Speaker 1: (02:15)
Now the state has issued what it calls a request for qualifications from developers, interested in the site. What is the state looking for in this project?
Speaker 2: (02:24)
There are criteria for selecting a proposal or idea our housing affordability, community development, sustainability, equity, innovation, and feasibility and affordable housing is at the top of that list. I think because it is so scarce in that scarcity causes so many other problems that we're dealing with. The state has said that maximizing the number of homes on the property is a big priority. And it's asking developers make this as dense as possible. Of course it's surrounded by high rises. So it's not really like changing the character of the neighborhood to build really tall. And you know, the rest of this it's fairly open to, I spoke with Stephen Russell, the head of the San Diego housing Federation, and he said the state was creating a laboratory of ideas. And part of that equation is offering to lease this property for as little as $1 a year. So, because land is often one of the greatest expenses when you're developing a property, the developers can, you know, use that savings and try some different things and maybe take on some risks that will create new ideas that could then be replicated elsewhere.
Speaker 1: (03:27)
Any estimates on how many new housing units might be built on the side?
Speaker 2: (03:31)
I haven't seen any, although if we take some other developments in downtown as a sort of model, it could be well over a thousand units. There's a high rise apartment building in the east village that started construction this summer. The lot is pretty much the same size as, as one of these two state owned lots and it is supposed to include 617 units. So if you double that, you know, well over a thousand units, um, potential depending on of course how tall the buildings are, how much might be devoted to a commercial space or retail or open space. So kind of an open question,
Speaker 1: (04:04)
Innovation and the state is looking for may even extend to the building materials in the new development. Tell us about something called mass timber.
Speaker 2: (04:13)
Yeah, this is a really exciting new front in home building and construction. You know, this property could really play a big role in moving forward. So mass timber is essentially a construction material, it's wood, uh, but many different pieces of wood that are essentially glued together. So you get a very robust, uh, resilient construction material, and it allows you to build much taller than what would normally be considered a typical wood-frame building, which are often limited to 5, 6, 7, or eight stories. What we think of as mid-rise buildings. And often those are also, they have to include more intense or expensive materials like concrete and steel. It also is seen as very ecologically friendly or more so certainly than steel and concrete, which costs a lot of energy and carbon emissions to emit. And at the same time, this wood was once a tree that actually removed carbon from the atmosphere. So the building can act as a sort of storage of carbon that has been through the life cycle of the tree has been taken out from the atmosphere. And therefore it's seen as a much greener construction material.
Speaker 1: (05:18)
And question about, uh, mayor Todd, Gloria. He's calling this a once in a generation opportunity, the redevelopment of these properties. Wha why is he expressing that kind of interest in this
Speaker 2: (05:31)
Really just, isn't a lot of land that is owned by a government entity and is of this size in a location like this. So often when the city or the state owns a piece of land, it might be right next to a freeway, or it might under a freeway. Even it might be kind of far from any a neighborhood amenities or areas that are already developed. It might be a really small site. So there's really not as much potential to build there, but because these two lots are in downtown San Diego, you know, a huge destination for employment, tourism, et cetera, because the lots are so big and because, you know, the government owns them. It really is just like an incredible opportunity to see what government is capable of helping create when it has the right priorities in mind, in particular affordable housing.
Speaker 1: (06:17)
And how long will the process of collecting beds from
Speaker 2: (06:20)
Developers? Take the deadline to submit responses is February and the state will then conduct some interviews and they hope to award the site in may. I've been
Speaker 1: (06:29)
Speaking with KPBS, Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen. Andrew.
Speaker 2: (06:32)
Thank you. My pleasure, Maureen.
Speaker 3: (06:35)
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.
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."
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.
"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."