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Housing at trolley-adjacent Clairemont site could double under new owner

A trolley arrives at the Clairemont Drive station across the street from a 3.55-acre lot slated for new housing, Jan. 26, 2022.
Andrew Bowen
A trolley arrives at the Clairemont Drive station across the street from a 3.55-acre lot slated for new housing, Jan. 26, 2022.

A local development firm has purchased a property across the street from the recently opened Clairemont Drive trolley station, and the company plans to build more than twice as many homes there compared to previous plans.

Encinitas-based Zephyr purchased the 3.55-acre site from Protea Properties last week for $25 million, according to publicly available real estate documents. Zephyr's website states the new development will include approximately 350 apartments and space for retail, restaurants and coworking. Groundbreaking is anticipated in early 2023.

"Zephyr is using award-winning architect Safdie Rabines to envision the transit-oriented development in this highly amenitized mixed-use community, which will act as a mobility hub for the surrounding neighborhood," the developer's website states.

The new vision for the site dwarfs Protea's earlier plans for only 156 apartments. The City Council voted in May 2020 to streamline that project's approval because of its proximity to public transit and other sustainability features.

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Zephyr CEO Brad Termini said in an emailed statement that the firm is excited about the opportunity to develop along the new trolley line and would share more details with the community later this year as the design team refines its vision.

"We will seek to help the city of San Diego achieve their goal of transit-oriented residential development that serves a spectrum of different income levels," Termini said. "With a focus on sustainability, health and wellness, the transit-oriented nature of the project will connect residents to jobs at UCSD, UTC, Mission Valley, and downtown, while keeping cars off of the freeways."

While the site's current zoning allows for only 156 homes, it is also eligible for San Diego's "Complete Communities" bonus program, which grants streamlined approval and relief from density and height limits in exchange for the inclusion of more affordable housing.

The project is also eligible for relief from residential and commercial parking requirements, although the new developer is still bound by earlier commitments to construct at least 150 parking spaces for trolley passengers.

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Housing at trolley-adjacent Clairemont site could double under new owner

Plans for the property have changed multiple times as city officials and neighborhood residents wrangled over the site's zoning and height limit, and as Protea negotiated with the San Diego Association of Governments, which built the 11-mile Blue Line trolley extension, over the amount of parking that should be dedicated to transit riders.

The increased density for the site is likely to be celebrated by housing and environmental advocates, who want to see as much housing as possible built around the nine new trolley stations in Clairemont and University City. The city has already cleared the way for increased development around some of the stations and is expected to approve a new community plan for Clairemont later this year.

"Our region invested $2 billion into a new trolley line," said Matthew Vasilakis, co-director of policy for the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign. "So we really need to capitalize on that, and by building more homes near transit, we're going to be able to meet our Climate Action Plan goals."

The city's 2015 Climate Action requires the city to dramatically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, in large part by encouraging more transit-oriented development and shifting commute habits away from cars in favor of biking, walking and public transit. Mayor Todd Gloria is crafting an update to the climate plan that would make those sustainable transportation targets even more aggressive.

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But the new project is also likely to spark opposition from neighbors who for years have sought to limit the density and height of new trolley-adjacent development in Clairemont.

"Where is all of this new (housing) going?" said Naveen Waney, chair of the Clairemont Mesa Community Planning Group. "They have to go up, which could be a contentious issue for the neighborhood."

Waney added that he is still eager to see the site developed and that he wants it to retain the previous project's mix of housing, commercial space and a public plaza.

"I am not opposed to Clairemont taking on their share of the housing needs," Waney said. "I just want to make sure that it's aesthetically acceptable and it fits into the neighborhood."