UCSD students fight for a voice in University City zoning debate
Andrew Parlier considers himself lucky. The doctoral candidate in applied ocean science has one of the coveted apartments in a new graduate student housing development on the eastern portion of UC San Diego.
"It's really easy to get to campus and to get to food," Parlier said. "The Blue Line (trolley extension) has been amazing to be able to get downtown."
But many of Parlier's peers are stuck on an ever-growing waitlist for student housing. Off-campus housing isn't any easier to find, meaning that more students are being pushed into longer commutes to find a home they can afford.
That's why Parlier hopes that the San Diego Planning Department will zone for as much high-density housing as possible in its update to the University Community Plan. Students need more housing options near campus, he said, so they can help with the city's efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
"High-density housing, public transit, alternative transit modes (like biking) achieve that," Parlier said.
Parlier is the lone UCSD student on the University Community Planning Group, which has been advising the city on the community plan update since 2018. He said the group, and attendance at its meetings, is dominated by older, wealthier homeowners — some of whom say openly that students' opinions on zoning don't matter as much as homeowners'.
University City is one of several San Diego neighborhoods where city officials see a need for more housing. The Blue Line trolley now includes six stops in University City, making it ripe for the kind of transit-oriented development the city needs to meet its climate goals.
And the neighborhood has one of the city's most lopsided ratios of jobs to housing: 90,000 jobs but only 27,000 homes, according to estimates from the regional planning agency, SANDAG. The community plan update seeks to create more close-by housing for the people who work in those jobs, so that, even if they have to drive to work, at least it's a relatively short commute.
Leana Cortez, a UC San Diego junior studying global health and sociocultural anthropology, said the stakes for students were even higher than for existing residents worried about increased traffic or a change in the neighborhood's aesthetics. She pointed to a recent national survey that found that 17% of college students have been homeless in the past year, and nearly half have faced housing insecurity.
"It's not the homelessness we think of where you see them on the streets in tattered clothes," Cortez said. "We're talking about people surfing people's couches. They might secure housing for three months, but where are they going to go after that? These are problems that students have to face while having all their studies and all their extracurriculars, and they shouldn't have to."
Last fall, Cortez began organizing her classmates to get more involved in the zoning debate. But there are structural barriers to student participation. For example, students who live on campus are barred from voting in University Community Planning Group elections. Cortez said she's never seen the planning group do anything on campus to encourage student engagement.
"There's just not enough outreach to begin with for people to even know that they can get engaged," Cortez said. "And when people are interested and they want to join these spaces, they are faced with that negativity."
In an effort to expand its outreach, the Planning Department is increasingly turning to online surveys that ask how much density people would support and where. Cortez and several classmates launched a major push to get as many students to fill out the survey as possible. In the end, they amounted to 29% of the survey respondents.
The results surprised many in University City: The highest-density proposals were consistently the most popular. The survey participants were also much more diverse than a similar survey in 2019.
When it comes to creating a welcoming environment for students in planning group meetings, Andy Wiese said he did his best to promote civility and active listening. Wiese is a University Community Planning Group member who also chairs the subcommittee focused on the community plan update.
Wiese said those residents who see students as "transient" and not relevant to the zoning debate would have to get used to their presence. Many students stay in the neighborhood after graduation, he said. Even if one student leaves after a few years, they'll be replaced by even more students in the future as the university grows.
"Students have a critical viewpoint and a role to play in the process," Wiese said. "More of them will be here, and their views represent what we can imagine to be the concerns of their peers to come."
Still, Wiese doesn't always agree with students. He opposed a proposal to allow medium-density townhomes in parts of southern University City, where the current zoning forbids anything but low-density detached houses. Wiese said he feared that increasing the allowable density would displace existing residents.
"To the extent that that proposal looked like a displacement proposal, I think that it was ill-considered," Wiese said.
Planning Department officials have since dropped the townhome proposal after an outcry from residents.
Parlier called that decision "a tragedy," and an example of the city putting the interests of homeowners over those of students, renters and young professionals in need of more diverse housing options.
"South University City, especially for graduate students, is a great place that is very commutable to the university," Parlier said. "It's a safe place, and it's a great community. I think we should allow people to live there."
Cortez said southern University City was a relatively wealthy neighborhood and homeowners were not at risk of displacement.
"It's not like we're tearing people’s houses down," Cortez said. "We're just trying to make sure that there’s enough space for everyone to live here."
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