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Proposal to allow more high-rise housing in San Diego clears key hurdle

A Council committee voted 3-1 for proposal to soften the rules governing developer incentives near mass transit.

High-rise housing would be allowed on many more properties in San Diego, including many in Bankers Hill, under a proposal to soften rules governing incentives for building near mass transit.(Howard Lipin/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

BY DAVID GARRICK, The San Diego Union Tribune

JAN. 12, 2023 5:04 PM PT


A controversial proposal to allow high-rise housing and backyard apartments on many more properties in San Diego was approved 3-1 Thursday by the City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee.

The proposal would soften city rules that allow taller apartment buildings and more backyard units when a property is near mass transit — the transit line could be as far as 1 mile away instead of the current requirement of half a mile away.

Supporters said the urgency of the city’s housing and homelessness crisis makes such bold moves necessary, despite San Diego’s relatively weak transit system and doubts that people will give up their cars even if the system improves.

Opponents said such a substantial change, which would place roughly one-third of the city in a transit development incentive zone, needs significantly more analysis and study.

Some critics also said San Diego could be on shaky legal ground if city officials stick with a plan not to conduct a comprehensive study of the proposal’s potential impacts on traffic and other environmental factors.

Neighborhood leaders across the city have criticized the proposal for overestimating how many residents of the new homes spurred by the change will use nearby transit — especially if it is a mile away instead of half a mile.

They also stress that the new policy would make properties eligible for incentives even if the transit line won’t be operating until 2035.

“Would you give up your car if the nearest transit stop was a mile away and might not go in for a few years?” said Andrea Schlageter, chair of the Community Planners Committee, an umbrella organization for the city’s four dozen neighborhood planning groups.

Geoff Hueter, leader of a community group called Neighbors for a Better San Diego, stressed that the state standard for transit development areas is half a mile and the federal standard a quarter mile.

Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, who represents downtown and nearby areas where the city’s homeless population is concentrated, conceded that local mass transit is weak.

“We need to increase frequency, convenience and the network of destinations,” he said.

“But transit service tends to increase in areas that have more density — areas that have more potential riders. So transit and density work hand in hand.”

And Whitburn said adding more housing is especially crucial right now.

“The only way we are going to stem the tide of homelessness is by providing more housing that people can afford,” he said. “I’ve got to get this done for my constituents.”

Councilmember Joe LaCava, who cast the lone “no” vote Thursday, said he is unsure whether he supports the proposal. But LaCava said he’s certain that it needs more analysis.

“This is a significant policy shift,” said LaCava, criticizing city planning officials for folding it into a large package of 84 municipal code changes where it is getting less attention than if it were standalone legislation.

LaCava lobbied to separate the proposal so it can be further analyzed and presented in coming months along with several other housing reforms Mayor Todd Gloria is expected to unveil.

But committee members Vivian Moreno and Kent Lee voted with Whitburn.

Moreno said the bottom line for her is that the proposal would bring San Diego more affordable homes.

She also praised another element of the proposal that would change how distances from transit are measured. Instead of measuring distance as a crow flies, the new rules would consider feasible walking routes.

“Having it measured as a straight line was not a good indicator, because it didn’t account for physical barriers or obstacles for residents walking to a bus stop or a trolley,” Moreno said.

The proposed rule changes would make an additional 5,224 acres close enough to transit eligible for developer density bonuses. The changes would also increase by 4,612 the acreage eligible for the backyard apartment “bonus” program.

City officials did not provide context for the change by noting either the existing acreage or the expected new one.

The full City Council is expected to vote on the proposal in February.

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