City Council approves Complete Communities housing and mobility plans, despite objections from local groups

An illustration from San Diego's Complete Communities website shows elements of the initiative.
(City of San Diego)

Despite criticism from local planning groups, the San Diego City Council approved transit and housing components of the city’s Complete Communities plan during a special meeting Nov. 9, but left a parks plan to be decided by the next council.

The Complete Communities plan has been developed by the San Diego Planning Department with four components: a parks master plan, a mobility choices initiative, a housing solutions plan and facilities financing.

The mobility initiative was approved 7-2, with council members Mark Kersey and Vivian Moreno opposed; the housing solutions initiative was approved 8-1, with Moreno dissenting.

The parks master plan was voted down 5-4 so it could be revised and brought back early next year, after five new council members have been seated following last week’s elections. Additionally, Mayor-elect Todd Gloria will replace departing Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

Facilities financing was not individually heard or voted on.

In the past year, the plan has fallen under scrutiny by several community advisory groups for its perceived lack of public outreach.

The Pacific Beach Planning Group sent a letter to city officials dated Oct. 1 summarizing motions it passed at its September meeting regarding Complete Communities.

The group asked that the city wait to docket the Complete Communities plans “until the housing and infrastructure portions have been fully developed and reviewed by all stakeholders, including community planning groups.” It also requested time for the public to review changes that have been made.

However, city Planning Director Mike Hansen said there was “extensive public outreach” over several years from “public hearings, workshops, online surveys and public comment periods” and that the proposal would “help the city meet the Climate Action Plan goals and prioritize the city’s resources to where the needs are greatest.”

The mobility choices and housing solutions components will provide incentives for developers to build more housing units if they agree to boost transit options near a project, add amenities such as parks or promenades nearby or pay in-lieu fees to pay for infrastructure, according to Heidi Vonblum, city program manager for environment and mobility planning. At least 50 percent of funding would be in what she called “communities of concern” — those that are disadvantaged in terms of infrastructure and economic opportunities.

Moreno said all the proposals have laudable goals, including boosting equity across the city, but she criticized the timing.

“A policy of this level of importance that significantly changes existing city policies should not be rushed and passed at the last minute during a lame-duck period,” Moreno said. “I believe this should be vetted by the new mayor and voted on by the next council.”

The La Jolla Community Planning Association sent a letter to the City Council ahead of its special meeting, asking it to return the proposal to community planning groups before it votes.

“These proposals are large, visionary and complicated,” the letter reads in part.” To their credit, they attempt to provide a holistic approach to address the city’s shortage of affordable housing and parkland, especially in ‘communities of concern.’ But unfortunately, they provide a ‘one size fits all’ approach that fails to recognize the uniqueness of San Diego’s communities.”

The letter provides suggested revisions to the plan, but notes, “Refinements being added at this late date could have been addressed weeks, if not months ago. Since the duration of this effort extends indefinitely into the future, there is no need to rush to completion.”

Discussing the mobility choices initiative, Vonblum said the city is required as of July 1 to analyze transportation impacts using a vehicle miles traveled metric. “This new metric … measures transportation in a way that focuses on reducing vehicular travel rather than accommodating it,” she said.

The city used information from the San Diego Association of Governments to identify areas where new development in walking, biking and transit would have great potential to reduce vehicle travel, and found that it “almost exactly” aligned with where more housing is needed.

Speaking to the housing solutions component, Brian Schoenfisch, program manager for community planning and implementation, said: “We are simply not producing enough housing to keep up with current and future demand, especially affordable housing.

“What is proposed is a new opt-in density bonus program that would remove regulatory barriers to helping at all income levels, with a particular focus on low- to moderate-income housing.”

A key component, he said, is that this program requires that 15 percent of the base units be restricted to 50 percent of the area median income, plus an additional 10 percent of the units to 60 percent of the AMI, and an additional 15 percent of units to 120 percent of the AMI.

Other provisions allow the city to convert commercial space to residential.

The Pacific Beach Planning Group’s letter supported increased affordable housing requirements, especially in the coastal zone, where it said “even smaller market-rate units are not ‘affordable’ and smaller units in these areas are more likely to be rented out for short-term rentals instead of for longer-term housing.”

However, one problem for the Pacific Beach group and other coastal community boards is a recommendation that the allowed floor area ratio (the size of a structure in relation to its lot) be increased to 2.5 in the coastal zone. Community groups in La Jolla determined that building a project at 2.5 FAR and keeping it within the 30-foot coastal height limit is unachievable.

Echoing recommendations by local planning groups, Councilwoman Barbara Bry (whose District 1 includes La Jolla) asked that the FAR in the coastal zone be reduced to 1.8, which the council denied.

She called it an “ambitious plan” and voted for it “reluctantly.”

Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, whose District 2 includes Pacific Beach, shared the concern that the FAR “may be too high in the coastal zone” and said “my constituents in District 2 have expressed concerns about this, so we will continue to monitor this, not only in D2 but for the entire city.”

While Campbell said she supported various elements of the plans, she said she wished the components had been presented separately.

“We will see how well this complex, complicated ordinance that combines everything into one works,” she said. “And only because it can be reviewed and improved, I will vote yes today.”

The only component that did not get council approval was the parks master plan, as several of the five members who voted no had questions about a proposed point system and the inclusion of Multiple Species Conservation Plan lands. Those in opposition were Moreno, Kersey, Bry, Campbell and Chris Cate.

The new system is intended to provide a mechanism for funding parks in communities of concern and would create parks based on a point system rather than the acreage system used now.

Currently, the city provides 2.8 acres of park space for every 1,000 people in a given area. The plan proposes at least 14 “points of recreational value” for every 1,000 people. Recreational value would be determined based on “features related to carrying capacity, recreation opportunities, access, amenities and activations,” according to the city website.

However, some voiced concern that this would turn local parks into “Coney Island.”

Further, several environmental groups spoke against the inclusion of MSCP lands, which include 98,379 acres that help protect several species in the unincorporated area of South County.

The council narrowly voted to have the proposal refined and returned at a meeting yet to be scheduled.

San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer David Garrick contributed to this report.