Badly needed homes, or ‘infill sprawl?’ City approves controversial plan for high-rises farther from transit

An apartment building under construction, with a large sign that says "Bluewater" and shows a rendering.
Under new rules a split City Council approved Tuesday, high-rise housing — such as this 80-unit apartment complex being built in Grantville — can be built up to a mile away from transit lines by walking distance.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego took a bold step to jump-start production of high-rise housing and backyard apartments Tuesday by loosening rules that govern where such homes can be built.

The City Council voted 5-4 to soften rules allowing taller apartment buildings and more backyard units when a property is near mass transit. Now, the transit line can now be as far as 1 mile away, instead of the previous half-mile requirement.

“This will result in more homes for moderate-income and low-income San Diegans, which everybody knows we need very badly,” said Councilmember Vivian Moreno, who voted in favor.

Councilmember Jennifer Campbell, who voted against the change, said it would have a “tremendous” and “terrible” impact because studies show most people won’t walk a full mile to transit.

“What we have probably caused is the opposite effect,” she said. “We will have people resort to their cars, rather than spend the 20 minutes to walk to transit.”

Campbell said the greater density would also change neighborhoods for the worse. “We don’t want to turn San Diego into Los Angeles or Manhattan,” she said.

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

Jan. 12, 2023

Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe, who voted in favor, said Campbell and other opponents should not presume to know what another person’s life is like regarding willingness to walk a mile to transit.

“You will walk a mile to transit if you have to,” she said. “For those of us who maybe have never had to, it’s easy to say that folks won’t do that.”

Councilmember Joe LaCava, whose district includes Pacific Beach and voted against, said the idea needed more analysis, contending supporters can’t be sure the change will boost transit use and help the city meet its climate goals.

“Just accepting what purports to increase housing doesn’t tackle the issue in the way that we really need to,” he said.

Incentives that allow more units based on location would shift the required proximity to transit from half a mile to within 1 mile, but they would also change how that distance is gauged.

Jan. 2, 2023

LaCava also criticized city planning officials for including the policy change in a large package of 84 municipal code changes, where it is has gotten less attention than it might have if it were standalone legislation.

The other changes include outlawing storage facilities in prime industrial areas, expanding where tasting rooms are allowed and making downtown more family-friendly with new incentives for three-bedroom apartments and child care businesses.

Additional changes approved Tuesday as part of the annual code update include tougher rules for new projects vulnerable to sea-level rise and stronger wildfire prevention rules for climate-friendly energy storage facilities.

Also among the dozens of proposals are tougher rules for sea-level rise, wildfire prevention and storage facilities, as well as changes that aim to make downtown more family-friendly.

Feb. 9, 2023

But most of the attention during a three-hour hearing Tuesday afternoon was focused on the change allowing dense projects on properties within a mile of transit instead of half a mile.

The change was vocally opposed by neighborhood leaders from around the city. They said most people won’t walk a mile to transit and that allowing dense housing so far from transit will reduce transit use instead of boosting it.

Opponents said the policy change will ruin neighborhoods because the city hasn’t made sufficient plans to build complementary infrastructure for the dense housing. They also said the change would allow more dense housing in wildfire-prone areas.

Supporters, including business groups like the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and environmental groups, said the change will play a crucial role in addressing the city’s most pressing problem: a lack of affordable housing.

They said opponents are mostly wealthy owners of single-family homes lucky enough to have bought their homes before San Diego became one of the most expensive real estate markets in the nation.

Heidi Vonblum, the city’s planning director, said the policy change is the result of frequent complaints that San Diego should measure proximity to transit not as a crow flies, but by gauging walkability to transit, with canyons and other barriers considered.

When the city analyzed how many acres of property would be eligible for the transit bonus, shifting to the walkability model would have “somewhat significantly” reduced the number of acres, she said.

City planners and residents debate how best to update the plan that will shape the community for the coming decades

Sept. 3, 2022

Because of the statewide housing crisis, San Diego could have faced sanctions from the state for reducing the amount of land eligible for transit bonuses, because that would have reduced the amount of dense housing built in the city.

Consequently, in conjunction with the shift to walkability and away from as a crow flies, city officials decided to loosen the distance requirement from half a mile to a full mile.

The policy change makes 5,224 additional acres close enough to transit eligible for developer density bonuses. It also increases 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.

While most residents who spoke opposed the change, some supported it.

“Many of my fellow students have come to love San Diego but unfortunately, given the unreasonably high cost of housing, have made the hard choice to leave after graduating, taking their invaluable identities, experiences, perspectives and skills with them,” said UC San Diego student Michael Lin.

Peter McCaffrey criticized the shift to a mile as unrealistic.

“Numerous studies have shown that living beyond 1/2 mile from transit discourages transit usage and reinforces the need for occupants to use automobiles,” he said. “This isn’t transit-oriented development, it’s infill sprawl.”

Others echoed those concerns, including many members of a group called Neighbors for a Better San Diego, which advocates for single-family homeowners and has opposed the city’s expansion of backyard apartments.

Mid-city residents say new policy allowing bonus units could destroy single-family neighborhoods

May 18, 2021

In addition to Moreno and Montgomery Steppe, the policy change was supported by Council President Sean Elo-Rivera and members Kent Lee and Stephen Whitburn.

In addition to LaCava and Campbell, the policy change was opposed by council members Marni von Wilpert and Raul Campillo.

The other code changes approved Tuesday include the new policies for storage facilities and tasting rooms, incentives to make downtown a more liveable neighborhood for families and tougher rules on preparing for the effects of climate change.

In an effort to make downtown more family-friendly, the city will now offer new incentives for child care facilities and three-bedroom apartments and condominiums.

Storage facilities are now banned in prime industrial areas in order to boost the acreage available for biotech, high-tech and other businesses with high-paying jobs.

Those facilities had previously been allowed on 3,920 acres of the 7,150 acres citywide that are designated prime industrial land, so just over half.

City officials stress that there are still just over 10,000 acres of all types of city land left where storage facilities can be located, down from 14,000.

Tasting rooms for beer, wine or liquor are now allowed in mixed-use zones — areas designated for projects where housing, commercial and industrial uses are all mixed together.

They are also now an independent use citywide. In many zones, they had been required to be operated in conjunction with a production facility.

On sea-level rise, the code change expands the requirement that developers notify buyers and renters of the dangers to apply in more areas of the city. It also outlaws “shoreline armoring,” such as seawalls or riprap, in more areas.

And battery energy-storage facilities built in wildfire hazard areas will now have to comply with the city’s “defensible space” brush management rules.