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San Diego unveils specifics for shifting infrastructure spending from wealthy to low-income areas

Arrangements of armchairs and rows of bookshelves in a spacious, glass-walled library
Projects like the new Skyline Hills Branch Library would be built more quickly under the plan.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Following an earlier commitment to shifting some infrastructure spending toward low-income areas, the city’s new scoring system prioritizes areas with weak economic opportunity.

San Diego’s efforts to boost neglected neighborhoods in the southern part of the city took a key step forward last week when officials unveiled a new scoring system for deciding which infrastructure projects take priority.

The new scoring system gives higher priority to neighborhoods that have been historically underserved, where incomes are low and where residents have relatively low access to economic opportunities.

It will help those areas get new libraries, fire stations, parks and other infrastructure projects faster, while wealthier areas may end up waiting longer for some projects.

Considerations like public safety, state mandates and protecting the environment will remain factors in which projects get built. But they will be weighed against social equity and boosting opportunities in low-income areas.

“We want to ensure we have increased that scoring weight to really address the underserved communities,” said Rania Amen, director of the city’s Engineering and Capital Projects Department.

The City Council previously committed to shifting some infrastructure spending away from wealthier neighborhoods toward low-income areas, but the specific method for making such a change hadn’t been proposed until now.

New policy pools developer fees citywide instead of restricting them to specific neighborhoods

The new scoring system is scheduled for discussion by the council’s Active Transportation and Infrastructure Committee next month, with a final vote by the full council possible in December.

In conjunction with the new scoring system, officials are proposing a new policy that aims to help low-income areas become a bigger part of how decisions about infrastructure projects get made at City Hall.

The policy requires officials to conduct a citywide public outreach campaign every two years with what officials are calling “focused engagement” in low-income areas that have been neglected and underserved.

“There have been inequities in the delivery of infrastructure, but also in the type of community engagement and input that was informing the process,” said Heidi Vonblum, the city’s planning director.

When studying decades of disparities regarding where infrastructure has been built in the city, Vonblum said city officials have also discovered that residents from across the city haven’t participated equally in the decision-making process.

“There’s definitely a real problem — participation is not generally reflective of the populations that we serve,” she said. “We’re very excited to be engaging in targeted and very intentional engagement opportunities.”

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The outreach sessions, which are scheduled to begin early next year, won’t matter unless turnout is stronger than it’s typically been in San Diego’s low-income areas, Vonblum said.

“This goes beyond throwing a party that nobody shows up to,” she said. “It’s thinking about the party we’re throwing and why nobody wants to show up to it. What are the barriers to participation?”

Vonblum said officials plan to get input from community leaders on what would help boost participation and turnout. They will also make presentations available in multiple languages and choose convenient, safe locations for forums.

“It’s important for us to be building trust in communities that have been very traditionally underserved and traditionally excluded,” she said.

But if input from low-income areas remains weak, the new scoring system that favors those areas will be there to help, Amen said.

“We can fight on behalf of these communities that don’t have the voice — maybe they don’t have the time or can’t make the effort to go out and scream and kick and fight for themselves,” she said.

Vonblum and Amen stressed that the shift in infrastructure spending from wealthier areas to low-income areas will be more gradual than abrupt.

The City Council approved a new policy in August that allows fees collected from developers to be funneled into low-income areas for infrastructure.

But it is illegal to spend developer fees that way if they were collected before the new policy. Those previously collected fees, which total more than $220 million citywide, must be spent in the neighborhoods where they were collected.

“You can’t address a system that’s been in place for decades and snap your fingers and have all of the change happen all at once,” Vonblum said. “This is a clunky, big shopping cart that we’re navigating.”

Critics say the new policies are unfair to neighborhoods where lots of new high-rise and mid-rise housing is being built or will be built in coming years.

Under the old policy, those communities would have been guaranteed the developer fees needed to build infrastructure to support the new growth. Under the new policy, those communities must hope city officials decide their neighborhood is a priority.

“I can’t help but feel this policy will miss the mark and have unintended consequences,” said Andrea Schlageter, leader of an umbrella organization for neighborhood groups called the Community Planners Committee. “Of course San Diegans want all communities to thrive. However, there will inevitably be backlash from communities who are seeing rapid development happen next door but the resulting developer funds go elsewhere.”

Vonblum said the new policies also prioritize areas with the largest populations and the most recent growth.

Vonblum and Amen said the new policies include a commitment to regularly evaluating how much infrastructure spending has shifted toward low-income areas.

“That will give us a sense of our progress — how we are pushing the needle slowly but surely in the direction that everybody wants to go,” Amen said.

For details, visit sandiego.gov/infrastructure-project-prioritization. Send comments or suggestions to engineering@sandiego.gov.


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