San Diego approves controversial plan for high-rise housing farther from transit lines

An apartment building under construction in San Diego
Under new rules approved by a divided San Diego City Council, high-rise housing can be built up to a mile from transit lines, gauged by walking distance.
(The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The City Council votes to soften existing rules governing where high-rise apartment buildings and additional backyard units can be built.

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Taking a big step to jump-start more production of high-rise housing and backyard apartments, the San Diego City Council voted 5-4 on Feb. 14 to loosen rules that govern where such homes can be built.

The move is intended to soften rules allowing taller residential buildings and more accessory dwelling units (also called backyard apartments and “granny flats”) when a property is near mass transit. Now, the transit line can be as far as a 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 Councilwoman Vivian Moreno, who voted in favor.

Councilman Joe LaCava voted against, saying the idea needs more analysis and that 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,” LaCava said.

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

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

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

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

Councilwoman 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.”

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 stand-alone legislation.

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

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

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.

But most of the attention during a three-hour hearing was on the change allowing dense projects on properties within a mile of a transit line.

The action was vocally opposed by neighborhood leaders from around the city. Their comments were similar to Campbell’s in contending that most people won’t walk a mile to transit and that allowing dense housing so far away would reduce transit use instead of boosting it.

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

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

“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.

Some supporters of the policy change 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 action 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 “somewhat significantly” reduce the number, she said.

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

Consequently, in conjunction with the shift to a walkability measurement, city officials decided to loosen the distance requirement from a half-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 accessory dwelling unit bonus program.

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

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 change was opposed by council members Marni von Wilpert and Raul Campillo.

Under other code changes approved:

• 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. Storage facilities previously had been allowed on 3,920 acres of the 7,150 acres citywide that are designated as prime industrial land, so over half. City officials said there are more than 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 mixed together. Tasting rooms also are 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 to more areas of the city a requirement that developers notify buyers and renters of potential dangers. It also outlaws “shoreline armoring,” such as seawalls or riprap, in more areas.

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

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