Major hotels give way to a gritty scene on the waterfront just south of downtown. There, huge cargo ships unload bananas, wind blades and fertilizers. Eighteen-wheelers rumble through an area with an unusual mix of homes and industrial business.
This is Barrio Logan, a small, working-class neighborhood that sits adjacent to California’s fourth largest port. It is home to about 4,000 residents, most of them Latino, but also to the businesses that serve the port’s maritime operations: Ship deck cleaners, welders and warehouses. In the neighborhood, those industrial businesses are interspersed among homes, a jumbled mix that’s long been a source of tension between business owners and residents.
Now, the city is finalizing a major rezoning plan that aims to separate those businesses from homes in the coming decades, as the neighborhood changes and redevelops. It will direct future industrial development to the outskirts of the neighborhood and housing in its core, setting the stage for Barrio Logan to triple its population by 2030.
But the plan could also cut the amount of industrial land in the neighborhood by as much as 50 percent. That has met fierce resistance from industrial land and business owners who say it will limit their ability to expand, provide jobs and support maritime operations.
That disagreement has turned a few-block stretch of waterfront land in Barrio Logan into the site of an acrimonious political battle. Even the mayor has intervened.
In recent years, the neighborhood southeast of downtown has faced pressure from all sides. Local business owners want to retain their ability to expand to serve the working waterfront to the south. Development is creeping closer from the north as downtown expands. And from within, residents have focused on protecting the neighborhood against gentrification while trying to rid it of industrial businesses that operate next to homes.
The new zoning plan will be a critical tool for defining the neighborhood’s future because it will set the rules for what type of development can happen, and where.
In 2008, Councilman Ben Hueso and Mayor Jerry Sanders created a special committee of residents, land and business owners and community advocates to work with city planners to update the neighborhood’s community plan, its blueprint for growth. The document hadn’t been updated since 1978, and one of planners’ main goals was to eliminate the outdated zoning that allowed the neighborhood to become a haphazard jumble of industry and houses.
Finally, last year, planners whittled the land-use options for Barrio Logan’s future down to two. The first called for reducing the amount of industrial land by half and zoning a strip along Harbor Drive, which separates the neighborhood from the heavily industrial waterfront, to allow for shops and restaurants. The other cut industrial land by a third, and retained the strip near the waterfront as industrial land.
In November, a majority of the committee members voted for the plan to cut more industrial land, against the objections of business and land owners.
The vote was only a recommendation, but it frustrated the industry representatives on the committee, who had hired a lobbyist and organized as the Smart Growth Coalition to make the case that allowing industry to flourish was critical to the neighborhood’s and the port’s economic success.
“There’s a serious loss of industrial land in both plans. Industry is at risk of being pretty much eliminated east of Harbor Drive,” said Matt Carr, a committee member who owns a ship cleaning business in the neighborhood.
City planners say there are 120 acres of industrial land but there’s disagreement over how much would actually be lost. Calculating it has been tricky for planners because Barrio Logan was last rezoned more than 30 years ago. Current zoning allows industrial businesses and homes to be built on the same land — a problem the city is currently trying to undo.
Environmental advocates and residents say industry has no place in Barrio Logan’s residential core, and want it pushed to the neighborhood’s periphery. Industry representatives have pushed for a more gradual transition. They want the heaviest types of industry closest to the water, lighter industrial and heavy commercial development farther inland and residential development beyond that.
The problem is that Barrio Logan is a long, narrow neighborhood with just less than 1,000 acres. It’s only four blocks wide, bounded by Interstate 5 on the east and the port on the west. That’s allowed little room for negotiation, and has left both sides jostling to influence almost every parcel.
City planners believe the areas that will be zoned for industrial use will be enough to accommodate the needs of existing businesses and their future expansion.
Still, following the committee vote last November, Chris Wahl, a lobbyist hired by industry and business representatives, stepped up efforts and met with members of Sanders’ office. The Mayor’s Office recently told city planners to come up with another option.
The revised plan would introduce yet a third option for the area of Barrio Logan that has been the main sticking point — the buffer zone that separates the neighborhood’s heavy industrial area from its more residential area. The new option would zone that area for neighborhood businesses that residents want but also allow industrial businesses that strictly offer maritime services.
Planners will present the new version to committee members next month, hoping to strike a compromise between the opposing sides.
But both sides have dug their feet in, making it unclear how much support the new plan will get or how much longer the process will drag on.
Georgette Gomez, a committee member who works for the nonprofit Environmental Health Coalition, said she wasn’t sure she could support the new plan.
“At this point, this community has given, given, given,” she said. “We have two options, one was more favorable than the other. We voted. Now we have this revised alternative that hasn’t come through the official process.”
Wahl, the lobbyist representing business owners, also said the new plan falls short of what his clients are after.
“It’s not as good as industrial,” he said.
Kelly Broughton, director of the city’s planning division, will ultimately select one of the plans to recommend to the City Council for adoption. Once it’s approved, the city will rezone all the land in Barrio Logan, meaning future development will be limited to the land uses that the plan has established.
Industrial businesses that sit on land that has been rezoned as residential will be allowed to remain. But once they close, only homes will be allowed to replace them. Areas of the neighborhood rezoned for industrial use will no longer allow residential development.
Councilman David Alvarez, who grew up in Barrio Logan and now represents the neighborhood, said he wants to see industrial businesses phased out of the residential neighborhood core. Alvarez grew up next to a company that used chemicals to strip metal from cars.
“I want to be able to support maritime businesses that currently exist,” he said. “But some of them are in the wrong places and should not be next to houses.”
Planners hope to have a plan approved by the City Council by May.
Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?
Contact him directly at email@example.com or at 619.325.0528.
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