San Diego's Next Density Fight - Voice of San Diego

Community Plans

San Diego's Next Density Fight

City planners are eyeing changes to Grantville: They want to take the industrial area and turn it into one with lots of apartments and retail storefronts, an urban village based around the neighborhood’s trolley stop. But if history’s any guide, that’ll be easier said than done.

There aren’t many homes in Grantville, so there aren’t many residents in Grantville. Mostly, there are stores, offices and lots of industrial space in a roughly 1,000-acre area near communities of single-family homes like Allied Gardens and San Carlos.

But it’s also got its own trolley station, one down from San Diego State and two from Qualcomm Stadium. It’s bound by the San Diego River on the west, and is home to a hospital.

San Diego city planners see an opportunity. Grantville is now the subject of a “focused community plan amendment”— a city-led attempt to change development restrictions in a specific area without rewriting the entire plan for the Navajo Community, which includes Grantville, San Carlos, Allied Gardens and Del Cerro. It’s the same type of plan the city’s pursuing along Morena Boulevard, where initial ideas to increase residential building quickly ignited a neighborhood battle.

In both cases, the city is trying to get developers to build the sort of walkable, urban neighborhoods connected to transit that are envisioned in San Diego’s citywide plan, dubbed “City of Villages.” It’s an attempt to build enough housing to bring prices down, and to shift residents to a less car-dependent lifestyle.

If recent history is a guide, Grantville’s neighboring communities will soon be lining up to say thanks, but no thanks. Probably less politely than that.

It’s already becoming a pattern: City leaders and developers push for a certain type of building, and residents say they want their neighborhood to stay the same, or at least not change quite so much.

It happened in Bay Park, but also in Rolando, Carmel Valley and even in Uptown. Except downtown, residents are quick to say they don’t want more density coming to their neighborhood.

New Plan Same as the Old Plan

The new plan for Grantville would allow developers to build more than 8,000 new homes in what’s now an industrial area. The whole community would be remapped to create high-density areas near the trolley station, with shops, homes and offices to create a community where people can live and work and take care of errands all in one place.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

That 8,000 unit projection is expected to come over a period of years, or even decades, but Planning Commissioner Anthony Wagner, a Grantville resident who has been on various community groups before former Mayor Bob Filner appointed him to the citywide planning board, thinks they could all be built almost immediately.

“I believe it’ll be a light switch,” Wagner said.

An environmental report for the project should come out this summer. Community groups and the city’s Planning Commission will get a recommendation-only vote in the fall, and the city’s lead planner hopes the City Council could make a decision by the end of the year.

“There’s this public effort to do something with this blighted area,” said

Brian Schoenfisch, the city’s lead planner for the area. “There are these two jewels in the community — the regional investment of the trolley station and the San Diego River, and the vision is when you get off the trolley, you aren’t staring at this blighted area, you’re looking at an urban village.”

But for Grantville, the plan is the culmination of a process that started back in 2005.

The city named Grantville a redevelopment area — a distinction that let the city keep new property tax revenue and exercise eminent domain to help spur urban renewal. But the County of San Diego, which would have lost out on that tax money, sued over the decision, saying Grantville was missing the fundamental component redevelopment was meant to tackle: blight. The city eventually settled.

A group of residents and businesses, the Grantville Action Group, also joined the fight. And the current plan is more or less an extension of those redevelopment efforts. That’s when folks first started talking about turning it into an “urban village.”

Brian Peterson, who owns a veterinary practice in the area and started the Grantville Action Group, has opposed attempts to change Grantville and said he’s confident his views reflect the community.

His business would be rezoned for residential development. Though rezoned properties keep their old zoning rights into the future, he’s concerned the city could eventually try to revoke that right. But mostly, he doesn’t think there’s much need for the plan, nor is there appetite for it from the community at large.

“I work here. In general, they’re not for it,” he said. “You have to look at the grassroots as the thousands of nearby residents, who are opposed to (thousands) of homes in Grantville, remaking it into residential. That’s been the situation here ever since they proposed redevelopment.”

The city’s planning department has a much different view.

To Schoenfisch, what sets this proposal apart from similar attempts to increase density in the city is the fact that it came from the community.

“It’s actually a community-driven effort at the grassroots level,” he said. “The community desired this project, brought this to the city and we partnered with them. So this really is coming from them to us.”

The city formed a stakeholder committee of community members after starting the planning process, ostensibly to deal with exactly this issue. That committee, and eventually the Navajo Community Planners, which represents Grantville and other neighborhoods, would stand in as a proxy for local sentiment.

In January 2011, the committee voted 13-4 in support of the current proposal, the one to allow 8,000 new homes and the urban village concept. It reiterated its support last September.

But Peterson said the community that initiated the project, and the people on the stakeholder committee, are really people who own lots of property in the area and serve to benefit if those properties can suddenly be developed into large-scale projects.

In fact, Peterson said the way the stakeholder committee was selected almost ensured that was the case. Its first set of members was chosen by lottery, but every address a person owned got them another entry. Own more property, you’ve got more chances to get on the committee.

“This thing is stacked with people that somehow are going to benefit from the development here directly,” Peterson said.

Dan Smith is one of those committee members. He owns a handful of properties in the area, including one that’s set to get bisected by a new road to help alleviate traffic from all the new residents.

“I think the community has finally studied the issue, and learned this can be something good not just for the city as a whole, but for our community,” he said. “There always does seem to be people who realize they can stall something by bringing up old issues that need to be studied. You get an 80-page document, and they say, ‘What about bullet point three on page 78?’ It’s a great technique. If you stall, you win.”

He shrugged off the suggestion that he had a lot to gain financially. “I’m already rich,” he said. “I think the day of the word ‘developer’ being dirty is over.”

Getting a Piece

One other thing the city would do if it approved Grantville’s new development plan is change the entire Navajo community’s blueprint for future public facility upgrades.

That means not just updating its project wish list, but also raising the fees developers will pay to build in the area. Those fees are used to pay for a portion of the community’s wish list, technically called its Public Facilities Financing Plan. Communities update these plans when they update their growth blueprints; but while the plan here only changes zoning and development restrictions in Grantville, it’ll update the facilities wish list for all of Navajo.

Right now, development fees in the area are around $6,000 per unit. The Mid-City community recently raised the fees it charges, from less than $3,000 per unit to almost $12,000. Assuming Navajo gets its per-unit fee up at least that high, it could mean over $140 million in public-facility upgrades over the coming decades, if the maximum proposed development actually comes to fruition. (In addition to the 8,000 units planned for the Grantville plan area, there are another 5,000 units that could be built in three other developments nearby. At $11,000 apiece, you’re looking at $143 million.) For Wagner, getting the most for the community out of the new development is a priority.

“The people in my community that have had the bully pulpit have created unrealistic expectations, and conditioned people to believe that if we are up in arms enough, we can stop this,” he said. “With the last five or six projects, we haven’t been successful with a no-build mentality.”

One of those was an affordable senior housing project in Allied Gardens that the City Council approved despite loud local opposition. Others include The Centrepointe at Grantville, which is technically in the new plan area, and Arch Rock at Mission Gorge, Shawnee at Riverbend Mission Gorge and a potential project at the current site of a concrete yard, the three nearby projects that help get Wagner to his $140 million public infrastructure expectation.

“I think the biggest issue from my community, what you hear the most, is traffic,” he said. “They know what they don’t like, and they’ll keep saying they don’t like it until someone can reshape it around community benefit. And development fees, used responsibly, that will benefit the community.”

This piece first appeared in Voice of San Diego Quarterly.

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