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New SANDAG Policy Leaves Transit Advocates Wanting More

Transit advocates hoped a new policy SANDAG has been working on since 2013 would compel cities to plan for more homes and jobs around public transit stops. It’s yet another example of the difference between laying out aspirations for smart growth and ensuring those goals come to fruition.

Transit advocates hoped a new policy the regional planning agency SANDAG has been working on since 2013 would compel or at least entice cities to plan for more homes and jobs around public transit stops.

The plan’s set to go before SANDAG’s board later this month, and transit advocates have been left wanting more.

The document going forward is essentially a handbook for how cities should handle transit-focused planning. Back when SANDAG agreed to draw it up in 2011, the hope was for the plan to at least provide financial incentives for cities that pursued dense development near transit stations, even if it SANDAG can’t actually force cities to promote that type of planning.

It’s yet another example of the difference between laying out aspirations – as San Diego County and the city of San Diego have both done in long-term growth plans – and ensuring those goals come to fruition.

One of the groups that wanted SANDAG to develop the Regional Transit Oriented Development Strategy transit advocate Circulate San Diego, said the agency misled them. SANDAG agreed to write the policy in 2011 as a condition for transit groups supporting the agency’s long-term transportation plan.

SANDAG representatives said they’re simply respecting their role in the planning process, which gives individual cities autonomy on land use and planning decisions. A much more forceful plan that would have compelled cities to plan for smart growth – like one that’s been adopted in the Bay Area – would have to be embraced by politicians who lead SANDAG.

The plan is going before two SANDAG committees this week and the entire board before the end of the month. It’ll then become part of the agency’s new long-term transportation plan, which needs to be approved this fall.

Circulate San Diego wrote two recent letters to the agency challenging it to use the plan as an opportunity to encourage cities to build transit-friendly developments, rather than just give them a list of principles and ideas.

The organization is concerned SANDAG wrote the new strategy in bad faith.

One of the reasons the organizations that later merged to become Circulate had agreed to support the 2011 plan in the first place was because of the promise it would produce action.

“SANDAG’s draft ‘TOD Strategy’ contains no actual policy changes,” wrote Colin Parent, the organization’s policy counsel, in a letter to SANDAG. “Instead, the document outlines only areas of policy that SANDAG proposes to ‘continue,’ and areas of potential policy updates that SANDAG proposes to ‘consider’ at unspecified future times.”

At a subsequent meeting of a group convened to discuss the plan, Del Mar’s planning director, Kathleen Garcia, echoed some of Parent’s concerns. The words “consider” and “continue” made it seem everything was fine, she said, instead of instilling urgency for new development near transit.

A new draft struck those words from the plan’s 13 recommended strategies. The new version includes the same suggestions, but with different verbs.

“My concern was that it was important to recognize that we were doing some things that were good and on the right track, but we also should have a step up from that,” Garcia said.

At that meeting, Ed Batchelder, planning director for Chula Vista, also asked that the policy establish a criteria to evaluate how primed different areas are for transit-focused projects.

That’s been added to the most recent draft of the plan among a list of eight “early actions” for the agency to pursue once the plan’s adopted. But, again, they’re mostly soft directives, like one that says SANDAG should “consider” focusing capital improvement spending in districts developing in a transit-friendly way.

Parent acknowledged that the policy is moving in the right direction, but said there’s room for SANDAG to do more.

He’d like to see the plan increase the amount of money SANDAG can give to cities to help them rewrite plans that would allow for more dense development near transit.

Since his proposal would mean encouraging cities to pursue these transit-focused projects – rather than mandating it – it wouldn’t overstep SANDAG’s authority, Parent said.

“SANDAG can help cities make the decisions that the cities themselves want to make,” Parent said. “But the cities need help to make those projects a reality. SANDAG can empower cities, without imposing on them.”

Cities have run into trouble recently when it comes to coordinating their development regulations with regional transit investments.

In Bay Park, for instance, San Diego last year tried to increase the number of homes and the height of buildings developers could build near two new stations on the planned trolley extension from Old Town to University City.

But nearby residents organized quickly and forcefully against the proposal, and the city has abandoned it entirely. Meanwhile, the trolley extension is still proposed, and the new stations will go in without major increases to allowed development in the area.

Charles Stoll, director of land use and transportation planning for SANDAG, said the new principles and criteria defined in the plan could eventually be incorporated into existing agency programs that give cities grant money to plan for transit-related growth and active transportation projects.

Actually making the plan’s principles part of those decisions, however, would take an additional vote of SANDAG’s board at some point in the future.

“Next time we use those grant programs, can we do something with this criteria to better reward projects doing these things,” Stoll said. “We are trying to be respectful of land-use authorities and their responsibilities.”

When it’s all finished, SANDAG will have spent $444,809 writing the new strategy for transit-focused development. AECOM, a large land-use consultant in town that’s also preparing an environmental report for the city’s attempts to build a new football stadium, has a contract for $304,346 as the primary consultant on the project.

The Bay Area’s regional planning agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Committee, has taken a more heavy-handed approach. Its policy to encourage transit-oriented development establishes specific thresholds for housing that either exists or is allowed to be developed that an area has to meet if it’s to receive certain types of transit investment.

Stoll said a policy like that would be a departure from the agency’s current approach, and would need to come from the board.

“That’s not something we’ve ever considered in our region,” he said. “Looking at ways to encourage land-use around transit is the way we’re trying to focus our efforts.”

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