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The Next Climate Action Plan Challenge: How to Measure Whether It’s Working

First San Diego and Mayor Kevin Faulconer basked in the afterglow of national attention for the city’s commitment to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2035.

Now comes the hard part.

To achieve that goal, the city has to persuade people to bike, walk or take transit to their jobs. And to do that, neighborhoods have to be the kind of villages that sustain transit with more dense housing.

But new community plans are coming from two of the areas most likely to be able to handle this type of growth. But right now the city has no way of measuring whether those plans – for Uptown and North Park – will help it hit its goal.

That’s a problem, since the climate goals aren’t just aspirational; they are the law and can be subject to litigation if they aren’t met.

The growth plans for North Park and Uptown, though, are going forward now and will affect the way the neighborhoods change for decades to come.

Faulconer is set to take the first steps to address this when he proposes a budget for the city within the next week. It is expected to include a pot of money to pay city workers to figure out how the city can reach its goal. He is also set to release a plan that will outline how the city will measure its progress, and dictate which policies and actions need to be taken, and when, to meet the climate plan’s benchmarks.

And yet, city planners have already mostly completed community plans for Uptown and North Park.

Ten percent of the plan’s greenhouse emissions cuts from local actions come from making good on that promise about changing the way people get to work. Whether that’s possible will come down to the city adopting community plans that align with its big-picture climate goals.

“This is ground zero for the Climate Action Plan discussion,” said Leo Wilson, who runs the Uptown Planners, a community group working with the city to update its community plan.

The mayor’s critics say the city needs to act now to make sure that’s happening.

“If we were serious when we adopted the Climate Action Plan, then the mayor needs to bring forward community plans that are consistent with those goals,” said Councilman David Alvarez, who formed a volunteer working group to assist in implementing the plan. “This is the law. This is what you committed to. You can’t weasel your way out of it at this point.”

Ground Zero for the Climate Plan

City planning staff has invoked the Climate Action Plan when selling Uptown and North Park on its new land-use regulations.

Increased housing density near transportation corridors is necessary, they’ve told the community, because it’s the only way to meet the city’s climate goals.

But the community has had a natural reaction. Where’s the proof? How much do we need to increase density? How many new bike lanes do we need? How much must we increase bus service? Does this plan guarantee we’ve done enough?

“They’re as much at a loss on this as we are,” Wilson said.

Nicole Capretz, who helped write the city’s climate plan when she was a city staffer, is pushing for a fix that she says should be included in the mayor’s implementation plan. She says the city needs to go to the San Diego Association of Governments, and get them to build a statistical model to answer those questions.

That model should provide a roadmap for how many new homes, sidewalk improvements, bike lanes or improved transit stations need to be built in a given area to give the city a real chance at changing residents’ commuting decisions.

“Otherwise it’s just a mish-mash, and a hope that we’ve done enough,” she said.

Capretz said her conversations with the mayor’s office lead her to believe they’re on the same page.

Alvarez said the group he convened to assist the city in implementing the plan – a group of environmentalists , business leaders, planners, developers and others – quickly determined that land-use decisions will determine whether the city succeeds in shifting how residents commute.

He hopes the city begins measuring how many new units it’s permitting in those transit priority areas.

“We need to have performance metrics that tell us if we’re falling short,” he said.

The group likewise determined the city should build a basic Climate Action Plan check-list that all new community plans need to satisfy before they can be adopted.

“The mayor’s office said they’re thinking of something conceptually along the same lines,” said group member Colin Parent, policy counsel for transportation advocacy group Circulate San Diego.

Faulconer’s office declined to comment. It said the implementation plan will be released soon and it would discuss it then.

But writing community plans takes time [1] and money. Substantially rewriting the North Park or Uptown community plans, if they can’t pass a new climate-plan criteria, would mean further delay for plans that have been in the works since 2008.

New Plans, Same Old Measures

The city has already opted against changing its community plans in a way that would be more in line with the climate plan’s vision.

Right now, most cities follow state regulations and measure the effect of new development by looking at the traffic congestion it will create. The state is slowly changing that regulation so cities would instead measure the total miles of driving development creates.

The shift is considered a way to incentivize dense, urban development and discourage sprawling single-family development – the same priority the city adopted in its general plan for long-term growth and in the climate action plan.

Some cities are acting ahead of the state. For instance, San Francisco’s planning commission last month [2] said the city would start making the change

But San Diego’s new community plans still rely on the old standard.

“The city right now is very intent on waiting on the state,” Capretz said.

The Climate Action Plan itself embraces a focus on total miles of driving, not congestion. One of its main goals is to reduce the average commute among those living near transit by an average of two miles. Of all the greenhouse reductions foreseen by the climate plan, roughly 4 percent comes from reducing vehicle miles traveled.

Based on the climate plan, Parent said, North Park and Uptown and any other new community plans should focus on reducing driving, not traffic congestion.

“The reason they’re not doing it is a variety of things, probably mostly a hesitancy to do new things and move away from what’s familiar,” he said.

Getting it Right

There’s a cautious optimism that the city’s taking the necessary steps to make good on its headline-grabbing goals.

“The day in April when we see an implementation plan, it might be magic,” Capretz said.

Councilman Chris Cate’s district is about to be home to two communities updating their long-term growth plans, Kearny Mesa and Clairemont Mesa.

He said he’s asked city staff how it knows new land-use plans are consistent with the city’s broad climate goals, and was satisfied with the response.

“At the end of the day, you’re trying to forecast the behavior of residents – whether given certain changes they’ll consider riding a bike to work or whatever else,” he said. “That’s hard, which is why I need to know how we measure progress. I do not think there is a magic number that tells us, if you get ‘X’ density, we get this many people taking transit.”

Elected officials and city staff know what they signed up for, Cate said. They approved the plan because they’re committed to making it reality.

The task now, he said, is communicating to residents what the plan means for them.

“There will be those who don’t support growth, or density, in their community,” Cate said. “That’s fine – but I don’t want them in a position where they don’t know what’s coming. It’s about communication with the public more than anything else.”