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North Park Presents a Big Test for City's Climate Action Plan

• Some residents are angry that North Park's new community plan is increasing density at all. Others think it’s on the right track, but still has glaring weaknesses.

• City planners have spent seven years and more than $3.1 million writing a new blueprint for the community, in hopes it’ll let many more people live there.

When San Diego basked in national fanfare last month by pledging to cut its greenhouse gases in half over the next 20 years, it was committing to make more places like North Park: dense neighborhoods where taking the bus to work or walking to dinner are reasonable options.

But even as the neighborhood has become a sort-of template for city planners – a place with homes reserved for low-income residents, mid-rises with craft beer bars on the ground floor and multiple bus lines with frequent service – it’s still facing some of the usual tensions as it tries to map out its next 20 years.

The dispute is a reminder for the city that cutting greenhouse emissions in half is harder than simply announcing it wants to.

City planners have spent seven years and more than $3.1 million writing a new blueprint for the community, in hopes it’ll let many more people live there. To make good on the city’s climate promise, and to make way for more affordable housing options in desirable, safe communities, the city’s trying to increase development in North Park.

The city released initial plans in the summer to widespread dissatisfaction. Planners began rewriting certain sections, and released those just before the end of the year. They hope to get an environmental review of the plan done this spring, and to get the final plan approved by the end of the year.

The city presented its new outline to the North Park community planning group this week. Though the group took a vote supporting the plan’s general direction, there’s still a lot of dissent.

Some residents are angry that the plan is increasing density at all. Others think it’s on the right track, but still has glaring weaknesses. And still others think the changes simply won’t deliver the results planners are hoping for.

The New Plan for North Park

The city has been trying for years to update community plans – blueprints that guide new development – all across the city.

City leadership has pledged to accommodate population growth by building homes in dense urban neighborhoods, close to job opportunities and connected by transit.

But North Park is seen as one part of the city that’s more receptive to welcoming that growth. It already has the pedestrian-friendly vibe planners are going for. It’s close to downtown and has frequent bus service, including a new $44 million line connecting SDSU to downtown, along El Cajon Boulevard.

The thinking is that North Park won’t feel the strain from a bunch of new residents. It’s equipped to deal with it.

The city’s first crack at a new plan, though, didn’t really make it easier for developers to build new projects. They didn’t change much at all, actually.

“We had a come to Jesus meeting with city staff,” said Vicki Granowitz, chair of the North Park planning group.

The community and city staff started redrafting the plans this fall.

The biggest change the city made was to give developers permission to build more homes on El Cajon Boulevard and Park Boulevard, along the route of the new Bus Rapid Transit line.

Lara Gates, the city’s lead planner for the area, said they made the change in response to the new climate plan, and because North Park can handle the growth.

“We have significant street widths on that corridor, so accommodating density in these areas makes a lot of sense,” she said.

The new plan would increase the potential housing density on the route by about 40 percent. It would make way for mid-rise complexes common in East Village and Little Italy, with a ground floor of shops or restaurants and around eight stories of apartments above.

“One of our main goals was always to preserve single-family areas; that means you need new housing density to go on transportation corridors,” Granowitz said.

Any developer who wants to take advantage of the change, though, will still need to get a project approved by the Planning Commission, an appointed board with some authority over planning and development. They’ll also have to bring the project back to be reviewed by the community group.

Normally, projects that comply with a community plan get approved by a city staffer who just makes sure everything in fact fits necessary restrictions.

“If developers want density they have to work with the community, and that doesn’t occur now,” Granowitz said.

But going all the way to the Planning Commission takes time, and adds risk.

Some developers, especially the smaller ones with shallower pockets, will simply choose not to enter into a time-consuming, uncertain and political process, and instead will keep building at the existing lower density, said Howard Blackson, an urban designer and member of the North Park planning group.

“We’ve made a symbolic gesture to the BRT investment,” he said.

Other developers active in the area agreed that making it harder to get projects approved just makes it harder to make the climate plan’s goals a reality.

“If the goal is to develop to the densities they have described, then adding another layer of review doesn’t achieve that goal,” said Andrew Malick, a smaller developer who has built multiple projects in North Park.

“To really accomplish the Climate Action Plan goals, and to provide the growth the region needs, staying in neutral isn’t good enough,” said Dave Gatzke, a developer with Community Housing Works, which is building an affordable housing project on El Cajon Boulevard.

The Rest of North Park

It’s hard to find people in North Park who like so-called “Huffman six-packs.”

Named after their developer, the drab mini-apartment complexes of six to 10 units, jammed into single-family lots in the 1960s and 1970s with parking lots between the buildings and the sidewalks, are absolutely everywhere in midtown.

City planners are hoping North Park’s new plan can help get rid of them.

In the residential area between El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue, developers can build more homes on a property than what’s allowed today if they’re replacing a Huffman.

“We’re trying to incentivize having that redeveloped,” Gates said.

Doing so would accomplish a lot of goals. For one, it would get rid of a type of housing that people detest. It would replace it with new multi-family housing that’s more pedestrian-friendly. And it would increase the number of homes in an area that’s still close to the all-important transit corridors.

Here’s the catch: Once again, developers need to go all the way to the Planning Commission to get the projects approved.

Still, Gatzke said the market conditions right now would make it hard for someone who owned a Huffman to want to redevelop it. To get to the point that a property owner would consider tearing down a Huffman and starting from scratch, and still make money, you’d have to let them build around six times the number of homes currently allowed, he estimated.

“It’s not going to work,” he said.

“They are asking the right questions,” Malick said. “There isn’t a financial situation in the near future where it would be worth it, in my opinion, but I like their thinking.”

A Concession on 30th Street

The city’s new plan also leaves one major corridor almost completely untouched: 30th Street, south of North Park Way.

Angela Landsberg, executive director of the business group North Park Main Street, said she’d like to see the city make changes that would make it easier to build more two- or three-story buildings with apartments on the top floors and ground floor retail along 30th Street. She sees the low level of development on the stretch of 30th street as a missed opportunity.

“I think the plan is on the right track,” she said. “I was happy to see some of the other density increases, but I don’t think we should stop there.”

Others in the community are pushing for the same thing.

There’s also a group opposed to any changes in the area that says it’s ready to protest if the city changes course.

Don Leichtling is founder of the North Park Residential Improvement District, and fought previous attempts to increase zoning in the area with his previous group, North Park Action Group, or NAG, as he calls it.

North Park has done its share, he says. It built as many or more affordable housing projects as any other community. It’s taken on plenty of density. Now it’s time for other communities to do their share.

“The idea that North Park needs to provide more housing, because everyone is dying to move to North Park, that might be true,” he said. “But I’d also love to move to Rancho Santa Fe, and they aren’t building there. So why do I need to do it? Just because it’s good for a developer’s bottom line to build in North Park, doesn’t mean it’s good for North Park.”

He blames the neighborhood’s businesses for pushing for the growth as a bid to create new customers.

“The people I talk to, who aren’t business owners, they think North Park is dense enough,” he said.

Leichtling said he emails a private group of between 100 and 300 recipients, rallying opposition to density increases in his part of North Park. He doesn’t like any of the changes planners are proposing, but his line in the sand is density increases south of North Park Way.

In his emails, he frequently tells residents that restricting new development would be a good way to increase their own property values. He’s not bashful that it’s part of his motivation.

“If they did nothing to North Park for 10 years, in my area, our property values would go up – to be conservative, I always say 30 percent. At least. But it’s probably 75 percent,” he said.

For now, he said he’s just watching to make sure the city doesn’t make any changes in his part of North Park.

“If it’s not conducive to what we say is good, we need to start mobilizing,” he said. “If we can get a lot of people to say ‘no,’ the city will get uncomfortable and they’ll back down.”

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