City planners saw opportunity in Logan Heights.
Just east of downtown, the trolley hits two stops along Commercial Street, but its tracks are surrounded by auto-wrecking plants, scrap metal yards and recycling stations. Bumpers and hoods of dismantled cars peer above fences and loom over homes either separated by an alley or tucked haphazardly between two warehouses.
The tracks that used to carry freight now carry people. But the neighborhood doesn’t reflect that change.
Right next to downtown and already home to transit, it has all the ingredients of the type of urban development on which city planners have pinned San Diego’s future. And unlike other parts of town, residents there aren’t fiercely opposed to all new development. If the city can’t execute its vision for an urban future here, the prospects elsewhere are bleak.
Now, a new plan for the area is finished and the eastern portion of Commercial Street is set to remain a place for industrial businesses, not people.
That decision has surprised the City Councilman for the area and could be another setback in the city’s vision for an urban future.
There’s still time to change it but the planning process has also revealed a new type of community concern for the city’s smart growth efforts. Most neighborhoods wary of density fear what else it would bring – traffic, new people, crime. Southeastern residents fear the opposite: that with new projects, they’ll get pushed out.
A Bit of a Surprise
The planning department last year unveiled plans to allow development of something of an urban village around two transit stations on Morena Boulevard in Bay Park, making way for a planned trolley extension. Residents there revolted .
In Grantville, the city is likewise looking at a predominantly industrial area and trying to reshape it into an urban village, to better capitalize on the area’s trolley stop. It too faces neighborhood opposition.
That’s not quite happening here. Logan Heights residents welcome density, to a point, but the city isn’t pushing it around one of the area’s two trolley stations.
Remaking this stretch of the city was a priority when city planners started  updating the community plan that covers the area, which includes Sherman Heights, Logan Heights, Grant Hill and Stockton.
Councilman David Alvarez, who represents the area, was caught off guard when he saw the final draft city planners had written for the community.
He had stayed out of the process early on, not wanting to interfere, but assumed the entire Commercial Street corridor would be pegged for development built around transit.
“These communities are looking for development because they’ve been sitting next to vacant lots for decades and they welcome something that’s positive, that looks good and is good quality, and that’s what we expect,” Alvarez said.
The area surrounding the 25th Street station is getting that treatment, anchored by the new Comm22, a project on 22nd Street with stores on the ground floor and 200 homes reserved for low-income residents.
“That idea sort of stops at 28th Street,” Alvarez said.
From 28th Street to the trolley stop at 32nd Street, Commercial Street is slated to keep its industrial businesses.
Alvarez’s office compares the stretch to Little Italy’s India Street in the 1970s, except this has a trolley line. It’s a logical place for community-focused development. The trolley’s a major investment. And the industrial businesses employ few people and aren’t great for neighbors.
“The future of the city is along trolley lines, and that’s the only way to get appropriate density, to get people moving to and from employment centers,” Alvarez said. “That all makes sense, and that’s the way we should be going as a city.”
Lara Gates, the lead planner for the area, said meetings with the community led to keeping the industrial corridor.
The city has made a change. The area will be restricted to “light industrial” activities, things like research and development or general storage.
“Over the life of the plan, we envision the uses would become less intense and more compatible with the surrounding community,” Gates said.
There’s also one parcel, east of the 32nd station, where the plan will allow mixed-use development.
Local attorney Andrea Carter was on the community planning board when it was going over the issue.
Vocal property owners in the area pushed to keep it industrial, she said, and emphasized that the 25th Street station was already going to be a mixed-use transit hub.
“In the spirit of compromise, that got left in,” Carter said.
Not Settled Yet
There’s now a push by some property owners on Commercial Street for the city to reconsider the decision.
Gene Myers, one of those property owners, is leading the charge. He’s collected a list of property owners who agree with him, to show there are as many or more of them who want to do away with the industrial area.
These are people the city hadn’t heard from earlier, Alvarez said, and it’s time for them to speak up.
The proposed plan specifies that “the highest intensity development” should happen right around the trolley stops. Myers says it’s as simple as following the plan’s own policies.
Especially, he said, considering the stark contrast between a request for density, and the outright opposition the city has received elsewhere.
“Why not take the path of least resistance to achieving some modicum of success in increasing the inventory of affordable housing in San Diego, particularly when this type of redevelopment is being requested by us property owners?” he wrote, in an email to Gates.
The city could still reconsider.
The plan is currently under environmental review. Allowing dense, mixed-use development in the corridor is being studied as an alternative. That means the City Council could elect to vote for a plan that undoes the industrial uses in the area.
When the environmental review is finished, city planners will hold a community meeting to fully discuss the possibility.
“This is very much in flux,” Alvarez said.
The city’s urban vision has been sidetracked in other neighborhoods by blanket resistance to increased density.
Southeastern residents had some similar concerns, mostly around building heights, which the plan caps at six stories.
Mostly, though, their concerns are replaced by a fear of being pushed out.
Residents aren’t attached to the bleak industrial area that splits their community, Carter said.
But they do fear what could happen if it’s removed.
“People are concerned about improvements happening, which they want, but then the neighborhood would be improved in a way that will increase property values, and then rents, and then displace them as a result,” she said.
The scrap metal lots and the heaps of car carcasses are the devil they know.
“That’s the reality no one is willing to address,” Carter said. “People feel it’s better to live with run-down, polluting industries, than to be displaced to Spring Valley. People who are struggling financially will tolerate any living arrangement if the price is right.”
And the city has little in the way of an alternative, Carter said.
“The city has a terrible track record with affordable housing,” she said. “The city’s only solution to develop high-density housing, and then have a small percentage be affordable.”
She’d prefer some additional options, like land trusts that secure the long-term tenancy of current residents.
The new plan for the community, even with Commercial Street remaining an industrial area, will add about 3,000 new homes to the community. That’s a 20 percent increase over the 15,000 homes already there.
Gates said Comm22 should be a model of new development for the area.
The first 200 homes there were reserved for low-income residents, who are placed in the home after sitting on a years-long waiting list. There will eventually be another 50 homes anyone could buy or rent, and there’s also 25,000 square feet of office and retail space, plus an outdoor plaza area.
Gates also hopes incentives that allow developers to build more homes on a property or provide less parking if they include low-income housing will help drive development decisions.
To Alvarez, the city still has a chance to make sure projects like Comm22 reach all the way to the eastern edge of the community.
“High-quality housing is a good thing for everybody,” he said. “There’s more to be discussed on what naturally should be a transit-development corridor.”