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The Obstacles to — and Opportunities for — Transit-Oriented Development in San Diego

Neighbors often oppose new development, but San Diego still has plenty of options. Many areas near trolley stations zoned for industrial businesses are ripe for the sort of dense projects the city says it wants.

The trolley runs along Commercial Street in Logan Heights. / Photo by Dustin Michelson

Transforming transportation in a sprawling Sunbelt city like San Diego can’t be accomplished simply by building high-quality public transit. Too much of the city lives in neighborhoods of single-family homes where even great transit just isn’t viable.

This is the simple premise behind transit-oriented development, or building dense apartments and mixed-use neighborhoods near transit stations; most San Diegans live in single-family homes, and to make transit truly viable, you need new development instead to take the form of dense, urban buildings.

The idea is at the center of most of the city and region’s planning documents, and San Diego has done it successfully in Little Italy, but less successfully elsewhere.

The good news for San Diego is that it still has plenty of low-hanging fruit. Many areas near trolley stations zoned for industrial businesses are ripe for transit-oriented redesigns.

The city has pursued some of these opportunities to varying degrees. It dramatically increased the housing that could be built in the industrial area near the Grantville trolley station, and pursued a more modest version of a similar plan along the Orange Line in Logan Heights and Memorial. Facing opposition, it abandoned a plan to make it easier to build in Bay Park, but is still trying its hand one stop south in Linda Vista.

But there are dozens of trolley stops elsewhere in the region, each an opportunity for new development. A 2015 report found San Diego had in fact done worse than every other metropolitan area in the state at spurring development near rail stations.

So why aren’t the region’s trolley stops ringed with clusters of retail and apartment buildings?

San Diego’s biggest barrier to transit-oriented development is topographic: The trolley lines follow preexisting rights-of-way, rather than cutting through the densest and most in-demand areas.

The Green Line, for instance, runs in a valley — Mission Valley — with steep uphill climbs to neighborhoods on both its north and south, making it difficult to access relatively close areas. There are mid-rise developments in the trolley’s vicinity, and it’s somewhat easy for people who live there to take the trolley downtown for work, but they’re still likely to drive to nearby big box stores when they shop.

A successful transit-oriented neighborhood needs more than a couple apartment buildings fronting a train station. It needs supermarkets, hardware stores, clothing stores, and other neighborhood amenities within comfortable walking distance. Mission Valley has many of these amenities, but they’re in shopping malls surrounded by asphalt and linked by wide roads with fast-moving traffic.

In its older neighborhoods, San Diego has attempted to support transit-oriented development. However, most of those areas aren’t on the trolley system, and lack truly high-quality bus service. On University Avenue, the city reduced parking requirements and allowed higher density development, both of which are good moves to spur dense development. But the public transit there is a typical bus, and a slightly improved bus on El Cajon Boulevard doesn’t meet international standards for so-called bus rapid transit — an attempt to provide trolley-level service through a bus line.

That means, despite the tweaked development standards, new residents still need to drive, and developers will accommodate them by building parking above the legal minimum.

The city is updating development plans in other neighborhoods, too. It’s pursuing new community plans in Clairemont, Mission Valley, Kearny Mesa and the Midway area. All of these neighborhoods are developed as traditional suburban areas, and their clearest opportunities for redevelopment are currently filled with big box retail stores. But redeveloping big box stores into walkable retail, even if they’re near train stations, is a difficult task.

But there are a few areas where the city can easily do better.

There are existing trolley stations in older areas — home to traditional street grids — that still have too much parking and not enough housing density.

The best comparison for San Diego as a city is Vancouver. The two regions are of similar size, are in constrained coastal locations and have had fast population growth since the end of World War II.

Vancouver, though, has aggressively sought transit-oriented development both downtown and at many outlying stations. San Diego hasn’t.

The result has been significant. In metro Vancouver, 20 percent of commuters use public transit, higher than in any American metro area except New York. In San Diego County, just 3 percent of residents commute by transit. Here is a comparison between train stations five miles out of downtown in both cities:

Brendan Dawe, of the pro-growth group Abundant Housing Vancouver, said that prior to redevelopment, Vancouver’s current transit-oriented development sites were mostly a mix of low-rise apartment buildings, factories, run-down department stores and some retail spots along arterial roads.

The area around the Joyce neighborhood, for instance, was industrial, featuring mostly warehouses.

Even in Vancouver, upzoning single-family residential areas controversial, and therefore rare.

The San Diego region still has plenty of these industrial opportunities. Along the existing blue line in both the South Bay and between downtown and Old Town, along the Mid-Coast trolley extention, on the orange line on Massachusets Avenue, in Lemon Grove and up to El Cajon, and along the green line east of SDSU, regional planners could build better transit-oriented areas.

Best of all, these areas should not face NIMBY opposition, because the community consists of warehouse and factory owners with low profit margins, rather than homeowners personally attached to the neighborhood character.

This is why the Environmental Protection Agency lumps these transit-oriented development types together as brownfield development. There is only one downtown, but there are many outlying sites like Grantville that could be turned into San Diego’s answer to Vancouver’s Joyce.

San Diego’s best example of industrial rezoning so far is in Grantville. In 2015, the city voted to rezone the area to permit residential development, adding room for 8,000 housing units while expanding a park. Nearby residents opposed the plan, but industrial owners were happy to see their property values increase.

The upcoming Mid-Coast extension offers a new opportunity for transit-oriented development. The Balboa Avenue site, the future connection point between the extension and buses going west to Pacific Beach, is surrounded by industrial and empty lots. With the arrival of the Blue Line, the city could transform them into mid-rise residential and commercial development. There is some space farther north, at the connection to buses to La Jolla. At UCSD, there’s also the potential to expand the university, adding housing near campus as well as work space, such as new labs.

Pacific Beach and La Jolla are both wealthy areas, with high housing prices. Adding more housing there would help relieve the region’s housing crunch. But homeowners are likely to successfully resist upzoning, in which case the city should instead look for less controversial rezonings near the future stations.

San Diego can implement transit-oriented development in new areas and will get even more opportunities to do so when the Mid-Coast extension opens. It already has good public transit bones with its trolley system; what it needs now is to make it easier for people who’d like to give up their car and take the train to live near trolley stations.

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