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What to Watch for: A San Diego Urbanist’s Guide to 2016

In 2016, a handful of transportation and planning projects and development trends will serve as an early test of city leaders’ commitment to breaking from San Diego’s sprawling, car-centric origins.

This time, San Diego insists, it’s serious. The city is ready to become a city.

San Diego late this year committed itself, under penalty of an environmental lawsuit, to slash its carbon footprint over the next 20 years. Doing so means breaking from its sprawling, car-centric origins.

That means putting more homes, jobs and destinations near downtown or surrounded by transit.

City officials have been here before, and failed to keep their word. In 2016, a handful of transportation and planning projects and development trends will serve as an early test of their resolve.

The Future of the Urban Core

Where San Diego has failed, North Park has thrived. It and other urban neighborhoods near downtown have become the walkable areas city leaders have said hold the city’s future.

Now, the city is drawing up new long-term development regulations for the neighborhoods in North Park, Uptown and Golden Hill. But that process has been a mess so far. It’s taken nearly eight years and more than $3 million to get to this point.

Whether the plans in Golden Hill, North Park and Uptown do enough to boost the city’s own stated objectives will be among the biggest issues in 2016.

“That’ll be a real test of whether the mayor’s administration and City Council are willing to implement the Climate Action Plan,” said Colin Parent, policy counsel for transportation advocacy group Circulate San Diego.

The promise of these updated regulations is that they’ll smooth the development process. Once the city, developers and residents sort out the details, developers know what they’re allowed to build and can do so easily, and residents know what to expect.

That’s the idea, anyway.

In practice, people still have major disagreements, and rank-and-file city planners are tentative to settle them.

Early rumbles in the development community suggest the plans not only don’t increase development opportunities much – if at all—but that they could even hurt the market conditions that make it an attractive place to build.

“That would be really problematic,” Parent said.

Expect that discussion to ramp up early in 2016. The city accepted public feedback on the plans through December.

Advocates for the city’s climate plan – a guide to cut citywide emissions – question whether the updated community plans and others making their way through the city do enough to reach their goals. Not only because of questions about new development potential in the plan, but because they don’t make major changes to the city’s traffic patterns.

For instance, a rapid bus line through North Park famously does not have a bus-only lane on El Cajon Boulevard. Yet, the city has committed itself to more than doubling the share of residents who commute by transit. The new community plan offers a chance to improve the bus by giving it its own lane. But that’s never been part of the update’s scope.

Cranes Over Downtown

Among the most common objections to development in neighborhoods is that developers should simply set their sights on downtown. After all, isn’t that where tall buildings belong?

And there’s no shortage of downtown development right now.

Many major projects finished in 2015, such as the first phase of Pinnacle, a 45-story condo tower in East Village that come 2018 will be one of a matching pair. Together they include more than 900 homes.

Pending court approval, the largest project in downtown’s history, a $1.3 billion, seven-building plan at the Navy Broadway complex, could get under way in 2016 too.

Others are expected to be completed in 2016, like the first phase of Blue Sky, a 480-unit apartment tower on 8th Avenue near the business district. That, too, will eventually get a second phase with another 450 apartments.

Other projects are facing big decisions in 2016, such as a new tower at 7th and Market that was just part of a political face-off.

And the effort to transform the sea of warehouses surrounding City College in the long-neglected northeastern edge of East Village into a district catering to startups, young residents and downsizing baby boomers is ramping up. An office project is under construction and a complementary project of homes and retail space was just approved in the so-called Makers Quarter. The first housing and retail project in the related I.D.E.A. District is also now under construction.

“Seeing those two components finally come alive is very exciting,” said Reese Jarrett, executive director of Civic San Diego, a city-owned nonprofit that regulates downtown development.

Altogether, there’s $6.4 billion of development and 10,000 new homes planned for downtown, according to San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Roger Showley’s tally.

Jarrett also pointed to the opening of the park at Horton Plaza, a long-overdue redevelopment project, and a new transportation plan focused on downtown.

That plan will be released in January, and should go before the City Council for approval by the end of the year. It will in some ways boost city goals to discourage driving – Jarret said removing car lanes and reconfiguring parking to provide bike lanes, widened walkways and small parks are on the table.

But, like other city planning documents, it doesn’t discuss improving bus service by providing bus-only lanes.

“This is really talking about providing more exciting pedestrian experiences,” Jarrett said.

The Future of Transit

San Diego this year approved a new 40-year plan for transportation projects that includes everything from new trolley lines to new freeways. In 2016, it might even find a way to pay for it.

The regional planning agency SANDAG is running headlong into putting on the November ballot a half-cent sales tax increase that would pay for transit projects, highways, beach restoration and water projects.

SANDAG’s board voted late in 2015 to begin putting together a specific project list, the makeup of which will dictate the bill’s chances of passing. Preliminary polling showed it faces an uphill battle, but water concerns moved voters more than anything else.

To clear two-thirds voter approval, the bill needs to be sure it doesn’t have any organized, funded opposition. That in itself might be tough. Local Republicans signaled their opposition, but the bill is getting hefty pushback from environmentalists and liberals who think the problem isn’t SANDAG’s funding, but its priorities. They aren’t going to support a tax increase while existing and future revenues keep going to highway construction, they say.

“Unless we can shift that money into things that are more environmentally sound, why should we support giving them even more money?” Jack Shu, president of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, an environmental group that has sued SANDAG over its transportation plan, told me in September.

Back to Morena Boulevard

Meanwhile, the $2 billion extension of the trolley’s blue line from Old Town to UCSD faces a big year.

Half of that project’s budget is coming from local taxes, and the other half is expected to come from a federal grant for major transit projects. Final approval could come by mid-year. If that happens, major construction could begin by year-end.

As that happens, the city might return to an unsettled issue along the new trolley line’s course.

In 2014, the city rolled out plans to increase the amount of development allowed to occur at two stations on the line, one at Tecolote Road in Linda Vista and the other at Clairemont Drive in Bay Park.

Residents revolted at the proposal to increase allowable building heights and the number of homes that could be built in those locations. The city has since pledged it isn’t pursuing those options.

“It seems to me, that area is a good case for increasing density just a little bit, and intelligently,” said Lawrence Herzog, a professor of city planning at SDSU. “Look around the world, there are plenty of ways to elegantly increase density that don’t negatively impact quality of life. The idea that communities are against it automatically, that’s troubling to me.”

In 2016, the city is expected to release the changes it’s proposing to development regulations in the corridor. Among the changes should be increasing development where there’s currently a trailer park, and reconfiguring traffic on Morena Boulevard to make the road more bike-friendly.

But the city insists it is done looking at major changes that would put more jobs, homes and destinations near the two new transit stations in the community.

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