Fact Check: San Diego's Dearth of Raw Land | Voice of San Diego

Fact Check

Fact Check: San Diego's Dearth of Raw Land

Former city planning chief Bill Fulton claimed San Diego is the largest city in the U.S. to run out of raw land.

TrueStatement: “San Diego today is the largest city in the United States that has run out of raw land. Except in the largely industrial Otay Mesa area, it is simply not possible for San Diego to continue growing in this traditional way,” former San Diego planning director Bill Fulton wrote in a Jan. 3 U-T San Diego op-ed.

Determination: True

Analysis: San Diego’s in the midst of a major push-pull over the future of development.

Planners and transit advocates argue the city needs to embrace more urban development and density, and some residents resist, concerned that development could tarnish their neighborhoods.

Planning guru Bill Fulton, who was at the front lines of that debate as the city’s planning director, claimed in a recent U-T San Diego op-ed that the suburban build-out San Diego’s long embraced just won’t work anymore. There simply isn’t space for it – and that means a new development reality.

“San Diego today is the largest city in the United States that has run out of raw land,” wrote Fulton, who now leads Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “Except in the largely industrial Otay Mesa area, it is simply not possible for San Diego to continue growing in this traditional way.”

He’s mostly on point.

A 2009 analysis by the San Diego Association of Governments, the region’s planning agency, found just 5,280 acres of vacant land in San Diego, a city that spans about 342 square miles. This means only about 2 percent of city land is vacant.

At least some of that green space has been developed since that analysis, though city officials couldn’t immediately provide updated numbers.

Local real estate experts say much of that open acreage isn’t development-ready or ideal for building.

In some cases, the open plots are smaller than most developers prefer or are within protected areas where building isn’t allowed. Or they have terrain that makes construction nearly impossible.

This means increased density is a necessity “unless we are willing to go back in and fill the canyons and reclaim some of the lands we set aside for habitat,” said Russ Valone, a local real estate analyst who assisted with the 2009 SANDAG review.

That’s because the regional planning agency estimates the population of the city alone will grow by more 590,000 residents by 2050, largely due to local births.

Those new residents will need to live somewhere, and there’s not much space left for large master-planned communities, particularly in the center of the city. Planners envision more San Diegans living in multi-family buildings and closer to transit stations.

There is some green space left in Otay Mesa, though much of that’ll be for businesses. There’s also still some acreage available in northern parts of the city such as Carmel Valley, Black Mountain Ranch and Torrey Highlands.

But there’s not much, and areas like Rancho Bernardo and Rancho Peñasquitos, which were once ripe for development, aren’t anymore, Valone said.

“If you want to buy a home on a new detached lot, that is a dying breed,” Valone said. “It is a concept that is headed toward extinction.”

Fulton, of course, claimed San Diego has run out of raw land except in Otay Mesa. He later clarified in an interview that the city’s running out of green space and that much of the land that remains is in some way claimed or unviable.

His overarching point, though, is that most future growth can’t be sprawling, outside of Otay Mesa. Future generations won’t have space for it.

“With that exception, there is little raw land left anywhere inside the city limits,” Fulton said.

Back to the specific claim we’re checking. Fulton’s claim the city’s “run out raw land” would receive a different ruling were it not followed by his mention of Otay Mesa, the site of much of the city’s remaining green space. City officials noted that, in many cases, other remaining open spaces are already spoken for in the form of entitlements and plans.

We decided those caveats make Fulton’s statement true.

Fulton’s other point was that San Diego’s the largest U.S. city currently facing this conundrum. This one’s more difficult to fact check.

Conventional wisdom supports Fulton’s claim. We just couldn’t find any national studies or sources that specifically address it.

New York, Chicago and Philadelphia have been dense and transit-oriented for generations. Los Angeles confronted a dearth of raw land more than two decades ago and city leaders welcomed more urban development. The city is now one of the most densely populated in the nation.

Houston, San Antonio and Phoenix remain known for their sprawl.

So San Diego does seem likely to be the biggest U.S. city currently grappling with a debate over urban development forced by the city’s dearth of raw land.

San Diego has responded with a series of policy decisions, including a 2008 general plan update that encourages more urbanized development. Now, as the city gets to work revising and creating several new community plans, the shift will likely be more apparent throughout the city.

That won’t translate into transit projects or high rises in every neighborhood but it will mean a focus shift away from cars and toward multi-family properties and dense development along transit corridors.

“We’re needing to change the way we do business,” Deputy City Planning Director Nancy Bragado said. “We can’t just rely on greenfield.”

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