The Height of Trolley Tensions - Voice of San Diego

Community Plans UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

The Height of Trolley Tensions

The city doesn’t just want to expand the trolley, it wants to make new stations home to more housing units and storefronts to spur ridership – and it might tweak the height limit to make it happen. But residents who live near the planned stations aren’t on board.

Extending the trolley from Old Town to La Jolla has always promised to change the neighborhoods it passed through on the way.

But residents of Linda Vista, Bay Park and Clairemont – predominantly single-family, middle-class neighborhoods where the expansion will run – don’t seem too interested in the type of change the city has in mind.

The discontent comes from the city’s attempts to allow for new types of development in the areas surrounding two new trolley stops. The city wants the area to develop with trolley users in mind.

It wants to encourage developers to build businesses and lots of homes near the trolley, so people who live there can make it their primary transportation option.

Allowing dense development clusters around the stops, the thinking goes, gets the most out of the $1.7 billion investment in extending the trolley.

But here’s the rub: Allowing that much density means changing the community’s self-imposed limit on building height.

The city’s planning department presented its ideas to the Clairemont planning group last week, and residents there weren’t on board. They don’t want density. And they especially don’t want density that comes with buildings over 30 feet.

The disagreement reveals a central tension of major transportation projects. Making the trolley more useful, and getting more people to use it, doesn’t come solely from adding locations. It also comes from enhancing the locations – putting jobs, homes and restaurants nearby.

The city’s plan isn’t even a plan yet. It’s still just a study, and will go through multiple phases of public review before a final decision is made in late 2015 or early 2016.

The Plan

Regional planners have been talking about extending light rail to La Jolla for decades. It’s expected to be finished in 2018, and half the $1.7 billion price tag will be paid from the county’s half-cent sales tax, TransNet; a federal grant is expected to cover the other half.

The line’s big selling point is its ability to deliver residents to the UTC area, a big jobs cluster.

Now riders will be able to take a single trip from the border all the way to UTC and UCSD. In between, the line will run east of I-5, through Linda Vista, Clairemont and Bay Park.

Those neighborhoods will be home to a total of three new trolley stations. The city is drawing up an amendment to the community plans for Clairemont and Linda Vista that would make the areas around the new stations more transit-friendly. (Only two of the stations, one at the intersection of Clairemont Drive and Morena Boulevard, and the other at Tecolote Road and Morena, are part of the study. The city has applied for state funding to do the same at the third stop, on Balboa Avenue.)

Or, as the preliminary study of the plan explains: “(The plan) is designed to address the future form of a community in the midst of change, both through the natural evolution of urban development and the introduction of a new form of transit with the Mid-Coast Light Rail Transit (LRT) Trolley extension.”

The city’s plans would change only the areas right around each station, allowing for bigger buildings that would ideally include homes and businesses.

Both communities have 30-foot limits on building height. Unlike the nearby coastal height limit, though – which was enacted by voter referendum and can only be changed by voter referendum – these limits were written into the Linda Vista and Clairemont community plans, so a Council vote would be enough to lift them.

At the Clairemont Drive station, the study calls for lifting the height limit from 30 feet to 60 feet at a single property right next to the station – a vacant lot just east of Morena, between Clairemont Drive and Ingulf Street.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The plan would also bump the height limit to 60 feet at the Tecolote Road station, but for a few blocks adjacent to the station.

It calls for similar treatment surrounding the existing Morena/Linda Vista trolley station just north of Friars Road, which isn’t part of the new trolley line but is close to it.

At each of those stations, the increased height would come with a zoning change allowing more homes per acre, so developers could build apartments or condos, restaurants, retail and office space in the same building.

“The goal is to strategically place the higher density development closest to the stations where walk times are shortest, and gradually decrease density as the distance increases,” the study says. “This graduated approach also has the benefit of lessening physical incompatibilities with existing lower density single family development.”

Translation: It’s going to put the tallest buildings with the most homes closest to the trolley stations, and gradually scale down to blend back into the existing neighborhoods.

The Community’s Take

The city’s planning department presented its study to the Clairemont planning group last week. That planning area covers the station at Clairemont Drive.

The planning group’s vice chair, Fiona Theseira, estimated there were 75 to 100 residents there, almost all of them against the plan. The hour and a half of public statements were heated and emotional, she said.

“I think I can safely say that most of the residents are angry, and are opposing the 60-foot height limit. That height limit is not acceptable to the residents. (They) don’t want to look at a wall. That’s how they see it.”

Though the plan hasn’t yet graduated from a study, the group’s board approved two motions: One to formally ask the city not to increase density there, the other saying the community wouldn’t entertain a 60-foot height limit.

Theseira said she wanted the group to vote on a motion describing what it could live with, or what it wants from the plan, but it opted to vote only on the things it won’t accept.

The biggest resident concern: views of Mission Bay. But there are also the same worries that come with most density proposals: traffic and parking.

“There’s a general fear that if the limit is raised next to the station, it’s going to radiate out through the community,” Theseira said. “There’s verbiage in the study that the Clairemont community plan could be amended in the future, so that’s a general concern.”

The planning department is reviewing the public feedback and will issue a response before finalizing its study.

After the heated meeting, Councilman Ed Harris, who represents the area, took the uncommon step of scheduling a follow-up meeting next week, outside the community planning group.

The community hasn’t had to deal much with new development. From 2000 to 2010, the total number of homes there increased by just 1 percent, while the city’s total increased by 7 percent and the county’s by 10 percent.

“Changing out single-family homes to multi-family homes is definitely a hot-button item,” said Jeff Barfield, the planning group’s chair.

But San Diego’s citywide growth plan, called City of Villages, explicitly calls for new development around transit options, and increased density. It wants to provide more homes to accommodate population growth, and to get people living closer to where they work or using more environmentally friendly transportation options, like the trolley, to combat climate change.

All of the sites targeted for more density by the city’s study are identified as “City of Villages opportunity areas” in the general plan.

Barfield said he’s personally OK with increasing the height limit near the trolley stop, but isn’t convinced 60 feet is necessary.

“There could be some accommodation,” he said. “I see the City of Villages, and that this is a major transit corridor now, but that can fall on deaf ears to longtime residents who fear losing their views and a lifestyle they’re very happy with, and I can certainly understand that.”

Nevin Kleege, president of the Morena Business Association, said local businesses are broadly in favor of the plan.

“A lot of what we’re trying to do is contingent on what happens along Morena,” he said. “It’s about creating a community and village feel that’s different from the freeway feel we have now.”

For his group, the bigger question is whether the city can find a way to increase parking in the area. Right now, the plan is considering removing some parking near Ashton Street, where there are a few restaurants.

“We need more parking, not less,” he said.

Shelley Anderson, another member of the business group, said members have a range of concerns, but largely look at the plan as a way to bring more people to the area.

“The business community is more along the lines of viewing it as difficult decisions where there’s a give and take,” she said. “But we’ve talked to plenty of residents who are losing views and aren’t in favor of it.”

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