(This story was originally published in Voice of San Diego HERE.
The city's plan for growth broadly envisions a network of compact urban neighborhoods where people live close to their jobs, public transit and retail.
So why does the latest blueprint for Uptown, a central urban neighborhood that seems to fit the city's mold for growth, call for a big drop in residential density?
Uptown, the area including Hillcrest, Mission Hills, Bankers Hill, Middletown and some of University Heights, got the green light to update its 1988 community plan just after the city passed its new general plan in 2008.
The area is well served (by San Diego standards) by public transit — especially once a planned rapid bus service in the area begins running — and is home to multiple commercial centers, but in a draft land use map released in July, the city calls for downzoning, or decreasing the allowed housing units per acre, in a number of areas.
It would drop the highest allowed amount of residential density by 32 percent, affecting the central core of Hillcrest, as well as the 5th Avenue and 6th Avenue corridors in Bankers Hill. It calls for other residential density decreases that would affect Hillcrest’s medical center area, the University Avenue corridor, the west side of Park Boulevard in University Heights, the Mission Hills commercial core and the nearby residential area off Goldfinch Street.
Underscoring the seeming contradiction between the proposal to cut back on housing development in the area and the city’s general growth plan are regional expectations that Uptown will take on more people.
In its 2050 Regional Growth Forecast, the San Diego Association of Governments (or SANDAG, a regional planning agency) projected the area's population to grow at a steady rate over the next 40 years, from roughly 36,000 in 2008 to over 58,000 by 2050, a 59 percent increase.
Accommodating that growth would require 10,000 additional housing units.
“It can be considered contradictory, but the thing we ran into is that we lack infrastructure,” said Beth Jaworski, chairwoman of the Uptown Planners, the community planning group that carries an advisory role in shaping the update.
“You can't just densify and continue to neglect infrastructure,” she said. “We are willing to accept density if we have facilities to support density. If the city isn't going to invest in our community, we aren't going to support increased density.”
The “infrastructure before density” mindset made its way into a December progress report on all the community plans currently seeking updates delivered by Kelly Broughton, head of the city’s development services department. He listed it as the top priority of the Uptown, North Park and Golden Hill communities.
In response to community concerns — some of the business owners in the commercial cores didn’t like the plan to limit new housing — city staff said the downzoning proposal was an attempt to address the area’s lack of public facilities.
“Staff is also evaluating whether public amenities could be incentivized through density bonus mechanisms,” the memo says.
Density bonuses allow developers to maximize or exceed allowed housing units on a given parcel in exchange for providing something else, often affordable housing allotments or public infrastructure investment.
It also said reduced densities would put less stress on public infrastructure, even if the downzoning proposal also had the effect of discouraging redevelopment.
Leo Wilson, the former chairman of Uptown Planners, supports maintaining density targets in Bankers Hill but acknowledged that other areas require different solutions.
He said he hopes the city rethinks the downzoning proposal.
“Preserving urban densities in Uptown is a smart-growth concept,” he said. “They're trying to incentivize good things, but they're creating an extra layer of bureaucracy, and that creates more cost and uncertainty for developers and would probably increase the cost of housing.”
The city defended the plan as an attempt to coax infrastructure investment out of developers, but it also specified in the memo that it's OK to push population growth to other areas.
“Downtown and Mission Valley will continue to add and attract office, retail (general merchandise) and high-density residential development thus limiting growth within Uptown,” the city's memo says.
The proposed downzoning is measured from a baseline of what’s already allowed in the community plan, not the situation on the ground today. Many areas currently occupied by single-family homes have been zoned to allow for more units for two decades. The community plan only defines what’s envisioned for future development. It doesn’t mandate changes to existing conditions.
“Even if our plan doubles or triples density, it doesn't mean it will ever be built out,” Jaworski said. “We can put into the plan whatever we want, but a lot of what was already in the plan hasn't been realized even though we just went through this huge growth spurt with cheap money and development everywhere, and it still didn't happen.”
The Uptown Planners group is putting together its own draft land use map. It has asked each neighborhood in the community to create a neighborhood-specific map.
It has already adopted a proposal for the Middletown area east of Interstate 5, which calls for mixed-use development near the freeway, unlike the city’s map, which would prohibit new housing adjacent to the freeway due to health- and airport-related concerns. It has also adopted a map for Bankers Hill.
On April 2, the group is expected to vote on a plan for Mission Hills. Plans for the Hillcrest, University Heights and medical center areas could be approved at the same time.
Then the city planning department will decide whether or how to marry the proposals.
“I don’t think that what we're proposing is going to be radically different than what's on the table,” Jaworski said. “I don't think we're too far away.”