Same as it Ever Was… Same as it Ever Was.

San Diego, Urban Planning

We live in the south end of North Park, San Diego. The community has been experiencing an urban development renaissance over the past 25 years. Our city’s planning structure begins with city-wide General Plan policies, local Community-scaled planned policies, and then lot scaled Zoning Regulations. North Park’s Community Plans are supposed to guide decision-makers when making major changes to land use decisions and any updates to Zoning regulations. Know that because we are a Charter City, these regulations do not have to be in conformance with our policies (and they aren’t).

The recently updated North Park Community Plan forged a compromise to ensure that the increase in residential densities enabled mixed-use, walkable urbanism on our main Transit Corridors, El Cajon Boulevard, University Avenue, Adams Avenue (east/west), and our secondary corridors on 30th Street, Texas Street, and Park Avenue (north/south). This ‘upzone’ went along with the ‘preservation’ of older bungalow neighborhoods that need/want more discretionary review for any changes as local ‘preservationist’ agreed to this compromise. It is a win/win plan.

However, it is our zoning that does the heavy lifting in building San Diego. In updating our local North Park Community Plan the city changed the once customized local zoning rules to city-wide zoning regulations. This backwards, 60’s era, city-wide one-size-fits-all zoning approach (generic Land Uses first rules with a variety of development standards/rules overlays to make each use fit into its context) replaced locally customized zoning that was from the 1980s. Unfortunately, old and new zoning still enables new single-story strip commercial drive thru buildings (new Starbucks, Wendy’s, Sonic fast food stores for examples) on our transit corridors via by-right zoning applications. This 8-year and millions of dollars update still makes auto-oriented buildings easier to entitle and build than vertical mixed-use buildings.

So, how is North Park’s renaissance happening? There are two main drivers. First, the market demand for housing is driving new development in North Park as it’s an older neighborhood with great parks, streets, entertainment, and historic amenities. Over a decade ago, a local crew of architects-as-developers, led by Jonathan Segal, have figured out that best vertical mixed-use walkable buildings are a half-block off our Transit Corridors as the city planners knew that a transition from corridors to bungalow neighborhoods was needed, so they made very flexible zones to allow either commercial or residential or some of both… which put our best urban buildings closer to historic homes than ON the transit corridor! This creates unnecessary conflicts, leads to displacement of older apartments, but this zone is North Park’s new building area as demanded by the local housing market place.

Second, the market is driving our internationally recognized Craft Beer industry. This explosion of breweries, tasting rooms, restaurants, and beer halls has been formally enabled by a new ‘artisan’ zone applied throughout North Park’s transition zone mentioned above. New housing and new restaurant/entertainment appeals to the new age employee as the ‘experience’ of living in a real neighborhood refutes their parent’s suburban housing/office park lifestyle… as the next generation tends to do. However, this somewhat smelly “industries” are located deeper into the historic neighborhoods, causing unnecessary conflicts too as they should be located on our main corridors, and not a block or two off.

In short, our city’s zoning regulations are mostly in conflict with the intent of the updated North Park’s Community Plan. Fortunately, due to a lack of municipal planning expertise, a narrow seam of better new development has risen between the strictly regulated commercial corridors and community-activist guarded historic single-family housing areas. While this narrow seam is working, its not building enough to address our housing crisis and our inability to build high-intensity mixed-use along our corridor, leaving the value of our Bus Rapid Transit investments sitting on the table. This continued shift towards building high-intensity mixed-use development along our Transit Corridors is the North Park’s future opportunity to build value without displacement of existing residents

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Photo by Stephen Niemeier on Pexels.com

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