Economic Stability is an Urban Design Response to Social Justice

San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

Times they are a’changing.

We all hear that the New Urbanism has a gentrification/displacement perception problem in big city discussions. One of New Urbanism’s revolution was in shifting the 60s/70s planning by numbers approaches to city issues towards a design-oriented solutions. And, our anti-modernist stance in the ‘90s led us to advocating for aspirational design approaches to city making problems. We figured out how to fit the new into the older ‘community character’ at all scales and everyone wants mixed-use, walkable, pedestrian-oriented solutions today. However, this approach brings up two contemporary problems.

First, community character is code for a long-standing NIMBY argument against anything new. Second, ‘good design’ is perceived as expensive by reactionary YIMBY movements who advocate for density/housing-at-all-costs and towers in a park are cool again (in fairness, SF’s YIMBYs advocate for FBCs and better). The Tactical Urbanism’s hay bale, traffic cone, and wood palette aesthetic is now ubiquitous in design mags/schools, as Less is again… more.

The value of Lean Urbanism’s “Making Small Possible” is its city-building ramifications as we wrestle with Social Equity today (We went through the enviro in the 60s-80s and economics in the 90s/00s). Making Small Possible serves to balance the two sides of economic equilibrium (the good times side and the bad times side).

The Big Idea
The appropriate urban design response to Social Justice and Economic issues is to build towards Social and Economic Stability.

The Context
The economic market vacillates in value at the neighborhood and lot scale. It ranges from disinvested (value at the neighborhood and lot scale are leaving), to static (balanced/stable values at both scales), to invested (values at the neighborhood and lot scale are rising). While neighborhood and lot values are linked, depending on a variety of factors, in San Diego lots have inherently high land values that combine to raise neighborhood values. The dynamic between neighborhood values and lot value differ throughout the nation by city/region.

As equitable city builders, we strive to mollify hot markets by adding affordable/attainable housing at the lot scale to take advantage of their high valued neighborhood, and invigorate fallen markets with new housing value at the lot scale to bump up their overall neighborhood’s value (raising comps lot by lot until the neighborhood is perceived as valuable). Equilibrium is the goal as static/balanced neighborhoods can carefully add neighborhood value (such as ped/bike/transit improvements) as well as lot values (granny flats, additions). An issue I’ve let slip by is that I haven’t thoroughly planned for neighborhoods cycling through these levels as investing in poorer neighborhoods too robustly displaces residents as gentrification makes monied buyers move quickly to shift a disinvested or static neighborhood into a hot market. I forget that it is not in the developers best interest to lower the rent or build cheaper housing… that’s the city’s job (see apartment rents dropping right now as developers did their feeding frenzy thing again).

The Problem
Individual, piecemeal projects that add subsidized housing to disinvested neighborhoods provides too little value added at the lot and neighborhood scale. Every new project at the lot scale must purposely add value in disinvested areas at both the lot and neighborhood scale, as well as allowing for neighborhood-scale projects that add value. On the other hand, projects that add ‘luxury’ housing to a hot market only serves to make it hotter. Hot markets need more smaller, less valuable housing at the lot scale to add enough supply to stabilize demand in a valuable neighborhood. And, the city should not allow for neighborhood-scale projects in a hot market.

City zoning can only serve to supply housing to the market, but only if that market shows profit margins. Meaning, its limited in its ability to provide attainable housing to middle class citizens. The market serves the high income families and the Fed/State/local subsidies provide for defined Affordable Housing renters. City/State/Fed plans, discretionary entitlement processes, housing/transit programs, tax credits/abatements, land trusts, and other subsidy mechanisms to influence markets are in our tool box to address middle class shifts.

The Opportunity
Rather than waiting for the city/developer to build a neighborhood-scale silver bullet to raise lot values, disinvested neighborhoods are in need of new development at the lot level that provides ‘comps’ and tenant leases that banks can use to lend money to many local projects as opposed to spending money on a singular project every few years. Making Small Possible does this explicitly.

San Diego is unique in its land values being very high throughout the region. This inherent value should be leveraged neighborhood-by-neighborhood through educate/train, borrow, and build value at the lot scale that raises the neighborhood’s value with each new intervention. And, development, construction, and building trades is a tremendous economic vehicle in San Diego. Having locals enter this market creates jobs and local investment while educating our youth to compete for San Diego’s tremendous wealth of high-tech jobs luring people from all over the world.

A contemporary social equity issue, disinvested neighborhoods in San Diego are where our local, regional, and international immigrants begin to (re)build their lives. We know this is an American topic in our toxic national political dialog. NU-ists understand that the place where we live in, grow up in, remember, and the culture that is cultivated matters. As we choose to spend time, which is all we really have in this world, comes a tremendous cost and forms the heritage we leave behind.

New and Lean Urbanism is extremely well-positioned to turn our chaotic, drive-by, unfulfilling SoCal auto-oriented lifestyle around to offer a more connected, comfortable, and convivial neighborhoods with the tools to raise/lower values at the lot scale. The value of mixed-use and walkable urbanism at the neighborhood-scale is built on the idea that the quality of our lives hinges upon our free choice and not upon the fate of those who came before us. Truly, a new urbanism.

The Approach
First, introduce and train locals to understand the local community building elements and processes at the lot level. Assist locals in navigating building process through a variety of public/private partnerships (such as banks and unions) who gain from more people entering the development and construction trades industry. The more lot level housing add supply to high-demand cities (I call this Beach Density in San Diego).

Second, precisely build mixed-use, walkable urbanism catalytic projects in disinvested neighborhoods that bring more resources to raise the neighborhood’s value. This second step is already in place except for the idea to make this easier in disinvested neighborhoods and harder in invested neighborhoods. Making Small Possible is the big idea as lot level housing builds social equity throughout the city (I call these Climate Action Zones in San Diego).

This begins with defining the neighborhood with its identifiable place-based elements (core, centers, edges). Collaborate with locals to determine a vision, then codify that vision, and then take strategic actions to implement the vision (New Urbanism). Revisit outcomes every 1, 5, and 10 years to adjust the vision, coding and implementation as needed. During the vision/coding process set up measurable outcomes to be monitored and used to cultivate more partnerships and local activity.

The Tools
Introduce and educate through Incremental Developer Boot Camps locally in partnership with the Congress for the New Urbanism, local Urban Land Institute, Building Industry Association, Carpenters Union, Bankers Expos, and beyond. These Make Small Possible (Lean Urbanism). Use these events to recruit risk-oblivious builders and help them build towards the communities expectations and memories of its neighborhood (this is how to build towards a specific community character, but don’t tell the millennials). Visioning efforts to build towards that neighborhood’s shared intent are make through intensive consecutive-day workshops with as many stakeholders involved in short time frame to make and act upon commitments, champions, and compromises (charrette). Move towards working with political/municipalities to legally enable these strategies over the long-term (form-based codes) while allowing more tactical/temporary interventions to test/measure ideas before fully committing all resources to a bigger investment idea (Tactical Urbanism). Entities such as LISC, NeighborWorks, Community Housing Works, and other CDFI entities are great partners for this approach (CNU is capable of such).

The Results
Measurable outcomes that indicate success and lessons learned (See Denver’s rental market success here). And, ultimately, a neighborhood that has moved from disinvestment towards a more static/stable market place to compete for development at the local and regional scale while guarding against national and international scale developments that behaves in a manner that doesn’t obliterate a neighborhood’s memories and expectations. By Making Small Possible, middle class housing is finally built in our nation’s Top 50 cities.

Any thoughts? Silly thinking? Which points have any merit?

Top 10 Zoning Hacks to Fix San Diego

Climate Action Plan, San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

San Diego has historically struggled with implementing our progressive mixed-use policies found in our General Plan (City of Villages) and Community Plan documents. In 2017, I see San Diego’s most obvious city-building needs as the tremendous need to build new attainable and affordable housing on our transit corridors. And, to focus on initiating the necessary mode shift from auto-centric to people-centric places.

It is well known that San Diego is in desperate need for more easily built by-right housing to alleviate the housing crunch happening today. We know this needs to be located on our strip commercial corridors lacking any housing today, of which we have miles and miles available for relatively easy retrofit. We also know that we need transit, pedestrian, and bicycle facilities to make this new housing fit in our older, more established urban neighborhoods and strip corridors. And we need predictable implementation tools to be coordinated, such as our on-going zoning updates matching funded transit projects, in order to get this new housing built.

For example, in the North Park Community Plan update, the 46% increase in housing ‘programs’ takes an arduous and unpredictable discretionary permit process (appealable to the city council and therefore very political) to be approved. This needs to be fixed immediately as the public weighed in and said, “build on this corridor.” In addition, the public weighed in and said, “We want to address Climate Change.” When these collective voices are expressed, we need to make it so…

In the spirit of getting it done, the following image is a list of my Top 10 Zoning Hacks to get us closer to solving our greatest needs in 2017:

Microsoft Word - Top10Fix-It-First.docx

Why Design Matters, San Diego! North Park Community Plan Update Issues

Climate Action Plan, San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

For the past 4 or 5 years, I’ve been working on the North Park Community Plan Update for the North Park Community Planning Group, and here at the end it simply is not achieving the goals the community set out to accomplish when the project started 8 years ago. The three issues I have with the North Park Community Plan Update (CPU) are:

1) Any up zoning beyond our 1986 plan that enables 2016 mixed-use, walkable urbanism on Transit Corridors necessitates an expensive + time consuming Planned Development Permit/Process 4. We wanted to focus, encourage, and make easy new development on El Cajon Blvd – ECB;

2) Dismissal of requested Historic District Designations in older bungalow neighborhoods that need/want the discretionary review mentioned above for ECB as local ‘preservationist’ agreed to this compromise as we intended to give additional protections and make it harder to bungalow neighborhoods, and;

3) 1960s city-wide zoning replaces 1986 local zoning and both still enable new single-story/use drive thrus (new Starbucks, Wendy’s, Sonic as examples) on ECB by-right and easier than vertical mixed-use buildings (this shift was a big deal to build more housing and shops in NP).

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New mixed-use housing… a full lot OFF University Avenue (a Main Street)

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New development on El Cajon Boulevard… again note the drive up chain food with urban housing a full lot OFF the main boulevard. This is the predominate pattern.

I will post my PEIR issues at a later date…

So, Community Plans are only used to review discretionary process as zoning does the heavy lifting to build San Diego. You have a zoning designation on your lot now and to change that takes discretionary review. So, status quo has been maintained and all of the new policies written into the CPU are only reviewed on those few projects requesting changes. The problem is we have now made new development on ECB more difficult than new development in our bungalow neighborhoods.

It is important to know that San Diego zoning does not have to be in conformance with its policies b/c we are a Charter City. This makes our City of Villages big idea near impossible to Implement. And, we didn’t upgrade/change any of our zoning from 1986 all we have essentially maintain status quo with this CPU.

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Existing Zoning on University Avenue and 30th Street, the Village ‘Center’ of North Park.

All of our zoning is based on 1960s suburban community building tools and is built on segregating Land Uses from each other (Residential/Commercial/Industrial) and is difficult to use to build mixed-use, walkable urbanism (think about the difference in vertical mixed use in older east coast cities versus in newer southwest cities).

The best example of how our single-use zoning doesn’t implement the type of contemporary city we want is found near one of our obvious Transit Village Centers at University and 30th Street. This could be either the next great place or Another PB or College bar scene.

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Existing Commercial Buildings, some historic, most just stucco boxes. My Grandmother worked the Woolworth building in the center and lived three blocks away.

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Existing Residential buildings, with many historic bungalows here and more just off image.

Today, our best vertical mixed-use walkable building’s are a half-block off University (La Boheim, You’ve Got Mail, New Senior Housing, and Parking Garage) b/c University is zoned heavy commercial and the neighborhood behind is zoned heavy residential. But planners knew that a transition 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. Almost every new building is OFF the night street (crazee burger, CWH on Texas & Howard) b/c of this vert good mistake.

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Our recent and best new mixed-use, 4-6 story buildings are all just OFF University Avenue, and deeper into the historic neighborhood, making local NIMBY opposition more heated.

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This is what have and are continuing to build today…

How to fix this?  Well, it is too late to fix in the Community Plan Update, but the Land Development Code is updated annually and zoning is the key to success anyway. So, I recommend using a Zoning Overlay, or a Place-Based, Form-Based, context-sensitive zoning tool to achieve the overall density within 600-feet of major transit station areas to shift or mode of transportation from predominately autos to walking, biking, riding transit, and cars. Here is what the results could deliver:

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More housing/jobs bang for our transit buck and all ON University Avenue, staying out of the neighborhoods that’ll add housing with state-mandated  Accessory Units (Granny Flats)

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Place-Types identified and coded accordingly: Core – I / Center – II / Edge A – III / Edge B – IV / Historic  – H/ Civic Space – P / Residential – V

Why Design Matters, San Diego! The Cabrillo Bridge + Plaza de Panama

Public Space, San Diego, Urban Design

Way back in 2010 I asked the City of San Diego Planning Commission, “Why screw up the bridge to fix the plaza?” Six years later it still rings true as it makes very little sense to significantly alter/change one of San Diego’s best places, the Cabrillo Bridge, in order to remove the few cars now flowing through the now beloved Plaza de Panama. Back then, the project passed our city council amidst volatile debate and subsequently failed a court challenge. Very few cried its demise. Mayor Sanders and beloved philantropist Dr. Irwin Jacobs walked away from their “all-or-nothing pedestrian-oriented plaza Centennial Plan” that consisted of an auto-oriented ‘by-pass bridge’ appendage off the Cabrillo Bridge that funneled traffic into a 200-car parking garage. However, last year the lawsuit was overturned and the exact same project was quietly resurrected by new Mayor Falconer.

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A ‘World’s Fair’ with the same design intent as Chicago’s White City and London’s Crystal Palace.

Three years ago, a group of us assisted Mayor Filner (curse his name) to design a temporary pedestrian plaza that has been a clear success (for 60 plus years it was a parking lot for 57 cars).  It was a ‘tactical urbanist‘ approach to test and measure success before investing in such a dramatic change in its character from a parking lot into the plaza it was designed to be. We had to be mindful of local institutions fear of losing customers (all have since had record breaking years) who would want to park in front of their museums as well as the Uptown Planning Group not wanting people to park in their community if the bridge was closed to all traffic. The plaza sits on an isolated mesa and as design icon Leon Krier noted, the plaza core needs traffic to bring people to it as nobody lives in easy walking distance, which makes it very different from European city plazas in the center of town (Plaza San Marco in Venice, Piazza Navona in Rome, and Rittenhouse Square in Philly).

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7/8th of Plaza was re-opened to pedestrians, replacing 57 parking spaces, but still allowing cars and trams to flow through 1/8th of the plaza to pick up/drop off.

 

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Today the plaza hosts events, food trucks, troubadours, children, new restaurant, 2016 Tour de California, and many wedding pictures.

The Problem

The new by-pass project looks like any other auto-oriented grade-seperated off-ramp leading to a parking garage between Sabre Springs and Riverside. The design is an after thought, breaking the flow of one of the world’s best designed places found in San Diego (the other might be the Salk Institute).

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Rick Engineering and Civitas Design for the Auto By-Pass + Parking Garage (on right)

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I’m not sure what to write here… except that this is exceptionally underwhelming.

My concern is that the poorly conceived, traffic engineering focussed space that will scar our Panama Exposition core as every other building, street, plaza, park space and parking space in it was executed with tremendous design acumen over a century ago for our pleasure. What will be beloved about this new appendage a 100 years from today. It appears we are honoring our cultural heritage with what will now be two new dreary parking garages (the other is between the Botanical building and the zoo) and a ‘by-pass’ that diverts people away from intended beauty and into an enclosed parking lot.

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Okay, a bit dated, but so are the issues at hand.

Unfortunately, San Diego has again forgotten what, Bertram Goodue, and George and Hamilton Marston knew: Building towards social and cultural value always equates to economic value while the converse is not always as true. Point is, we need to design in ways to celebrate, exhaust, express our local cultural values… maybe the by-pass does this?

I understand the construction documents are currently under review in the city’s Development Services Department, so this is essentially a moot point. I’ll go on as an explanation for posterity purposes, and thank you for continuing to read this…

The Original Big Idea

In my century old edition of Carleton Winslow’s, The Architecture and the Gardens of the San Diego Exposition, master architect,  Bertram Goodhue, clearly explains Panama Exposition’s big design idea. His metaphor was to give visitors to San Diego a virtual tour of traveling across the Atlantic Ocean (The Cabrillo Bridge); Through the Panama Canal where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans collide (California Quadrangle and its California Tower as a beacon); Up the Mexican Rivera coastline (the Spanish Arcades), and finally; A majestic arrival at a new California Arcadia (The Plaza de Panama)… all set in a ‘garden!’

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Goodhue had a darn good idea, executed it well, and let everyone experience what the Panama Canal means to San Diego and its beautiful, well-designed future!

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The View of the By-Pass Bridge area as conceived by Goodhue. These buildings are suppose to be in a garden setting, and not a parking lot.

 

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The two reclining figures represent the Atlantic and Pacific oceans with the waves colliding at the Panama Canal in the center.

Three Better Design Options:

1. Shared Street: Keep everything as is… and rather than build more auto-oriented facilities (by-pass bridge + 200 space parking garage), a more  austere solution would be to make the street a ‘shared space,’ and keep the traffic flow to minimum speed of bikes and pedestrians with valet drop off, in order to access and enhance – rather than alter – San Diego’s greatest civic space. Everyone wins, even the parking garage can be built, and the cars/trams will behave even better, while continuing to deliver people directly to and from the institutions, and it only takes the cost of a sign. Supporters of the Sanders/Faulconer plan say the traffic today is dangerous. This would improve that for essentially $250 dollars (the cost of five signs).

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We already have these in San Diego (at the Mouth of the mighty San Diego River).

2. Use the Existing By-Pass to the Existing Parking Garage: Irving Gill, another great designer, already built an arcade portal that links to the north that needs just one short connection to access existing streets and an existing subterranean parking structure. Add 200 parking units (one deck) to the existing structure, make that one connection, and viola! A well-designed By-Pass that drops the elderly and patrons direction in front of the Theaters. Supporters of the Sanders/Faulconer Plan say they want the access/parking for the theaters and the core… this is closer, cheaper, faster. (Post-script: Heard the Quince Street off-ramp could be a better solution for this access point and should be discussed)

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Two ways to access a parking deck and maintain the integrity of Goodhue’s masterful design: Through the Gill’s driveway or up from Quince Street)

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See Irving Gill’s one-way By-Pass arch there on the left? Just signage and paint and its better designed than the engineering Sabre Springs off-ramp.

3. How about a Beautifully Designed Bridge: Propose a new addition that carefully and thoughtfully adds dignity, value, and delight to visitors biking, walking, tramming, or driving to visit the Panama Exposition Grounds. Simply host a design competition. Ask the best in the world to give their best ideas, be bold and transparent to San Diegans about the value of the place that we all love and care for! I have never understood why a world-class design competition has been avoided from the beginning and this project being handled in this ‘my-way-or-no-way’ manner?

The design issue is, beyond its mindless deconstruction of the Nationally Registered Historic Cabrillo Bridge, the banal by-pass bridge in a sea of beauty that purposely impedes the flow of Goodie’s original design idea while adding nothing to the culture and heritage of San Diego’s most recognized jewel. Well, now we can hope for the best as we have zero assurances the best is being considered a century after our forefathers delivered such for our benefit.

 

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Think this Bridge is Important to our Heritage? “Its more than a Bridge…”

 

Its not Smart Growth… It’s Called Avoiding a Housing Crisis

Climate Action Plan, San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

(First printed in here on March 1, 2016)

California’s Bay Area housing disaster tells Southern Californians that our housing crisis will only get worse and doing nothing is both an irrational and irresponsible response. We are faced with deciding to have more neighbors or pay more taxes as we desperately need money to fix our city’s crumbling infrastructure. The conundrum is that we despise taxes and the mere mention of ‘density’ polarizes any discussion into either demands for no new growth or building tall towers.

I believe answers to meet San Diego’s housing demand are found in the following two-tier approach:

The first tier is a baseline ‘Beach Density,’ which I’ve written about here. An existing housing model found in our older, traditional beach neighborhoods that fills our need for the ‘missing middle’ types of housing. This model is essentially a residence or shop with three (3) to five (5) units on each lot that are no more than two (2) to three (3) stories tall. All of these homes and businesses are mixed together every few blocks or so. By allowing every lot in San Diego’s urbanized areas to have up to five (5) units’ by-right, we have the opportunity to solve for our critical housing and infrastructure financing deficiencies without dramatically altering our city’s character. Ultimately, the entire city can enjoy and benefit from our healthy, outdoor lifestyle that this Beach Model provides us.

The second tier is more precisely located ‘Climate Action Zones.’ Per its recently adopted Climate Action Plan, the city of San Diego is required to take actions to “Implement transit-oriented development within Transit Priority Areas,” and to “[a]chieve better walkability and transit-supportive densities by locating a majority of all new residential development within Transit Priority Areas.” In combination with the Beach Density’s baseline housing bump, these Climate Action Zones are intended to achieve our city’s legally binding Climate Action Plan within a reasonable timeline.1 We cannot expect the city to complete it all at once, but it can accommodate for an urban acupunctural approach… pin pricks at key points to make great change.

These ‘zones’ will require updated and new city policies, including community plan updates, to facilitate increases of land use intensity near our region’s transit investments. Fortunately, we have one of our nation’s first and best Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) guidelines written by planning guru Peter Calthrope in 1992 that have sat neatly on a shelf in the city’s Planning Department over these many years, having been emasculated by our currently suburban and convoluted parking regulations. We should dust these off, as they’ve been proven throughout the world – as well as Portland – to increase transit ridership. In addition, we should manage our off-street parking and simplify one space per unit to permit transit, walking, and biking to be as advantageous as driving.

SD GP Map Before

City of San Diego Plan Before Climate Action Zones

A ‘tower’ in San Diego is a building over 7 stories, and are only appropriate in one or two areas beyond downtown. However, 4 – 6 stories have been built in our old streetcar neighborhoods since their founding 100 years ago, as this height is a ‘walk up’ and appropriate in ‘walkable’ neighborhoods. Climate Action Zones should be located on the 4 to 8 blocks (600 feet radius) around primary intersections with cross-street transit service, currently built as 60’s era gas stations, drive-thrus, and strip centers.

SD GP Map AFTER

San Diego Development Potential with Climate Action Zones

Data shows that the majority of trips within 600 feet of a transit station are made by transit, bike or foot. These zones would permit mixed-use, up to 7 stories/90 feet tall max, using our TOD guidelines that allow for shared parking ratios with limited Community Plan conformance reviews in order to ensure transition steps to protect neighbors. Rather than waiting to build another Rancho del Rancho on our suburban periphery, these retrofitted intersections will be the focus of new development for the next 15-years. Successful case studies include Salt Lake’s Commuter, Light Rail (LRT), and Streetcar corridor economic engine, Dallas’s new LRT stations and Klyde Warren Park and Historic Streetcar value explosion, and Denver’s new infill coding success.

It is untenable to keep century old urban communities from change. But we know change brings fear to local citizens, which is why this two-tier approach makes very clear that new housing can fit comfortably within our current lifestyle if we explicitly plan for what we need using San Diego proven models. Finally, we have to plan for the change we want in order to fix our infrastructure, add public spaces, and to continue to be relevant to working economies by providing attainable housing, accessible transportation, and our unique outdoor lifestyle.

A collaborative approach to fixing North Park’s few problems

San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

North Park Community Plan Update – We Can Do Better by Working Together

By Howard Blackson and Don Leichtling

North Park is one of San Diego’s finest communities. It has many distinctive neighborhoods, with most containing block after block of beautiful bungalows of all varieties. It contains award winning schools, and every quarter-mile or so, neighborhood centers that contain great restaurants, small shops, brew pubs, and corner markets.  Hipsters, elderly, and families with kids love living in North Park because it is already both walkable and diverse.

Historic North Park also has its share of problems because of its age, but now changes are occurring to make it even better because North Park is now one of San Diego’s most desirable places to live.  The City has earmarked funds for the long awaited new urban park behind the North Park theater, SANDAG has begun design of major new bicycle friendly routes, MTS has just finished building Rapid Bus lanes with stations along El Cajon Boulevard (ECB), and new joint-use park facilities are also being developed with local schools.

The City has also spent the past six years investing in a much-needed update to its 1986 North Park Community Plan in an effort to fix some of these problems. The community plan is a policy document intended to provide clear direction for the next steps to make our larger goals come to life.  We think the following recommendation are better approaches in achieving the goals stated in the Community Plan Update, which are with our clarifications in [Brackets]:

  • A diversity of housing types with varying levels of affordability;
  • Businesses that contribute to the vitality and growth of the community in harmony with [their nearby] residential neighborhoods;
  • A circulation system that offers safe, multi-modal access between jobs, shopping, recreation, businesses, schools, and residential neighborhoods;
  • A [safe] community that is a center for creativity and enriched by public art;
  • Employment and mixed-use centers that allow North Park residents to work where they live through the attraction of new businesses and higher paying jobs;
  • A high level of public facilities that not only meet the needs of the community, but serve to enhance community identity [and improve the quality of life for everyone];
  • A community that fosters the expansion of [healthy] recreational opportunities through traditional and innovative ways [that guarantees equal access for all];
  • Open space resources that are managed, maintained [or enhanced as density is added];
  • Sustainable residential neighborhoods and business districts;
  • Cultural and historic resources that are respected and preserved through historic designations and adaptive re-use [whose numbers continue to grow as North Park’s housing stock ages]. 

Our Areas of Concern

On El Cajon Boulevard (ECB) high-speed traffic, along with the hookers, new and old drive-thru restaurant’s and older, dilapidated single story commercial buildings have been problematic for 50+ years. These elements have slowed the revitalization of this major transit corridor through North Park.  Many believe that now is the time to build upon the median upgrades and high speed transit improvements have been recently installed.

On University Avenue, the long vacant Woolworths building is a constant reminder of what San Diego’s first thriving shopping district once was.  In the late 1950’s, developers disinvested in North Park’s business district and poured their money into new commercial areas first in Mission Valley and then at almost every new freeway interchange north of it, as ever more people used cars to go shopping.

In the 1960s and into the early 1980s, developers started to build Huffman 6 unit buildings or “six-packs”, where once there were single-family homes.  These were the cheapest form of then market rate housing at the time but they lowered the quality of North Parks building stock through, because they added housing units without any infrastructure, appropriate parking or Quality of Life (QOL) improvements.

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(Image of Huffman 6-Pack by Howard Blackson)

Our Simple Approach

In order to clearly articulate to developers, residents, business owners and decision-makers what the community plan intends to do, we recommend a simple but effective approach:

  • Protect and build upon the best elements of each neighborhood within North Park;
  • Design better ways to fix our worst problems, instead of leaving it up to chance;
  • Make sure that all the new projects connect to the best neighborhood elements in ways that fulfill our community’s values and goals.

Our Recommendations 

1. Expedite designation of potential historic resources. The goals of the Community Plan Update state the community’s intent to protect its wonderful historic resources, the Burlingame Historic District, the North Park Theater, the iconic green water tower as well as the many blocks of soon to be historic bungalows as outlined in the plan’s historic district designation. This will ensure that all new development protects these identified resources, while providing the maximum amount of much needed Low and Low-Moderate additional housing and other business resources. The plan’s historic district designation is being updated at this time and needs to spell out clearer policies, such as expedited historic designations processes for those areas identified as being potential new historic districts, which will increase North Parks attraction to San Diego’s visitors. (See the Draft Community Plan Land Use and Historic Preservation Elements for reference linked here)

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(Image of Burlingame Historic District by Howard Blackson)

2. Build upon the new Rapid Bus transit route along ECB to provide a more active multi-modal circulation system. We need to expeditiously link North Park with job centers in Mission Valley, Downtown, Sorrento Valley, and our neighboring communities.  We support new bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure first. These systems are spelled out in the plan’s Circulation Element, but must it must be explicitly linked to create new value for more high quality development projects. (See Mobility Element)

3. Our worst problems are found in 60’s-era auto centered drive thru restaurants, haphazard buildings located nearer to historic bungalow blocks rather than on our main streets, and a limited housing supply for rent restricted Low and Low-Moderate income people which includes the young and old alike. A better way to fix these problems is to state that we should retrofit El Cajon Boulevard first.  At key well-connected intersections, we should encourage 6-stories or less mixed-use buildings. These buildings can add both long term rent restricted Low and Low-Moderate housing plus some market rate “attainable” housing while providing new employment and business opportunities for all.

Since 1986, El Cajon Boulevard’s zoning has been 109 dwelling units per acre [du/ac] with unlimited height and has failed to encourage mixed use development as we continue to build new drive-thru restaurants. To shift the development pattern from the current “auto-oriented strip commercial” to a better mixed-use transit supported pattern, the ECB corridor should be clearly identified in the plan’s Land Use element with 145 dwelling units per acre with an 80-foot height limit on lots located on the property fronting ECB with a ‘Community Review’ process, while at the same time, requiring set backs from and stepping down to its alley, so as to not create a linear walls looming over its neighbors across the alley (see diagrams below). Because this new development is located where the community gets the most value for new development’s location, a more predictable city entitlement ‘Process 3’ should be used to focus it here while at the same time making it more difficult to occur in the stable historic residential blocks. (See Land Use and Urban Design Elements)

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(Diagrams of how new buildings should step down towards neighboring homes by Howard Blackson)

Focus new development along ECB, over the next 20+ years, with enhanced design standards that will also protect the adjacent residential neighborhoods from the building height transition along ECB.  This will connect not only the new housing, jobs, and shops to the rest of North Park’s great neighborhoods but also to our parks, other new future transit public investments, and public improvements. Likewise, new development on University Avenue, Park Boulevard, Adams Avenue, 30th Street north of University Ave. and Texas Street will need to make use of similar scaled down transition rules, that relate to lot size and road widths as found in the plan’s Urban Design Element. This emphasis on transition rules is concurrent with the community’s many already and soon to be historic districts in the areas north and south of ECB and south of University Avenue as listed in the Historic Preservation Element being updated now. (See Land Use, Mobility, Urban Design and Implementation Elements)

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(Image of building stepping up towards neighboring homes by Don Leichtling)

4. Redeveloping former strip centers like El Cajon Boulevard is now a successful national trend. A similar transition between building patterns and scale is needed to replace the most rundown of our auto-oriented Huffman six-pack apartments, clustered in the blocks between El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue.  Because this is an innovative approach the entire city can learn from, the replacement of selected Huffman’s needs to have wide spread public support with clear design policies and standards that allow North Park to test and measure proposed outcomes prior to enabling across-the-board retrofits. Most of these buildings are scattered haphazardly and we must test new retrofit approaches in order to avoid repeating past mistakes, mostly due to added density without amenity.  Most North Park’s residents will support ‘Quality Density’ improvements benefiting everyone equally, rather than just adding more Density in certain areas. We recommend any increase in density comes with design standards and a high-level ‘Community Review’ Process 4 with a 1 to 3 years ‘testing’ period statement. (See Land Use and Urban Design Elements)

5. Make managed parking areas less difficult to create, more flexible to share, and easier to find since parking is a concern always cited. “Hunt-and-peck” parking is becoming more and more difficult, especially in older neighborhoods whose homes have undersized turn-of-the-century garages and that are located near popular night-time businesses. This is especially important to all those who, for whatever reason, are not able to walk long distances or ride a bike.  Having access to parking ensures better access to North Park.  Having different parking management plans for the business corridors (ie. El Cajon Boulevard and University Ave) while at the same time protecting the residential properties located within walking distance to the business districts is imperative to the plan. Of great importance similar to historic district preservation and focusing new development on ECB, the Mobility Element must explicitly allow neighborhoods adjacent to business districts the ability to designate managed parking areas as a top priority (See Mobility Element, section 3.5.)

We realize that the new NP Community Plan is a living document that needs our continued scrutiny, adaptations, and support to achieve our collective goals.  Now after several years of draft plans and many late night meetings, all these issues are now being outlined in multiple Community Plan Elements listed above, and they will be finalized over the upcoming weeks.  In order we may together plan the best possible future for our neighborhood, we have collaborated on these recommendations in hopes of helping both preservationists and urbanists understand and support these conclusions, which we feel best address North Park’s most pressing problems.

(Mr. Don Leichtling is a local preservationist and whom I appreciate debating on ways to improve our local community. I want to thank Don for collaborating with me on these recommendations)

Urban Acupuncture – Homelessness

San Diego, Urban Planning

Homeless Americans are not illegal refugees to be incarcerated and deported. While a criminal element has easily exploited our homeless poor’s predicament, they too are being supported by our current haphazard hand-out response to our homeless economic issue. Fortunately, homelessness doesn’t directly affect a majority of San Diegans, but these citizens are in desperate need of an alert and immediate response from those of us able to help.

In our neighborhoods, seeing people sleeping or living on our streets is painful. It is a reminder of our need both small-scale built form response as well as a large-scale health and human services responses to the too visible problem in our city. Doing a little as possible to date has only exacerbated the issue and we now having linger ramifications that bring out both the best and worse in us.

For 2016, I recommend the City of San Diego enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with various Homeless advocacy groups to allow the public facilities necessary to provide basic human services in the public street’s right-of-way, such as portable restrooms, bathing and shelter facilities. This MOU is similar to the agreements the city has with utility companies to allow for electrical boxes to sit permanently in our sidewalks, and would legally allow parking spaces and street frontages to be utilized for transitioning homeless people to more dignified living arrangements faster. This is similar to how we treat our refugees of natural disasters, such as New Orleans after Katrina and New Jersey after Sandy.

This simple paper agreement is intended to transform our first response to homelessness from a being crime into a humanitarian effort in order to get our people off the streets and into homes in a streamlined and morally responsive rather than combative manner.

Beach Density

San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

San Diego’s Missing Middle

The Bay Area’s housing disaster tells San Diegans that our housing crisis will only get worse and doing nothing is not an option. We have to decide whether we want more neighbors or to pay more taxes as we desperately need money to fix our city’s crumbling infrastructure.  The conundrum is that we despise taxes and the mere mention of ‘density’ polarizes any discussion into either demands for no new growth or building tall towers. Fortunately, we have a housing model that fills the ‘missing middle’ that more responsibly grows our city.

San Diego’s beach areas are home to our most vehemently defended neighborhoods. It’s healthy, outdoor-oriented lifestyle, when coupled with parking constraints, begs people to walk and ride bikes year ‘round. Our beach density model is essentially a residence or shop with three (3) to five (5) units on each lot that are no more than two (2) to three (3) stories tall. All of these homes and businesses are mixed together every few blocks or so. While housing prices are very high in the beach areas, this is mostly due to its finite land availability and layers of regulatory constraints, but those are lessons to be learned. Our beach density’s real value to the rest of San Diego is found in its mixed-use walkable urbanism pattern/model that creates more housing and economic development opportunities.

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South Mission Beach’s Gentle Density (Image Creative Commons)

The best places to test this middle ground housing model would be any neighborhood in and around our existing Urbanized Areas. Such as, Southeast San Diego, Golden Hill, South Park and along our major corridors, such as El Cajon Boulevard, University Avenue, and Bay Park, City Heights, and the cities of La Mesa, Lemon Grove, and National City.  Hurtles to allowing for this gentle uptick in housing would primarily be our citizen’s natural ‘fear-of-change’ reflex, which is why using a local model makes sense (as opposed to an imported Portland or Vancouver model). This is somewhat due to our quality of life being ‘precariously’ high, as our home values are a major part of our personal wealth. Therefore, we are very leery of any change that may affect any of that value. 

Another issue will be found in unbundling the many layers of inconsistent development rules and regulations. Today’s zoning rules are based on a 1960’s suburbia building model while Pacific, Mission, and Ocean Beach areas were built in the pre-zoning traditional neighborhood era. In addition, outdated traffic calculations are still in use to measure and mitigate for new housing wrongfully giving us suburban infrastructure facilities and financing estimates. Finally, we would need SANDAG to allocate meaningful funding of pedestrian and bicycle facilities to improve our sidewalks, street trees, lighting, bike lanes, cycle tracks, and transit stops.

The benefits of urbanizing ‘elegantly’ are more urban housing choices with healthier lifestyles that lead to less demand for new suburban housing in the back country, and a spreading-of-the-wealth as local land owners will build most of these units, as opposed to international developers, ensuring that rents are recirculated within our economy. With average lot sizes in traditional San Diego neighborhoods ranging from 5,000 to 6,800 square feet, five (5) units on these lots on a typical lot would support regional transit service, neighborhood scale shops, restaurants, and professional office. And, assurances in maintaining the beloved character of mixed-use walkable places will be found in making any deviations from more precise zoning rules impossible.

Our city is in desperate need for ‘attainable’ housing and our beach density model provides the most fitting solution. By allowing every lot in San Diego’s urbanized areas to have up to five (5) units’ by-right, we have the opportunity to solve for our critical housing and infrastructure financing deficiencies without dramatically altering our city’s character. Ultimately, we can all enjoy and benefit from our healthy, outdoor lifestyle the beach model provides us.

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Wide Variety of Design in a Narrow Range to Respect Neighbors Privacy (Images by David Saborio)

UPDATE (12.28.2015): How to Allow for Beach Densities:

  • Eliminate off-street parking minimums (Transit/Bike/Walk);
  • Eliminate minimum lots sizes and minimum lot dimensions;
  • Up-zone any parcel that allows a single family house to 2-5 units;
  • Covert per unit development impact fees to per SF impact fees and eliminate development impact fees in the places where you want development;
  • Take Main Street back from the State DOT. (increased revenues from getting on-street parking back and taming the overly wide arterial will more than cover the increased maintenance costs);
  • Amend your adopted fire code (zero lot line for sideyard setbacks);
  • Adopt City of San Diego endorsed NACTO Street standards;
  • Allow for self-certification by Licensed Architects. Building permit issued by the Architect with required notification of the municipality to keep the assessor’s records current.