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.

Huffman

(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)

Burlingame

(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)

NP_CPU_ECB_SectionNP_CPU_ECB_Axon

(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)

YouGotMail

(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.

SouthMission

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.

4 Square - 3

2.1.2 - 5

2.2.1 - 3

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.