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.

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.

“San Diego Urban Planning !”… now go wash your mouth out with soap.

Urban Design, Urban Planning

“A fundamental aspect of planning…is the disjuncture between individual rationality and collective rationality. […] In certain situations, individual preferences aggregated to a societal level produce illogical or undesirable outcomes, including rubber-necking delays on highways and hockey players’ reluctance to wear helmets. In such situations, if the group made a decision as a whole, it would be far different from the sum of the individual decisions of the members. In a market-oriented economy, planning’s reason for being is fundamentally tied to this disjunction between individual rationality and collective rationality.* 

Isn’t that the role of planning in governing our cities, mediating short-term, long-term, and emergency decisions? Having a plan limits and manages risk in the market place by providing the vision, codes, and certainty to the legal entitlement process and economic responses to building the city. City building innovations and managing their risk set the baseline economic value for the market to respond to. Managing these elements is our city’s planning department’s policy and regulatory responsibility.

However, because creating a vision and then coding that vision is an iterative public and political process, the collective preference is usually at odds with the individual… be it the “no-change neighbor” or the “starry-eyed developer.” In the end, the built results illustrate the values of what our ‘group decision.’ We can drive along Harbor Drive to see the results of what San Diego collectively values over time (hotels, convention center, baseball parks, and other economic silver bullets).

I’ve previously written about Urban Design and Planning’s precarious position between a rock and a hard place in the City of San Diego here. After coffee last week with Michael Stepner, FAIA, FAICP, we came to the conclusion that San Diego’s planning history is actually a culture of trying to “get out of the way”. Our city leadership will support planning in good times, but then we are just as supportive of throwing it out in bad times. Mike‘s opinion was formed by seeing several iterations of its rise and demise over his award-winning career.

Stepner Experiencing a Re-Organization of Planning (image: MStepner)

Stepner Experiencing a Re-Organization of Planning (image: MStepner)

My opinion of our planning-as-little-as-possible approach is formed by empirical observation and review of San Diego’s historical planning documents, and their negative connotations. Kevin Lynch and Donald Appleyard gave us, A Temporary Paradise?, with its title illustrating that San Diego is missing its opportunity to take advantage of our cultural and natural assets (canyons, border, bay). Plus, we started planning in 1908 with John Nolen stating upfront, “Notwithstanding its advantages of situation, climate, and scenery, San Diego is to-day neither interesting nor beautiful. Its city plan is not thoughtful, but on the contrary, ignorant and wasteful.” I get it.

We are still having a hard time with planning today as needed Community Plan Updates go through referendums and delays. Transit-Station Areas plans turn into protesting mobs fearful of 60-foot tall ‘towers of terror!’ And, add in the fact that two nationally-recognized urban planning / smart growth gurus, Bill Fulton and Bill Anderson, were un-ceremonially relieved of their planning director’s duties, its time for cultural shift of planning expectations here. That said, I am very fond of local planner, Jeff Murphy, and am pleased he accepted the director position this week.

Canadian planning director rock stars, Brent Toderian (Vancouver) and Jennifer Kasmit (Toronto), both recently stated that “Planning Directors need to be truth tellers.” Telling the truth builds trust, and it is trust that is lacking between San Diego and its professional planners. Our profession has historically been vilified as consultants to evil developers, administrators of wasteful regulations, and stooges for unjust political agendas. I get it. 

Part of our cultural problem with planning is that in good economic times, San Diego historically tends to value planning as a tool to slow or mollify development spikes. For when money is flowing, it floods our city. And, in bad times, we eliminated planning for it then gets in the way of continues to slows any new building, because thats how it had been used before the sudden crash. 

Therefore, we need to learn how to use planning as tool to guide our city buildings, and providing public services as well as limit private investment risks, in both good times and bad. This change will take a cultural shift, and it takes time cultivate culture. The following points are how I think we can start this shift:

REALLY LEARN FROM DOWNTOWN

No, I do not mean scatter downtown’s high-design residential towers across the city (we tried that 40 years ago and it got us the 30-foot height limit along the coast). I mean review the tools that changed its culture from a 9-to-5 business district into mixed-use, more walkable urbanity. The tools were a carefully localized zoning tool (its PDO), a defensible environmental document, and a predictable permitting process.

Throughout the rest of San Diego, we have a problem with implementing our big policy documents (General Plan, Community Plans, TOD Guidelines, Climate Action Plan) because we then treat everything at zoning/regulation level with a one-size-fits-all approach. One of downtown’s best lessons is the value of detailed plans and planning at the neighborhood scale. As a matter of fact, today’s Community Plan updates are replacing local PDOs that need to be updated for new city-wide zoning. Downtown should teach us to avoid this approach and try to localize our rules to better limit conflicts between neighbors over details such as how new buildings face onto the street and backs up its neighbor, and the character of that street, from Main Streets to quiet residential streets.

Streets are for cars, people, bikes, shops, homes...

Streets are for cars, people, bikes, shops, homes…

LEADERSHIP NEEDS TO KNOW BEST PLANNING PRACTICES

We need our leadership to discuss where we are going with our city planned. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Today, we rely too much on our short-term political leadership to move projects from idea to building permit. And, without enough capacity to equitably provide the same attention to everyone, only a few get this excellent service.

Mr. Stepner reminded me that former Mayoral icon, Pete Wilson, set broad goals and used his professional staff to do their best duty of care to make the right decisions. These decisions use to be based on best practices and national models modified to the local context. Somehow we’ve lost that trust. I recommend our local professional and advocacy groups shift from preaching the choir to directly engaging local political leadership in lectures, workshops, and presentations on best practices from around the world (but don’t lose your 501c3 status).

PLANNING NEEDS TO KNOW BEST PLANNING PRACTICES

Ok, San Diego, we’ve got 1980 suburbia down… We know how to designated the use of a building, disclose its impacts on the environment, measure its Average Daily Trips, calculate the financing needed to build a new traffic signal at the intersection down the street these new trips will drive through, and collect Development Impact Fees for a future park that is expensive to build. While this system works well in a new residential pod out in Rancho del Rancho, it is impossible to use in our older, urban neighborhoods. This partially why our new policy goals mentioned above are difficult to implement. We’re using 20th century tools, such as land-use based zoning, to build a 21st century city. There are 21st century planning tools, such as context-sensitive, form-based, and place-based zoning tools and street typologies, available to make connections between policy and getting the places we want built. 

In our market-oriented economy, we must shift our reluctance to plan towards being a tool that bridges our city’s ongoing disjunction between an individual’s wants and our collective needs.

*National ACIP Examination Preparation Course Guidebook, 2000

Thinking Aloud (and on TEDx and beyond) About San Diego’s Urbanism

Urban Planning

I’ve been fortunate to have been invited twice to speak about my ideas on urbanism at San Diego’s TEDx American’s Finest City events.

The first one was held in 2012 at Scripps Oceanic Institute (Walter Munk is a true American hero) and was on my thoughts on how to code/build towards a local community character in post-redevelopment California. The idea originated from a week Leon Krier spent in San Diego and his approach to creating a ‘there, there.”

Coding for Character TEDxAFC

The second one was held in 2013 at the NewSchool of Architecture + Design. This talk was on my ideas of San Diego’s next urbanism, after the suburban exodus back to downtown. As always, inspired by Leon Krier, I see our culture becoming more secure with urban living. Plus, our cities are built upon trends and urbanism is simply the latest.

http://dai.ly/x2p9o4a or http://dai.ly/x2p9o4a

Other videos of my thoughts are below for your viewing pleasure:

https://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/politics/WEB-POLITCAL-SPEAK-SEG-1-5-3_San-Diego.html