December 5, 2017 – San Diego Union Tribune – Joshua Emerson Smith reports – Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office is expected to unveil Thursday a new strategy for choosing which neighborhoods in San Diego will be the focus of increased job and housing density — a move aimed at satisfying the city’s legally binding pledge to reduce greenhouse gases.
Urban planning experts around the country have been nearly unanimous in their belief that dense, walkable neighborhoods are crucial for cutting down on tailpipe emissions.
However, putting such policies into practice has been difficult for elected officials, who routinely face resistance from homeowners fearing urbanization and traffic congestion.
Now, a new mapping tool, still under development by engineering firm Fehr & Peers, could give environmental and housing advocates leverage in the push for centralized growth in certain areas.
The analysis being developed would assign communities individual targets for increasing residential and commercial densities in an effort to located new development as near as possible to public transit and job centers.
“As an example, if two communities are primarily housing focused, but one is closer to an employment center, it makes sense for growth to occur in the community that is closer to the employment center and would result in less (vehicle miles traveled),” according to a recently released staff report outlining the new strategy.
Staff are scheduled to share more details with members of the City Council’s Environment Committee at 1 p.m. on Thursday on the 12th floor of City Hall, located at 202 C St.
Community leaders working closely with the city on housing and planning issues expressed some skepticism that assigning such targets would actually result in more urban, walkable communities.
“This tool in and of itself will not persuade homeowners to accept more density,” said David Moty, chair of the Community Planners Committee, which oversees the city’s network of planning groups. “The city has an infrastructure problem that needs to be addressed. That’s something that would spur community acceptance and actually incentivize new housing.”
The mayor’s office and city staff declined multiple requests for interviews on the new mapping tool, which would focus specifically on reducing vehicle miles traveled throughout the city.
A recent analysis by the San Diego Union-Tribune uncovered a significant flaw in the way the city has calculated trends in vehicle traffic under its Climate Action Plan. Between 2010 and 2016, the city found that vehicle miles traveled had dramatically decrease when in fact it had increased, a statistical anomaly that has led the city to claim reductions in greenhouse gases that didn’t occur.
It’s unclear whether the city’s new density targets will be impacted by this flawed analysis.
This data-driven approach to promoting growth, comes in response to criticism last year from transit and environmental advocates that the city wasn’t doing enough to promote density during contentious zoning-plan updates for North Park, Uptown and Golden Hill.
At the time, many residents in those neighborhoods pushed back against up-zoning high-traffic corridors to allow for taller residential buildings and more businesses.
At the request of the San Diego Planning Commission and members of the City Council, the mayor’s office contracted in late 2016 with Fehr & Peers to analyze to what extent the proposed community blueprints would encourage people to ditch their car commutes.
To reduce greenhouse emissions, the city’s Climate Action Plan calls for about 22 percent of people who live within a half-mile of a major transit stop to bike, walk or take public transportation to work by 2020, and 50 percent by 2035. According to the most recent Census data, about 8 percent of commuters used such forms of transportation in 2015.
By far, the largest strategy is based on encouraging commuters to embrace mass transit.The climate plan calls for at least 51,977 people take the bus or trolley to work by 2020, up from about 26,854 today. Faulconer’s team hasn’t been tracking citywide progress on the issue.
At the same time, the city’s contracted analysis from last year found that none of the communities in question were on track to meet the the transportation goals.
Vicki Granowitz, a planning commissioner and former chair of the North Park Planning Committee, said she was cautiously optimistic about the city’s new targeted approach to density.
“Ultimately, you can say ‘It would have been nice to have this information,’ although, I don’t know how much impact this would have had for North Park,” she said. “Homeowners want to protect what they see as their dream home, and we need to do more to talk to them about what might motivate them if anything to accept more density.”
According to the city’s website, the neighborhoods currently undergoing community plan updates include Barrio Logan, Clairemont Mesa, Kearny Mesa, Mission Valley and Old Town San Diego.
The new tool is expected to be completed by winter of 2018 and applied to all plans going forward.
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