Consensus in Morena Area: San Diego City Officials Heed Developers Over Residents

by on September 16, 2019 · 7 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

Councilmembers Campell and Bry Voted Against Morena Corridor Plan

By Joni Halpern

For more than three years, the machinery of the City of San Diego has been seeding the public with an idea.  The broad skeleton of the idea is that San Diego needs more development to house expected population growth. But land within the City is built out, so city officials contend the only places left to accommodate new growth are in selected portions of existing planning areas.

If the details were as simple as that, the meeting last Wednesday night, Sept. 11, 2019, of about 80 residents of the Morena area – Bay Park, Overlook Heights, and Clairemont probably wouldn’t have been necessary.  But flesh added to the City’s skeletal idea over the past few years foretells a change in the quality of life for San Diego neighborhoods targeted for intensive development of high-density housing in so-called “transit-priority areas.”

It is that change — which residents believe will lead to fearsome levels of population overload, severe traffic congestion, the overflow of parked cars from new developments onto existing residential streets, unhealthy air quality, and the loss of a neighborhood feeling — that has roused residents along the Morena Corridor to organize.

Last Wednesday’s meeting was convened by Morena United (morenaunited.com), an informal opposition organization composed of residents from communities along the Morena corridor who “share the belief that reasonable growth can be accomplished in San Diego while preserving quality of life,” and that city officials who side with developers over community residents should be held accountable.

There was anger, frustration, disappointment, and an undercurrent of revolt among those who attended the meeting, ending in a dramatic show of hands in favor of filing suit against the City of San Diego. Several attendees contributed to a litigation fund for which donations are being sought to reach funding goals by September 20, 2019.

At the heart of this dispute, which has been bubbling beneath the surface of residential areas not known for clamoring against City Hall, is the Morena Corridor Specific Plan (MCSP), which contains specific regulations for portions of land located along Morena Boulevard that are actually within other community plans but are subject to the particularized planning requirements of the MCSP.

When it is fully developed, the area along Morena Boulevard (a portion of which is contained in the Balboa Station Specific Plan) ultimately will contain almost 15,000 high-density multi-family housing units in the narrow corridor of land along Interstate 5 from Friars Road to Balboa Avenue. The City claims these plans, which focus high-density development near two new trolley stops along the Mid-Coast Trolley Line, support the City’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), which calls for the elimination of half of all greenhouse gas emissions and the sole use of renewable sources of electricity within the City by 2035.  The developments also are intended to respond to the pressing need for more housing in San Diego.

According to the MCSP:

“One of the five primary strategies identified in the CAP is to implement mobility and land use strategies that promote increased capacity for transit-supportive residential and employment densities and provide more walking and biking opportunities. These concepts are consistent with the General Plan and include a focus on increased capacity in Transit Priority Areas (TPAs); areas within one-half mile from a major transit stop.”

Portions of the MCSP are in transit priority areas.

Residents of neighborhoods along the Morena Corridor believe they will have to absorb the ill effects of over-development made worse by the City’s increase of height and density limits and the removal of parking requirements for developments in the plan area.  These residents predict greater traffic congestion, packed parking on residential streets, reduction in air quality, and the loss of what once were walkable communities known for friendliness and hospitality to residents.

In anticipation of such changes, the residents of Bay Park, Overlook Heights, Clairemont and other nearby communities began five years ago to participate in the public dialogue concerning the changes envisioned by city planners and public officials.  From their earliest discussions in community planning groups, and with city planners and officials, residents challenged maximum height limits of 100 feet and high-density allowed by the MCSP.

They expressed doubt that trolley stops and other transport methods available at so-called “transit hubs” would meet the needs of thousands of new residents, given the notoriously inadequate public transit system that has always plagued the San Diego region.  Two new trolley stops within the MCSP area, residents contend, still would not cure the problems of public transportation that riders would face once they disembark from the trolley.

There are long waits between buses on some routes, no buses after certain hours, no routes in some places, high bus fares, restrictions on how many bags can be carried onto buses, and the absence of safe and affordable transportation to final destinations by seniors, persons with disabilities, and others encumbered by burdens that cannot be borne on a scooter, a bike, or by walking.  In addition, buses and trolleys allow only service animals, so transporting a pet to the vet or other destination would be impossible on public transit.

For years, residents who would be affected by the MCSP worked within the framework of public participation encouraged by the City.  But when it came to a vote, the community residents who attended last Wednesday’s meeting, as well as hundreds of residents who have participated in other public discussions of the MCSP, voiced the belief that the City Council had left them high and dry.

“The City Council does not care about us,” was a statement made angrily by many at the meeting.  “They only care about the developers.”

The consensus among meeting attendees was that the only option remaining to protect their neighborhoods from over-development was to sue the City of San Diego.

Leaders of Morena United who had tried for years to limit height and density of developments planned for the Morena Corridor explained the lengthy process they had navigated to make community concerns known to city planners.  Howard Wayne, former California assemblyman for the 78th District, and chair of the ad hoc subcommittee of the Linda Vista Planning Group, participated in the MCSP process.

He said community residents agreed that in order to accomplish Climate Action and housing goals, there would have to be some development in the Morena Corridor, but it should take place within appropriate limits of height and density.  In addition, he and others explained that if the City were serious about building its stock of affordable housing, it should increase the percentage required within each development. He said the existing 10% requirement is vastly insufficient.

“No one ever said ‘don’t develop,’” said Wayne.

“But we made clear from the beginning that the community’s concerns were no high density, no overwhelming heights.  But the Council just checked the box and said they had community input. Even when we commented on their environmental impact report, and we filed our own report, they blew off all our comments.”

James LaMattery, a local Realtor who established a website (RaiseTheBalloon.com) to encourage public participation in the MCSP, said he had done everything he could to avoid a lawsuit, working through countless discussions with City planners and officials, trying to find alternatives to a plan he believed was severed completely from community concerns.  He said he finally concluded the City Council did not care about the community. “The developer community has taken over the City Council,” he said.

Many persons at last Wednesday’s meeting said they had attended one or both of the City Council meetings at which the MCSP was approved.  The first reading of the plan took place on August 1, 2019.

Felicity Senoski, a spokesperson for the community, said she explained to the Council every point on which the community disagreed with the MCSP.  She said the Council dismissed the community’s concerns. Council Members Jen Campbell and Barbara Bry, however, managed to get some small concessions into the plan.

The percentage of affordable units that must be included in a development within the MCSP was raised from 10% to 15%.  Developers within the plan area will not be allowed to pay the so-called “in lieu” fee as an alternative to providing actual affordable housing units. Furthermore, developers will have to provide affordable housing units either within their development or somewhere within the plan area, not in some distant location.  An additional concession allowed the retention of two lanes in both north and south directions on Morena Boulevard.

On Sept. 10, 2019, the City Council approved the MCSP after a second reading, dismissing community concerns of height and density.  Council members Jen Campbell and Barbara Bry dissented.

LaMattery and Wayne were asked whether community opposition to planned development could be characterized as that of NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard).  They said residents who oppose over-development have never been against affordable housing for any level of income. They emphasized that they had argued for more affordable housing in the MCSP, not less.  They talked about the need for communities to realize a return on what is essentially a burden that taxpayers bear when private landowners are allowed to increase the value of their property by means of favorable height and density policies, and by public investment in trolley stations that make nearby property more valuable.

Wayne said the City Council should take the time to conduct an economic study to figure out how much land values increase because of changes in public policy or taxpayer investment in infrastructure. He said the City should find a way to calculate how much of that windfall to property owners can be returned to the community, perhaps with an increase in affordable housing or in some other way that benefits the community.

On Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, the City filed its Notice of Resolution, which starts a 30-day time period after which the MCSP becomes effective and permanent.  If a lawsuit is to be filed, it must be done before that period ends, Morena United leaders told the crowd. Audience members were asked their opinion on whether to sue or to give up the fight.  A forest of hands rose fiercely in the air in favor of a lawsuit.

“The City doesn’t care about us,” said one person.  “We’re just a meal ticket to them. This area is already crowded.  We told the City about it, and they just didn’t listen.”

“This City Council has been dominated, and unfortunately, so has the State Legislature, by developers’ talking points,” said LaMattery.

“Build, build, build, and that will solve all our problems. No City Council person is thinking about affordable housing. What has been approved here is market-rate housing, priced to the top 30% of earners in the community.  Seventy percent are priced out.”

 

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar Tresninos September 16, 2019 at 4:49 pm

A very important fact to add…There is NO funding for any infrastructure upgrades. Told this by the planning dept. Since the neighborhoods affected by this over densification are uphill, their water pressure will go down. Everyone needs to pray that there are no fires to put out. As history in San Diego has already proven, the water will dribble out of the fire hydrant. But the members of the city council probably haven’t lived here since 1984. When told, they dismissed the comment as that’s the water dept.
Stop the insanity of putting the horse before the cart. Need to hold our city council responsible for their lack of not doing what the people that elected them to do. Represent their community, not the big developers!!

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Avatar Zach September 22, 2019 at 2:45 pm

Tresinos – exactly.

And anyone who has been through this sort of development before knows what happens when there’s no funding for infrastructure upgrades…

Oh, and maybe they can call the new highrises “Rose Canyon Fault Towers.”

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Avatar Rufus September 17, 2019 at 9:07 am

NIMBYism at it’s worst.

Why do opponents only blame the builders of apartments and never support the right of the 15,000 people who are going to live there?

“Screw them, I have mine.” That’s what I hear.

We’re seriously short of places to live in San Diego. Renters are paying high rent not because of greedy landlords but because of a shortage of housing. Unless you want houses built all the way to the base of Mt. Palomar, you have to build up inside the city limits. And why not along the trolley line? I see northbound I-5 in the morning and southbound I-5 in the afternoon. The people who are going to live in these apartments in the Morena area are UCSD students, hospital workers, and those who have jobs in the Golden Triangle and downtown. They’re going to take the trolley to work! Why drive in that mess?

Get over it folks, your NIMBY greed is showing.

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Avatar Geoff Page September 17, 2019 at 1:10 pm

“Renters are paying high rent not because of greedy landlords but because of a shortage of housing.” Rufus, this is precisely why landlords have increased the rents and it is greed. There are older apartments and homes all over OB that are very probably long since paid off that have raised rents happily to the market rate when they don’t need to. And with no improvements of any kind. Using the pejorative NIMBY is just a knee-jerk reaction.

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Avatar ZZ September 17, 2019 at 2:02 pm

Rufus, I very much agree. I think the best solution is build true towers 10+ floors within one block of each new trolley station. Make them without parking, and you can offer lower rents and attract people without cars to them.

Building high lets more ground space be preserved in its natural state or park/rec land.

The height limit had good intentions, but a few exceptions around transit doesn’t conflict with this. And one bad thing the height limit had done has created big developments of 3-floor apartments with little open space around them. 10 floors but 1/3 the footprint is so much nicer in my view.

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Avatar Vern September 17, 2019 at 2:31 pm

“… An estimated 1 million people live underground in small basement dwellings and former bomb shelters in Beijing — a living situation that might seem intolerable until you hear how little rent they pay – only about $70/month…”
“… They’re all the service people in the city,” she says. “They’re your waitresses, store clerks, interior designers, tech workers, who just can’t afford a place in the city…”

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Avatar Geoff Page September 17, 2019 at 2:23 pm

ZZ, If you want to build a building with no parking then the tenants must sign a document swearing that they do not own a car, otherwise it makes no sense.

Also, the height limit you seem to be referring to does not apply to any buildings east of I-5. Different neighborhoods have set height limits in their community plans but those are vulnerable. The 30-foot coastal height limit is law and cannot be changed without a public vote.

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