Turns out those environmentalists and historical-heritage people have a point.
Several points, really. Shortly after the San Diego City Council hurriedly passed the update to the 1992 downtown community plan in March, two groups sued the city. Save Our Forests and Ranchlands (SOFAR) argued the plan included too much parking and inadequate public transit and parkland. Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), sued to force the city to create a system where developers would be aware of the historical significance of a site before they begin construction.
Both groups are in negotiations with the city, and in interviews with CityBeat, representatives from both groups said they're pleased with their progress. They anticipate reasonable settlements soon.
Wanna know why?
'Cause the city knows it's gonna lose.
The Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), which administers redevelopment projects downtown on behalf of the city, oversaw the plan update and the associated environmental-impact review. When SOFAR and SOHO brought their suits, CCDC asked the Sacramento law firm of Remy, Thomas, Moose and Manley to evaluate the cases. In a draft memo, obtained by CityBeat, an attorney for the firm found the settlement proposals “strongly preferable” to going to court.
Both groups sued under the premise that the environmental impact report submitted by CCDC alongside the community plan was deeply flawed. Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), major project proposals, including community plans, which serve as blueprints for future development, must include a study, called an environmental impact report (EIR), that details the potential effects of a project on its surrounding environment: water, air, noise pollution and so forth. These reports have to be written under specific standards, and in this case, the EIR had some technical problems.
“We believe the EIR certified by the City Council is inadequate under CEQA,” the memo reads.
Since the memo is protected by attorney-client privilege, neither CCDC lawyer Helen Peak nor a representative from the City Attorney's office would comment.
The basic goals of the community plan received broad support from San Diegans. High density, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, neighborhood-oriented-those are the major tenets of modern urban planning. These principles offer something for everyone: developers like to get the most out of land by building skyward; environmentalists like concentrating population in small areas because it frees up outlying terrain for conservation; governments like the added tax revenue; citizens like vibrant cultural and living centers with close proximity to services. It's a classic win-win-win-win.
But creating sustainable development requires more than incentives for denser development, and the necessary infrastructure will put additional strain on our cash-strapped city. City Councilmember Donna Frye, who voted against the community plan revision in March, worries there won't be enough police or firefighters to protect the 90,000 residents CCDC anticipates will live downtown by 2030. Or what about the 165,000 workers who will go downtown by day? Other observers worry about inadequate parkland, or poor planning for storm-water drainage.
“SOFAR's perspective is that some of these issues are deck chairs on the Titanic,” said the attorney representing SOFAR, Marco Gonzalez, who also happens to advise Frye. “The infrastructure that is crucial to the success of every element of downtown development is transportation and parking. Until we fix those, the rest of it is just window dressing.”
The group has spent the last decade trying to slow or halt urban sprawl. To that end, it supports the notion of dense development. But they worry. If getting around downtown is too difficult or new amenities are inaccessible, people will choose to build more McMansions in exurban subdivisions.
Complicating matters, transit in San Diego County is managed by three separate yet equally important groups: the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), which controls TransNet, a huge pot of money dedicated to transportation; the North County Transit District; and the San Diego city government represented by the mayor, the City Council and CCDC. Often two or even all three of these governing bodies have to act in concert to make large-scale improvements.
SANDAG transportation planner David Schumacher told CityBeat the general plan focuses mostly on “increasing the efficiency of current services.”
That means a hodgepodge of smaller projects like special trolley cars that don't have the steep steps, to reduce boarding time, or making trolley-station improvements. For north-south corridors, SANDAG wants to add more express bus routes to get people into-or around-downtown quickly and to add managed transit lanes to the 805 and the 5 similar to ones already seen on I-15 in North County.
“We want there to be quieter streets. We want to have bike facilities,” said Alexandra Elias, a senior CCDC planner. “We've tried to work with the transit agency to locate some different shuttle networks, like our idea on a downtown shuttle. These routes are preliminary.”
To SOFAR, those ideas are missing the “vision thing.” They want to see trolley service expanded and more train service into downtown, including a new Coaster stop. But in this financial moment, with major payments owed to the city's pension fund, an expensive financial monitoring system to install and major belt tightening already in store for city employees, the city of San Diego just doesn't have the money to contribute to sweeping transit improvements.
SOFAR is conducting a three-pronged lobbying effort aimed simultaneously at all three transit agencies. Gonzalez wouldn't discuss details of the settlement or ongoing negotiations with CCDC or the city, but in its lawsuit, SOFAR asked for a consultant to conduct a transportation study. The result would be an addendum to the EIR that would offer an alternative with less parking and substantially more potential for mass transit. The study could then become a lobbying tool with the other agencies.
In a state and city built almost entirely around driving, the transition to mass transit comes with painful psychological costs, and there's substantial resistance to reduced downtown parking.
“Parking is a hot-button issue in the [City] Council,” said Council President Scott Peters, himself an advocate of more parks and mass transit.
The flawed EIR will have only limited impact on nearby developments like the Navy Broadway Complex or the one at Lane Field. Each of these is covered by its own EIR, though the one for Navy Broadway was finalized 16 years ago, when downtown looked very different.
The process of updating the downtown plan began in 2002, yet even so, the final approval in March felt rushed to many participants, particularly with regard to the number of free-standing parking structures and the historical buildings inventory. SOHO executive director Bruce Coons told CityBeat negotiations were simply cut off by the March vote.
“We weren't that far apart. We ran out of time,” he said.
In the end, Frye and an unlikely ally, City Councilmember Jim Madaffer, were the only nay votes on the revised plan. Madaffer was quoted in press accounts expressing concern over the financial calculations, though he did not respond to CityBeat's repeated calls for comment.
Even at this stage, none of the City Council members interviewed by CityBeat knew of the settlement negotiations or of the memo, though the attorney's letter had been sent in June. Still, the weaknesses in the EIR should have surprised no one.
“There was excellent testimony provided at that hearing,” Frye said. “These issues were brought up and pointed out; there are some issues that are undeniable.”