So as anyone that visits knows, I stopped posting on this blog earlier this year. There's several reasons for this, but I hope to not give up permanently. I am not, however, going to maintain this website given the cost. To save my posts, I moved them all to Medium. Follow me there for future posts:
The Chargers have left San Diego for LA. This post isn't about that. It's about the big opportunity the City now has with a huge chunk of land in Mission Valley. I've explained why building a huge park is a bad idea. I've said what we could do if we just sold the land. I've played around before with what the City should do with the land. But let's be a little more serious.
San Diego has been trying to move from a suburban model of development to a more compact, urban form. This, obviously, has run into a NIMBY firewall that is fighting change to "neighborhood character." I obviously disagree with these people, but I give them some credit: too often, the City asks neighborhoods to accept the added density and the problems that come with it, but leave the benefits of density (parks and other public areas, transit, sidewalks, etc.) for the undefined future. Development Impact Fees trickle in, but seldom result in the promised big new projects. Bike lanes and transit are promised, but end up watered down or delayed by SANDAG.
The result is a lot of mixed feelings by residents about increasing density. Urbanists and YIMBYS picture European urbanism perfection, but we have to admit that hasn't happened anywhere in San Diego quite yet. Can you really blame people for being wary of new density?
This is where the Qualcomm site comes in. If you look at a map, the Qualcomm site is a HUGE chunk of land right in the middle of our city. It's on an existing trolley line and could be connected to future lines. The Mission Valley Community Planning Group is one of the most development friendly boards in San Diego. There is no existing development within the site. And, perhaps most importantly, there is no one living on the site (maybe a few homeless individuals) and few neighbors.
So let's not sell the land as a huge parcel to some developer to execute their (profit-maximizing) vision of development under the same old paradigm. Instead, the City should declare the site a civic innovation zone: the existing rules don't apply and we are going to adopt the cutting edge of city planning: low parking minimums, NACTO street design standards, strategically placed bike share, and a good level of density (not skyscrapers). Lay down a street grid, find a place for a park and a school and the other urban necessities, and sell the individual parcels to developers willing to comply with an innovative form-based code with included affordable housing. Use those proceeds to build the infrastructure and get it all done as soon as possible.
We could, in effect, create the model urban neighborhood to hold up as a shining example to the rest of the City. The goal would be not only to create a great new place to live and needed housing units, but also a neighborhood that leads people to say "I want that." If we can do it all right and all at once, we can provide a concrete example, that people can visit, of our vision of the future of San Diego. It's a huge opportunity, let's not waste it.
As the name of this blog implies, I was motivated to be an opposing force to the NIMBYs. As many people seem to agree, the NIMBYs are standing in the way of the progress we need to achieve as a city, state, and country. Also, it's fun to tease the NIMBYs and laugh at the crazy things they say. I get it.
But as I spend more time looking at these issues and trying to imagine a solution, I think we are all doing a disservice by throwing our hands up in the air and mumbling "NIMBYs, whaddya gonna do?" or becoming consumed with hatred for those that disagree with us. Because here is the thing: the NIMBYs are not the real problem.
To stay sane, my worldview has to include three key principles: Most people are reasonable. And most people want to be rational. And it's reasonable and rational to act in your own self interest. We even put it in our Declaration of Independence: we are endowed with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We all want to be happy, and it's perfectly fine to pursue that goal.
The problem arises when one person acting in their own self-interest harms the community's overall best interests. The classic example of this is the Tragedy of the Commons, where, in the absence of regulation, each person acts in their own immediate self interest, but with negative consequences for the interests of the collective community and, ultimately, every individual. This, in part, is why we need government.
Moreover, despite their best efforts, people acting in their own self interest are sometimes irrational and often misguided by inherent biases that we all have to one degree or another. As a general rule, people prefer the status quo to change and are scared of losing what they own even if they stand to gain even more. We tend to believe that other people agree with us more than they actually do. We tend to have difficulty relating to people of a different race. We remember the past to be better than it actually was. The list goes on and on and on.
These tendencies were perfectly exemplified in the recent rejection of housing for low-income veterans in Poway. Several Poway residents spoke out against the development, often using horribly biased language and ignoring the actual facts. To be clear: this is wrong and bad.
But I was somewhat disturbed when reading the comments: people were focusing their ire and frustration on the residents, as if these NIMBYs were the problem when the real fault lies elsewhere.
If an entity has a decision-making process that can lead to bad results because of only a few irrational actors, that process is going to fail and needs to change. The real problem in Poway is not that a few people acted irrationally. That has always happened and will always happen. No, the real problem is that Poway's City Council ignored the multiple, evidenced-based studies that showed no major adverse impact and instead sided with a small number of NIMBYs.
If your solution to achieve our YIMBY goals is to convert every NIMBY or shame them into silence, you are going to fail. Irrationality is inevitable and will always appear: we cannot allow this to result in failure. Instead, the solution has to be building and enforcing processes that account for irrationality and misguided self-interest, attempting to communicate with and educate those acting irrationally, and building a counterforce to the irrationality if it doesn't subside.
Sure, the NIMBYs were wrong. We don't have to agree with them and they aren't blameless. But attacking them will not solve any problem other than making ourselves feel a little better. Too often, we allow our institutions to favor the status quo and respond to irrationality. It is far worse that we have fostered a belief that individual property owners are allowed to exert control over property they do not own to the detriment of others and our collective well-being. It's wrong that a city council is willing to reject the scientific studies by staff and accept the uneducated opinions of a few biased individuals. And it's wrong that our institutions amplified the voices of these few individuals while making it difficult to hear the voices of the rest of us that would have supported this housing. But when we attack these individuals and don't demand change elsewhere, we allow the real problem to persist and set ourselves up for failure in the future.
The fun of blogging is that I can post half-baked, incomplete ideas. Unlike an editorial or proposed legislation, it's fun to put out an idea that doesn't seem quite fully formed, but is still intriguing to think about. This is one of those.
A little bit ago, I wrote a similarly tenuous post about an initiative to build social housing in San Diego. Please, read the post, but the general idea was to pass an initiative that would raise money to be used to build mixed-income social housing in San Diego, and then use the rental income from that housing to fund parks, sidewalks, libraries, and other community improvements.
As I admitted, I didn't get to the point of identifying the source of funds. The point of this post is to introduce that source of funds, or at least one source. The ultimate goal is not only to raise money, but to do so in a way that incentivizes even more market-rate development. If we can attack the problem from both sides, we'll arrive at the solution even faster.
When it comes to policy problems, it's helpful to think of the distinction between "sins of commission" and "sins of omission." The use of "sin" can be misleading, but this common distinction is important. Government is pretty good at dealing with "sins" of commission, by creating a governmental reaction to a citizen's action: murder someone, go to jail. Buy some cigarettes, pay a tax. In the case of development, this takes the form of Development Impact Fees: if you build new housing that is going to make traffic worse and crowd our parks, then the city will charge a fee to address those issues. The collected fees are paid when new housing units are permitted and then pooled together to build new infrastructure. While this makes sense on a basic level, it also increases the cost of the thing (housing) we desperately need. At least to some degree, the fee makes it more difficult to build new homes.
What government is not as good at is dealing with "sins" of omission: when the problem is not that you did something, but you failed to do something. Like not buying health insurance. Or deciding not to be a Good Samaritan and save someone's life. Or, in the case of housing, sitting on underdeveloped land and not building the housing we need. There are many causes of this: sky high construction costs, Prop 13, overly burdensome regulation, NIMBY opposition, etc.
To be sure, we don't like government forcing us to do something and overpunishing inaction can be alarming. I don't want to lose sight of that. But nevertheless, it's worth exploring how to get citizens to take actions that benefit the community as a whole. Don't force someone, but nudge them to do the right thing.
So back to the focus on housing. Impact fees are premised on the recognition that new housing leads to increased public costs. But this goes both ways: committing to build new housing costs us, but so does omitting to build new housing. Regardless of the cause, the lack of new construction hurts us, as a community, in an opposite yet symmetrical way to actual development. When landowners fail to build housing, it requires governments to spend money to provide homeless services, affordable housing vouchers, increases in salaries to help employees pay for expensive housing, greater infrastructure costs caused by increased sprawl. . . the list goes on and on.
So what if we tried to do something about that? If we could make people pay when they fail to develop land to its potential, we may be able to encourage people to build.
So here's the idea: as a counterpoint to Development Impact Fees, we could charge a Vacant Land Fee. It could use a better name because it wouldn't apply only to vacant land, but also underdeveloped land. Although not expressly stated, every lot in the City is zoned for a theoretical maximum number of units that could be built on each lot. For each unit that is not built, we could charge a fee (not a tax) to compensate the city for the harm caused by the failure to build. The fee would be due upon transfer of the property.
Importantly, the fee would apply only to underdeveloped land: if you live in a single family home on a lot zoned for single family, you won't be charged the fee. Likewise, if your lot is fully developed, the fee is not assessed. The hardest hit would be owners of parking lots downtown, where there are zero housing units on a lot that is zoned for hundreds.
So how would this work? Let's say there is a parcel of land with a single family house on it sitting in the heart of Hillcrest. The current zoning, however, would allow ten units. If the parcel is put on the market and sold in January 2017, the City would impose a Vacant Land Fee for the "missing" nine units. As a placeholder, let's say the fee is $10,000 per missing unit.
I hear the grumbling, you are already worried about this idea. Buyers shouldn't be penalized for the units not built by the seller, and how would this lead to new units? But what if we (1) set a five-year deadline for payment of the fee; (2) allowed for a 20-year interest-free payment plan; and (3) permitted post-transfer reduction of the fee if new units are built?
Applying these rules to the same example, the new owner would be required to pay $90,000 in January 2022, but at the rate of $4,500 per year ($90,000 divided by 20 years). If the new owner builds those nine new units within that five-year window, the fee disappears. If she builds the units after ten years, the payment drops at that point. The effect would be a financial incentive to build the units allowed by current zoning. Also, because of the fee, it would discourage people from buying the parcel unless they intend to build it out.
The actual amount of the fee would be calculated based on the cost to the City of those missing units. If we are willing to say that housing is a right within the City, the fee would be roughly proportionate to the cost of building a new affordable housing unit. If that's the case, the fee may be much higher than $10,000 per missing unit.
The end result would be (1) a new source of funding for affordable housing (for the social housing works mentioned in the linked post), (2) an incentive for homeowners to build the maximum number of units on their land, and (3) a shifting of the externalized costs of single family homes to those who choose to live that way. The fee would not make it illegal to own a single family home on University Avenue in Hillcrest and would not mandate development, but it would make that homeowner bear the brunt of the societal costs of that decision. Moreover, if the result is a new source of funding to handle these huge costs to our City, it could theoretically lead to lower taxes in another area, like sales tax or property tax bonds. Because the fee would be paid only by landowners, it would be more progressive than sales taxes.
So that's the idea. Like I said, half-baked and who knows how it would pencil out. But fun to think about. Let me know what you think and how you would make it better. Or why it's the worst idea you read this year.
In a post earlier this year, I calculated that to freeze housing prices and move closer to affordability, the City of San Diego needs to build 100,000 new housing units by 2020. Right now, the City has a little over 500,000 housing units. Adding 100,000 more, therefore is about a 20 percent increase. As explained in that post, that's about 19,000 units per year when we have been building around 2,000 units per year, on average. In other words, a massive change.
But that's just a number. Inspired by the comments of Scott Lewis on the Voice of San Diego Podcast, I decided to see how hard it would be to find a place to put those 100,000 new units. The answer, I have to admit, surprised me. I started to draw on a map and quickly hit the 100,000 goal without trying too hard.
Before I reveal the map, here were my initial rules: the housing should be on major transit lines that will exist by 2020. All of the units I added were either on the trolley or a Bus Rapid Transit Line. As often as possible, I wanted to use real projects or official projections. I also wanted to avoid skyscrapers anywhere other than in downtown San Diego. For the most part, I aimed for less that 100 dwelling-units per acre, with most of the areas for growth receiving around 50 units per acre. As this excellent guide shows, that mostly means three to six story buildings.
To be clear, this is a very rough estimate: I am sure I included some land parcels that couldn't handle the density, and actually getting this many units built is a whole different issue. Also, I am not saying these specific parcels are the best suited for new development. I simply started with areas that popped in my head and stopped when I got to 100,000. The only point is to show that a massive new growth spurt in the city would not intrude on most neighborhoods and would involve only areas directly adjacent to transit.
So here is my map. I tried to color-code each geographic area and include the number of units proposed. Dividing the number of units by the specified acreage will give you an idea of the density.
When zoomed all the way out, it's striking how little area would need to be redeveloped to handle 100,000 new units. Many other obvious areas for growth are untouched. For example, I didn't add anything in Hillcrest beyond the Gateway project and didn't touch San Ysidro. This also ignores "lighter" methods for adding additional units, like granny flats that could be added behind single family homes. If we could actually encourage development in these areas near transit in addition to all other growth, we could have a much more affordable city.
We could do this. It's not that hard. Not only is this not adding much density in the vast majority of the City, but adding this relatively light new development could really benefit the areas where it is built. If the City wanted to get serious about making San Diego more affordable, it would be helpful to do an official version of this: set a goal of how many units we need and prioritize the areas where they should be built.
Ever since Measure A failed last month, the common narrative is that San Diego is divided on the issue of transportation infrastructure: the urban core wants public transit and bike lanes and the more suburban North and East County want freeways. As Ron Roberts put it:
The public debate over Measure A highlighted a deep division in the San Diego region over what modes of transportation would best serve everyone’s needs and meet environmental goals. . . . On one side are people who believe that all freeway investments are bad, and that instead the focus should be solely on expanding bike lanes, rail lines and bus routes. At the other end of the spectrum are those who feel that more investments must be made to repair and improve our freeways and local roads and less should be spent on public transit.
It's a good story. The underlying premise is that each region wants new infrastructure to help them get around the county and, in the most basic sense, get them home from work earlier. As one politician put it in an op-ed claiming to speak for the suburbs, "Voters desire highway and road improvements that reduce their commute time and improve quality of life. Voters want to spend time with their families instead of in traffic."
On its face, the demand for new freeways to ease commutes makes perfect sense. The problem, however, is that it is premised on a known falsity that SANDAG doesn't want the suburbs to figure out. The simple, undisputed fact is that new freeways will not result in shorter commutes. Instead, freeway expansion will only cause more demand for housing in the suburbs.
The funny thing is that SANDAG itself has repeatedly, if somewhat quietly, admitted this is true. Despite labeling Measure A as a "traffic relief" plan, SANDAG admits it will not materially affect commute times. Usually, SANDAG buries this admission in their environmental review documents, like on page 26 of this document. In SANDAG's jargon, they admit that "new arterial lanes, managed lanes, toll lanes, and general purpose freeway and highway lanes within the proposed Plan are the most likely to induce vehicular travel in the region." Put into plain language, "inducing vehicular travel" means that if we add freeway lanes, the result will not be less traffic, but instead more cars sitting in the same amount of traffic. You won't be getting home any sooner, but you'll have more friends sitting next to you that are also miserable.
So adding freeway lanes will not benefit current residents or shorten commutes because adding lanes will only mean more cars on the road. And this is where it gets interesting for suburbanites. Why will there be more cars on the road? This sounds obvious, but it's an often overlooked point: more cars are the result of more people. And those new people need new houses to live in. Although those added lanes will not shorten commutes, they will allow more people to live in your community and have the same commute as you.
When you think of San Diego's history, this makes perfect sense. Before the interstate freeways were built, towns like Encinitas and El Cajon were sleepy little communities. As the interstates were built, the cookie-cutter suburbs exploded as people could now live far from job centers and commute in. As new lanes were added, more and more people could take the freeways and more and more people moved to the suburbs.
If we add even more lanes to the freeways, there is only going to be more demand for housing in your city. Sure, you can try and limit zoning for new housing, but the developers are going to sue you. When demand is so high, developers can afford the lawsuits.
But if we all oppose new freeways, the traffic on the freeways will stay the same, but there won't be more room for more cars. The result? Demand for new housing will drop. A young couple that works downtown will realize that living in Carlsbad may not work for them and they will instead look in North Park. As demand drops, the lawsuits will fade away.
The opposite point is also true: if new public transportation is built in the urban core, demand for housing in the urban core will also increase. The result? New houses are built in Hillcrest, not Encinitas. If you live in Encinitas and do not want to see more housing, it is in your best interest to support public transportation in the urban core of San Diego.
SANDAG doesn't want you to figure this out. With its "United Nations" approach to planning where every city is given an generally equal voice, it developed a "Regional Housing Needs Assessment Plan" that spreads new housing growth around the entire county. When any region can veto SANDAG's actions, it needs to both share the "wealth" and spread the "pain" to every corner of the county. This only succeeds if SANDAG can plan for new growth in the suburbs and spend billions of freeways to allow for that growth. If the freeways don't happen, the growth in housing will slow, requiring more housing in the urban areas.
For the past half century, planning in San Diego County has resulted in huge growth in the suburbs aided by freeway expansion. But things have changed. The suburbs don't want to keep growing and the urban core wants more density. The only way to achieve this result is to stop new freeways and build new transit, but SANDAG is planning to do the opposite. The only people that benefit from new freeways are SANDAG planners that don't want to adapt to a new world and the unions and construction companies that benefit from endless construction of more freeway lanes funded by your tax dollars. If the suburbs and the urban cities can work together, they can ensure that San Diego will see a new way of growing. As long as they are diametrically opposed, however, nearly no one wins. Except SANDAG.
(Disclosure: this post is a little off-topic for this blog. Although I am completely serious, this is just a quick post rather than an in-depth explanation. Still, it would be great if it can ignite the change.)
All of us are still wrestling with what a Trump victory means for the country, not to mention our individual interests. One theme that has emerged is the importance of California and all that we represent. In a joint statement from California's legislative leaders, the writers stated that "California has long set an example for other states to follow....California was not a part of this nation when its history began, but we are clearly now the keeper of its future."
Aside from the silly "Calexit" chatter, most of the focus has been on casting California as the shining "City Upon a Hill" for a modern America, a place where a "pluralistic and democratic society" can thrive. But no one has really gotten into what that means. It's easy to imagine these efforts occurring within the current federalist paradigm, passing state legislation to counteract any federal efforts. And there is nothing wrong with that.
But what if more can be done? As some of my previous posts may make clear, I think the first consideration when thinking about any problem has to be an analysis of the institutions. So what should we look at when trying to figure out the problem of Trump? The biggest problem I see is that few have accepted, beyond the current uproar over the Electoral College, that American democracy is doomed as Matt Yglesias explains in a post on Vox.com. Yglesias explains it much better than I will, but the overall problem is that our presidential democracy with a bicameral legislature, wherein one chamber is granted undemocratic power vested in small states, is unworkable over a long enough time frame. With so many checks and balances, stalemates are becoming increasingly common. And when government is dysfunctional because of Republican obstructionism, the "small government" Republicans can point to the ineffectiveness of government as a reason to distrust it and shrink it even more. In this positive feedback loop, crisis is almost assuredly inevitable. As the last decade demonstrates, there is little hope for progress in the face of enormous obstacles.
If California really wants to show the way to the future, we need to ditch the idea of an executive system of government and amend the California Constitution to create a parliamentary system. For about 50 years, we have been a third of the way there. As originally created, California had a legislature modeled after the federal system: an 80-member Assembly of roughly equal districts and a 40-member Senate with representation for each county, regardless of size. In 1964, however, the Supreme Court decided that state legislatures of this model were unconstitutional because they violated the "one person, one vote" principle by diluting the voting power of those in populous counties! Since that time, both our Assembly and Senate districts are apportioned based on population to ensure roughly equal representation. In effect, we have two chambers with no obvious distinction to justify their dual existence. I cannot imagine why we have two chambers other than a dedication to our historic norms. The real world effect is a waste of millions of dollars to maintain the Senate and even more veto points to slow down progress. It's ridiculous.
One easy solution would be to simply dissolve the State Senate. But let's go even further and create a full-bore parliament: a single 140-member Assembly, with one member assuming the role of Prime Minister of California and other "executive" positions appointed from those elected to the Assembly. The real world effect? In California, it wouldn't be that different. The Democrats would still control the state government. Our new Prime Minister probably wouldn't be that different than any Governor. All of our existing laws and principles could continue unchanged beyond simple wording.
But there are also several benefits: the ability for third parties to exist (as is often the case in parliaments, where smaller parties can represent the extremes of political ideologies and ethic minorities); smaller districts (by eliminating the overlap between current Assembly and Senate seats to create more direct representation); simpler elections for voters (just vote for your assemblywoman, no need to select an assemblymember AND a senator AND a governor AND a lieutenant governor, etc.); fewer veto points to slow down new laws; and if the model proves successful, a chance to prevent the collapse of our country.
There is a reason that nearly every other developed, democratic nation has a parliamentary system rather than a presidential system: it is more efficient and lessens the likelihood of an authoritarian takeover. It is nearly impossible for Donald Trump to become the Prime Minister of the United States. If California really wants to lead the way, let us introduce a new form of governance to the United States, not merely a variation on the same theme that is failing us at the national level. Then we can really be a beacon to the future.
In my last post, I wrote about why I thought progressives should support Measure A. As expected, the Measure failed. I was widely criticized for voicing an opinion about a strategy that I did not personally participate in, but the point was not to attack anyone. Like all of us, I'm grieving this week over the national results. My coping mechanism is to try to think of solutions, to push forward. As with all of my posts, feel free to ignore this one. I'm happy that anyone reads, but my goal since Day One was to simply have an outlet for my stray thoughts.
So, Measure A is dead. Now what do we do? Here are my first, rough thoughts.
I. The Trump Effect
I think any solution needs to pay careful attention to the effects of the Trump presidency. Today, I see two critical considerations as it relates to transit funding.
First, it is likely Trump will negate decades of hard work on climate change, unraveling not only federal regulations but also international agreements. If he does what is expected, it is likely impossible for the planet to avoid significant warming based on voluntary emission reductions. This doesn't mean we give up on our local goals, but I think it means that the only possible way to prevent significant warming is a technological miracle. With federal research funding likely to be slashed, anything we can do locally to encourage technological progress should be encouraged. We can't rely on a technological solution, but we can help create the environment that incentivizes invention and experimentation.
Second, unless Trump changes course, federal funds for transit are likely to disappear or be severely curtailed. What does this mean? Major transit projects, like trolley lines, may never succeed unless we can fully fund them with state and local resources. This is still up in the air, but it may require a shift to smaller projects.
II. SANDAG Reform
This is obviously a pet issue of mine. Nearly all of the problems we currently face and those that arose under Measure A are the result of the undemocratic structure that is borderline unconstitutional and causes a disparate impact on minorities and low-income families. We need a full-throated lobbying effort on our newly-elected state legislators to pass a SANDAG reform bill. If we can't get reform to ensure equal voting power to end implicit discrimination, I don't know what battles we can win. To put the pressure on, it may even be worthwhile to file a lawsuit challenging SANDAG. It might not win, but it will drive attention to the cause.
If SANDAG doesn't change, I see little reason to hope that further lobbying efforts will lead to the drastic change we need. Keep fighting SANDAG, but I don't see how lobbying the Board will be enough.
III. Non-Revenue Actions
Even if we succeed in finding new revenue for active transportation and transit, it is going to take at least two, maybe four or more, years. This delay is disastrous. We need to not give up on new revenue, but also push for actions that do not require revenue. The best bet is land use: our current transit infrastructure is vastly underutilized. We need to pass major land use reform around our existing transit stations. In a previous post from about a year ago, I called them Green Life Activation Stations, or GLASes. I'm sure someone can come up with a better name. Earlier this year, Howard Blackson wrote about the same idea and called them Climate Action Zones. The idea is a drastic upzoning to encourage development around underutilized existing transit.
There is a wide range of other "cheap" transit fixes to increase use: realigning bus routes, converting existing freeway lanes to managed lanes, road diets, or even introducing some form of a congestion charge. Similarly, if we can't make transit better, we can help push a mode shift by making driving worse. This means higher parking costs, lane conversions, etc. Although we need new revenue, we should be creative in finding "free" solutions that leverage our existing infrastructure.
IV. Revenue Sources
Measure A, like Transnet before it, was a sales tax increase. There are two problems with this. First, sales tax revenue is uncertain and potentially insufficient to raise the required revenue. Second, a sales tax is very regressive, putting the burden of funding our transit largely on our low-income population. Under state law, SANDAG had to push for a sales tax increase, it doesn't have the authority to pursue other forms of revenue. But starting on a clean slate, progressives should look to other forms of taxation: property tax, even a state-level income tax increase, or other forms of taxation: TOT, gas tax, services fee, I don't know what's possible. Perhaps we can sell the Qualcomm site to raise funds to combat climate change. But now that we are starting over, let's expand our horizon.
Those are just some first thoughts. I'll be interested to see what our advocates come up with.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned on Twitter that after months of opposing Measure A, I decided I now support it. I got some pushback from people who suggested I was abandoning our climate goals, selling out to evil SANDAG, or just accepting an ill-advised compromise.
Very few people read this blog, so I am not writing under any pretense that this will affect the outcome of the election on November 8, less than a week away. But I thought it may be worthwhile to lay out my reasoning, if for no other purpose than to show there is more than one way to reach a desired outcome. Many will disagree, but I hope it at least makes some people question the thought process.
I don't think my overall preferred outcome is any different than the No on A coalition. The question, therefore, is a disagreement over how we get there. Based on the reasoning behind the opposition, it seems too many people are asking: "Is Measure A a good proposal? Doe it do enough to get us towards our goals?" The answer is undoubtedly no. It includes too much freeway spending in all the wrong places, it doesn't provide enough certainty that transit projects will be built, and combating climate change is pushed to the side.
But that is the wrong question to be asking. Instead of asking whether Measure A is "good," we need to be deciding whether a "No" vote on Measure A will get us closer to our preferred outcome. I think the answer is it does not. Faced with this fork in the road -- support or oppose Measure A -- taking the "Yes" road offers the path of least resistance and the most feasible opportunities for achieving the desired outcome.
So how do I reach that conclusion? Anyone who is reading this knows what Measure A is, so I won't go into the details. The way I look at it, Measure A has two main components: (1) a revenue increase and (2) a list of projects to be built with that revenue. As far as I know, no one on the left is opposed to a revenue increase.
Looking at the actual Measure A language, there are two critical provisions: (1) There is a project priority list that SANDAG has discretion to delay but the funding can only be removed with a countywide vote of the electorate [Section 24] and (2) although the measure includes a project list, any project built with Measure A revenue "shall be consistent with" the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) and submit to an EIR [Section 3.D and 14.F]. Stated in other terms, if the RTP changes, the project list necessarily has to change and the project list can be changed with a countywide vote of 50%. This lower threshold is being completely overlooked, but is critical to any analysis of Measure A.
These two facts mean that even if Measure A passes, there are two methods to change the project list, the very source of nearly all objections to Measure A. Moreover, at least one of these methods --- changing the RTP --- is practically inevitable. The EIR for the predecessor to the current RTP is currently under review in the Supreme Court to determine whether the EIR must address compliance with the Governor's Executive Order to cut GHG emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. The current RTP expressly admits it does not meet this requirement. That same 40% reduction, however, was codified this year in SB32. Under SB375, some future version of the SANDAG RTP will have to meet this drastic cut in GHG emissions. The result? A far more transit-friendly RTP. When that RTP changes, so too will the projects that can be built with Measure A funds. If SANDAG resists state law? Our current courts have already been amenable to striking down the EIRs for deficient RTPs and past success would suggest another lawsuit is likely to prevail (Not to mention that CEQA lawsuits allow for the recovery of attorney fees, whereas you don't get your ballot initiative funding back.) Unless state law changes, its hard to imagine a future RTP that doesn't seriously amend the project list under Measure A.
Alternatively, advocates can push for a county initiative to change the project list, which would only require 50% approval. With that lower threshold, it would be far easier to find a majority willing to support a more transit-friendly project list.
Neither of those options may sound easy, and they aren't. But both are far easier and more likely to succeed than any alternatives on the table:
- Kill Measure A and then push for a new measure with 100% transit: this would either have to get past the SANDAG Board or require massive fundraising to push an initiative. I am a firm believer that the current SANDAG Board will not put a more transit-friendly initiative on the ballot. The current version, already under attack from the right, was the result of fierce lobbying and was close to not getting past the SANDAG Board as is. More lobbying isn't likely to change the result. And even if we could get it on the ballot, it would still require a 2/3rds vote countywide. Whether this is even possible is dubious. SANDAG's polling showed the main concern of county residents was freeways. Possible? Sure. Likely? Not really.
- Sub-regional measure: the idea would be to find a more transit-friendly electorate, like the MTS region, that would approve a transit-only plan. There are two flaws with this plan. First, it would likely result in less revenue, meaning less projects. Second, there is no real benefit to pursuing a smaller electorate. Looking at the comparative populations, 2/3rds of the MTS region (the threshold for a special tax increase) is nearly the same as 50% of the county. Thus, if you could hit 2/3rds in the MTS region for a new initiative, you could just as easily amend Measure A at the lower 50% threshold countywide AND have more revenue.
- Reform SANDAG: some have said that we need to reform SANDAG before anything else and then a new, transit-friendly Board will put a 100% transit measure on the ballot. I, of course, would love to see SANDAG reform. But even if this is achieved, it is still easier to get to our desired outcome if Measure A is already passed. This new Board could amend some of the project list itself and submit a Measure A amendment for the ballot, again with an only 50% approval threshold. This would be easier than the same Board crafting an entirely new transit-friendly measure which, once again, has to get 2/3rds approval from a skeptical county electorate. Measure A and SANDAG reform are not mutually exclusive, and we should be pushing for both at the same time.
Of these four options, I think the "Pass Measure A and Reform It" strategy is the most likely to lead to the desired outcome. Get the revenue increase in place, and then graciously lend a hand as SANDAG scrambles to comply with state law by completely reworking the RTP. At the same time, lobby the Legislature for a SANDAG reform package. It is far from perfect, but stands on firmer ground than any of the alternatives.
Again, the point of this post is only to show that carefully analyzing the options and finding the path of least resistance can lead to better outcomes than fighting tooth and nail in the trenches after picking the most obvious strategy. Most will disagree with me and my assumptions may be wrong. But I would love to see this type of analysis in the future rather than a knee-jerk protest.
I'll be up front with you: I am not a constituent and have never voted for a Republican in my life. I don't agree with you on many things, and might not even vote for you if I was a constituent. But I have always perceived you to be a principled man. After today's council action concerning short-term rentals, I actually think we share some of the same first principles. And, to be honest, us liberals need your help.
I'm sure you've seen some of the consternation from the left when it comes to implementation of the Climate Action Plan and SANDAG's Measure A. Despite unanimous support for the CAP from the City Council and national acclaim, our City is already skittish about taking the necessary steps to hit the targets. The usual solutions are being suggested: massive infrastructure spending on transit and bike lanes, greater regulation of developers, and perhaps measures related to mandating terms in contracts between building owners and businesses. These are typical liberal techniques to solve a problem (not that there is anything wrong with that). Similarly, the City has been operating under an affordable housing crisis year after year with no solutions arising. Some progressives, including your former opponent Carol Kim, propose the solution is not more market-rate housing to increase supply, but rather new tax revenue to fund government-built affordable housing, all constructed under a PLA. Again, typical liberal solutions to the City's ongoing problems.
But as you know, there is more than one way to tackle a problem. So here is what I am asking: take an active stance to help the City attack climate change and increase the supply of housing by using traditional, conservative methods. Given the history of the Republican Party and its general denial of climate change, conservatives have been largely absent from the discussion when it comes to policies to combat climate change. Likewise, the housing crisis plaguing America's biggest cities is being addressed by progressive policies given the liberal stranglehold on nearly every urban area in our nation. As a result, most of the policies at play are progressive: massive infrastructure spending, industry regulation, and heavier taxation. I support some of these policies, but they are failing. Perhaps what we really need is a conservative attack on the problem. And perhaps reimagining climate change policy can breathe some new life into the Republican party after this disastrous national campaign.
So what exactly am I talking about? Let's start with one easy solution that gets at both housing affordability and climate change: parking reform. Currently, as you know, the City of San Diego requires almost every development, residential or commercial, to include a certain number of parking spots. This government mandate is entirely unrelated to actual demand and drives up the cost of housing by thousands of dollars. Because the city dictates the construction of excessive parking, residents are incentivized to drive when they might not otherwise do so. In effect, the development of our city is distorted by the government's belief that it knows better than the free market regarding the number of spaces to include in any given construction project. The developer ends up paying to build the parking spot and the resident has to buy or rent it, even if he has no intention of using it. Even ignoring the harm to the free market, this makes no sense in the age of Uber. At least one developer has concluded that there is demand for units without parking and he could rent the units for half the price of the current market price. This shift away from personal ownership of automobiles is only going to accelerate in the future, but we are building new developments today that will last for decades premised on our government's antiquated notions of the needs of the past. Times have changed, but our regulations haven't.
I am not saying the city should mandate that there is a maximum number of parking spaces allowed. Likewise, giving developers freedom to choose the amount of parking does not mean no parking will be built. If property owners are given the option to build on their property as dictated by the market and residents were allowed to decide for themselves whether they need a parking spot, those residents may decide to spend less on housing without included parking and instead rely on a bike, public transit, Car2Go, or Uber/Lyft to get around. Instead of buying a car and spending money on gasoline, they could be purchasing bikes from local shops and paying the salaries of local, independent contractors driving Ubers. At the same time, we could move towards the mobility goals in the Climate Action Plan without costing the government one penny. Moreover, we could create more affordable housing without government subsidies towards rent. This would be a true conservative solution to multiple major problems, all premised on reliance on the free market and strong property rights.
Removing these government regulations will also spur innovation. Our current regulations lock in the status quo: every person owns a car, drives to his local stores and to work, and requires a parking spot at each end. Our parking regulations implicitly mandate this culture, but this paradigm makes less sense every day. Perhaps future businesses won't need parking spots because they rely on cheap delivery instead of walk-in customers. They could keep prices low if they weren't required to buy or lease parking spots with their shop, but our parking regulations inhibit innovation by saddling the business with the cost of those spots regardless of actual need. If anything, we are creating a tax on innovative business strategies and new ways of living. As I have seen in your work related to AirBnb, I know you see the error in such a strategy.
Now, many will say that if buildings don't include parking, people will just park on the street, taking up already valuable public spots. This is only true, however, because our city is operating those spaces inefficiently by "renting" them at below-market prices. Although on-street parking spaces are a public good, there is no reason for the City to pay to pave and maintain the spaces and install smart parking meters only to charge static, below-market prices or to give the spaces away for free. With current technology and hardware already in place since 2014, the City could dynamically price parking, adjusting the rate based on demand for the spots. This not only increases city revenue, it ensures there are always open spots and represents the most efficient use of city resources. The result? An end to government subsidization of automobile use by supporting free market principles. Moreover, it leads to increased revenue that can be used to avoid further taxation. The City agreed in 2014 to spend more money on smart parking meters that currently aren't being used in the way they were intended. If that doesn't constitute government waste to be avoided, I don't know what does.
San Diego is unique among the major cities in having a Republican mayor and strong conservative presence in the City. This places San Diego in a one-of-a-kind position to help reframe the Republican Party for our diverse and urban future. If the Republican Party wants to advance after the Trump disaster and make inroads into our urban communities, it needs to engage on the issues confronting our urban areas and help address climate change by proposing new solutions rather than adopting a reactive stance. If Republicans would rather cede this territory to the progressives, we are only going to see progressive policies. I hope you can show our City that the conservatives have just as much to add to the spectrum of climate change solutions by really considering where the city can cut regulations that distort the market, unnecessarily drive up costs of housing, and dis-incentivize the use of transit and other modes of transportation. A great place to start would be an across the board elimination of parking minimums in our planning code and implementation of smart, dynamic pricing of on-street parking. If you can demonstrate that the Republicans are the party of new ideas that actually tackle our most-pressing problems, perhaps you can help reinvent the Republican Party on real conservative principles.
Thanks for listening.
Over the past few weeks, and in reality much longer than that, there has been chatter about a citizen's initiative in San Diego on the topic of housing. The idea would be that instead of wasting public funds on things like a stadium, we should be solving our housing crisis. The need for such an initiative encompasses a wide range of topics: we need more housing for the homeless and low-income people, we need to increase housing supply across the board to moderate prices for everyone, we need housing near transit to further our Climate Action Plan goals, and we need increased density to drive the desire for more transit and pedestrian/bicycle infrastructure.
I've been toying with potential methods to make a dent in these problems. I by no means have a solution yet, and I wonder if this would even be politically feasible. But I've been thinking about a possible framework that I wanted to share to help drive some conversation.
Given that we are discussing an initiative, I believe that a source of money will be needed to develop a large capital fund. No doubt, the City could take great strides towards improving the affordability issue by removing regulations and other impediments to development without spending a dime. But even if the housing supply increased drastically in a freer market, the new units would largely be luxury units that would take awhile to filter down to the rest of the market. We need both housing reform and government-funded housing now.
So how should we do this? Here is my idea. First, we need the source of funds. This could be an additional property tax, it could be a sales tax, or it could be a transient occupancy tax, like the Chargers' Measure C or Measure D. This is open to debate. Regardless of the source, we should raise a large sum of capital. Amount: to be determined.
And what would we do with the money? The City should form a public agency tasked with building housing. This would not be the "projects" of the past, or even solely affordable housing. Instead, the agency, let's call it the San Diego Social Housing Works (SHW), would be tasked with three first-level goals: (1) building basic housing for our homeless population; (2) building affordable housing for low-income residents, and (3) increasing the overall housing supply. SHW would operate like a non-profit, with a goal of sustaining development on the proceeds from the tax increase such that all development has a net goal of being revenue neutral. SHW wouldn't earn a profit, but it also wouldn't waste the money.
In effect, the goal would be for the market-rate housing to subsidize the affordable and homeless housing. Now, you might say that this would be impossible: any market-rate rent would be insufficient to cover the money-losing units. But here's the trick to achieve this goal: given our zoning restrictions, much of our urban area property is artificially undervalued. This may seem nonsensical. We have high housing costs! But the expense of our housing is largely the result on the restricted number of housing units, not the price of the land, which has limited use under our planning scheme. Sure, a 1,000 square-foot bungalow may cost $700,000 in Hillcrest or North Park, but if you could put seven units on that same property, all of a sudden you can build seven 1,000 square-foot townhomes for $400,000 each. Because our zoning often prohibits this, the value of the underlying land is suppressed.
This fact creates an "arbitrage" opportunity that the city can exploit: the housing initiative should exempt property owned by SHW from as many zoning and land use restrictions as politically possible. Of course, the initiative should include appropriate safeguards to make sure this is not abused and should require community input. Perhaps instead of a blanket exemption, SHW gets a certain number of exemptions from requirements like the density bonus program. However it is structured, if done right, it creates another source of value for SHW. In effect, SHW could buy "undervalued" property and the effect of that change in ownership would be an immediate increase in value by upping the number of units that could be built on the lot and lowering the time it would take to build them. SHW would buy run-down single family homes and Huffman six-packs and redevelop in a way to increase the density. If SHW can build more units at lower property costs per unit, it could use this difference to fund the homeless and affordable units. I don't know if this would pencil out, but I see potential.
So what would this housing look like? First, all of the housing should be built in our transit areas to further the goals of the Climate Action Plan and avoid further sprawl. As for the actual design, I imagine something along the lines of Vienna's social housing. Read this article for an in-depth description, but the result is well-built, beautiful rental units with integrated public facilities, like schools and libraries. The units are largely income-limited to start, but the tenants never have to leave if they don't want to. For example, even if a family gains additional income, they can remain in their home with the same limited rent (adjusted for inflation). In effect, it's a form of mild rent control. The end result is a pleasant diversity of ages, incomes, and lifestyles all living together. But read the article, there are a variety of methods, include selling land to developers and giving favorable loans to build the desired units. All options should be explored. We should build a wide variety of housing, from studio units for students and artists to three and four bedroom units for families and multigenerational living.
Another avenue to explore is SHW could facilitate the building of granny flats. Recent changes to state law have made it easier to build granny flats, but the burden is still high for individual homeowners: finding the money to build the unit, hiring an architect and/or general contractor, and navigating the permitting process. SHW could do all of this for homeowners by creating pre-approved designs, providing low-interest loans, and handling permitting and construction. This would empower local homeowners while at the same time increasing the housing supply, all without costing money to the City in the long term.
If we can pull this off (and the details definitely need to be explored) we could build a robust portfolio of desirable housing owned by SHW. This would generate constant rental income that will only increase with time. In effect, SHW would use the initiative proceeds to first build a diverse set of housing, but then recoup the money from rent and/or property sales. This would give SHW a second bite at the money: now what should we do with it?
All too often, urbanists and housing advocates ignore the downsides of density, or at least the downsides subjectively felt by a large portion of our population. The rental proceeds, therefore, should be targeted towards alleviating these downsides: build parks for residents near the new housing, improving pedestrian and bike infrastructure to avoid excess traffic from the new residents, building new libraries and fire stations, or even funding free shuttles to supplement public transit.
So that's the idea: pass an initiative to create and fund the San Diego Social Housing Works, a semi-autonomous agency that could buy land and build housing freed from many of our land-use restrictions with the goal of housing the full spectrum of our population, including the homeless. Social Housing Works could then reinvest its revenue in the communities where it is building to improve the quality of life for everyone and counteract the effects of the new housing. It may not radically change the world, but it could have a real effect over time. It needs some work, but I would be curious to hear your thoughts.
Setting aside national politics, it seems San Diego Twitter has been busy debating the merits of the newly-revived "Plaza de Panama" plan to revamp Balboa Park. I'm sure anyone reading this is familiar with the plan, but the basic elements are (1) build a large paid-parking garage on the site of the parking lot behind the Organ Pavilion and put a park on top, (2) completely close the Plaza de Panama and surrounding areas to cars and (3) to keep the park accessible from the west, keep the Cabrillo Bridge open by building a bypass bridge coming off the south side of the current bridge to funnel cars into the parking garage.
After the Mayor's announcement that the plan was back, many people came out against the plan. Some were upset about the effect on the historic nature of the Cabrillo Bridge and the aesthetics of the bypass bridge. I won't try to argue about aesthetics, but all the renderings I have seen suggest a minimal disruption. If we are going to rally against architectural pillaging in Balboa Park, perhaps we should tear the whole thing down. It was always supposed to be temporary, right? Should we tear down the Timken Museum as being too modern? The Timken almost wasn't built, but is now a jewel in the park along with Panama 66 in the also-modern Sculpture Court, a favorite haunt of many of those now opposing the proposed plan.
Far too often, people argue that there is a better solution, like closing the Cabrillo Bridge entirely to cars. I completely endorse this idea and agree that it would be better. The problem, however, is it is not an option at this point. The institutions in the park will not support it. The Mayor will not support it. Irwin Jacobs and other wealthy benefactors will not support it. Any alternatives died years ago. The city will not, and can not, step back to square one, which would require abandoning a costly EIR and risk another lawsuit. The choice we face today is between the status quo and the currently-envisioned plan. Any other argument ignores the political realities facing the city and disregards the years spent arguing over the merits of the plan. Arguing for closing the bridge was commendable in 2012, but is misplaced in 2016.
Most of the critics are focused more on the parking garage. The argument seems to be that there is no reason to add even more parking to Balboa Park when the current lots are often empty. Also, the thinking goes, conceding the argument that closer parking is necessary will only further cement the primacy of the automobile in the culture of our city.
I understand these arguments. Usually, I am against any new parking lot or garage. But not all parking lots are created equal. The heuristic that "all parking lots are bad" is too broad. Parking is bad when it is offered for free and induces people to drive rather than walk or take transit. Parking is bad when it increases the physical distance between destinations. Parking is bad when it precludes better use of the space, like more housing or, on the street, bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes, or wider sidewalks.
But none of those problems are present here. As every critic willingly concedes, there is already a surplus of parking spots in Balboa Park on almost any day. If these existing spots are already empty, building even more parking is not going to induce more driving. The EIR for the project concluded, based on a traffic study, that the new parking garage will not cause any increase in driving to the Park. (See page 212 of Project EIR.) If anything, centralizing the parking and building a road that funnels all traffic into that garage will eliminate the stupid circling of cars (and resulting emissions) while they hunt for a spot in the closer lots.
The parking garage also won't increase any distances for walking between destinations. Rather than expanding the physical space devoted to parking, the new garage would effectively replace a huge surface lot with a peaceful park. When it comes to walking, this is an improvement. Similarly, the new garage would not preclude a better use. By placing a park on top, it actually increases the amount of parkland in Balboa Park when looking at surface area. There is no scenario where the current lot gets replaced with a park if it isn't sitting on top of parking. When it comes to parking garages, it's hard to beat this one.
The plan is also distinguishable from the fights over parking spots on city streets. In places like Hillcrest and Little Italy, the incumbent businesses are taking the short-sighted and selfish position that parking spaces for customers are more important than bike lanes. The fight is zero sum: any space devoted to parking or car travel is space that can't be used for alternative means of transportation. In effect, the demand for parking prevents people from walking, biking, and taking the bus. With the Balboa Park plan, however, nothing actively prevents anyone from walking, biking, or taking transit. Without the preclusion of more beneficial modes, the argument against parking is even weaker.
People also argue against spending taxpayer dollars on a parking garage given the other needs in the park. Usually, this argument holds water: any dollar spent on parking is a dollar not spent on better uses. With the Balboa Park plan, however, the intention is that donated private dollars will vastly exceed any public dollars spent on the plan. Without the parking garage, all this money evaporates. As Andy Keatts explained on the recent VOSD podcast, losing any leg of the stool will cause the whole plan to crash. Again, the choice is between the status quo and the current plan. Given that the parking garage avoids the usual problems with adding parking plus the pedestrian improvements to the park that are enabled by adding the garage, I can't help but support the plan that leverages some public money with large sums of private donations.
Also, an overlooked portion of the lawsuit challenging this plan was the dispute about paid parking in Balboa Park. Opponents of the plan argued that any parking inside the Park had to be free in perpetuity, but the court rejected this argument. The proposed parking garage would represent the first paid parking in Balboa Park and would replace a vast, free lot. Replacing free parking with paid parking should be embraced and applauded, not rejected. The sooner the city embraces more paid parking, the sooner we can start to avoid the externalized costs of parking.
Finally, I find the outright rejection of the plan to be a missed opportunity to make the plan even better while still accepting the basic elements. The biggest flaw in the plan is the premise that more parking is needed in Balboa Park. The current lots are underutilized and adding more spaces to the center of the park will only result in the more distant lots being even emptier. There are enough parking spots in Balboa Park; at most they are disorganized. If the plan is truly about improving Balboa Park, we should demand that it result in no net increase in parking spaces. This is important for two reasons. First, if the city will be on the hook for paying off the bonds used to build the garage with future parking revenue, we should do everything possible to ensure this garage is fully utilized. If the garage is surrounded by free parking, there is a strong chance that it won't be used. Looking to North Park, it can be difficult not to lose money on a paid parking garage surrounded by free parking.
Second, we should accept the plan, but push it farther: let's eliminate other Central Mesa surface parking lots, like the lots between the Science Museum and the Carousel by the Zoo. Or in light of the complete emptying of the Inspiration Point lot that will likely occur if this plan is implemented, let's envision a better use for that land in a prime spot next to Downtown. Perhaps we should sell the Sports Arena site and build a new arena overlooking downtown. Perhaps we should give the land to UCSD to build an urban campus. Or we could shift San Diego High School into the park and devote the current school site to parkland for downtown. The ideas that become possible if the plan is implemented are endless. Rather than engaging and exploring these possibilities, too many people are rejecting the plan outright.
Sometimes, refusing to participate is the best strategy to achieve the desired outcome. Other times, it feels like choosing moral purity over real progress. As much as we may want it, it is impossible to eliminate cars from San Diego with a wave of the wand. The Balboa Park revamp presents a serious step towards removing cars from the heart of our public places and, perhaps just as importantly, is an embrace of change in a city that desperately needs change. While there are obvious trade-offs, it's a net win that I hope happens, and happens soon.
Ever since I started his blog a year and a half ago, I've wondered about a big question: we all know that housing in San Diego is unaffordable, but what would it take to make it affordable? Although many would argue otherwise, the basic principle of supply and demand suggests that if we increase supply while keeping demand (i.e., population) constant, prices will fall. In other words, if we dropped an extra 1,000,000 apartments on San Diego overnight, prices would plummet as the new supply exceeds demand, at least for awhile. Conversely, leaving the number of units static and increasing population would drive prices up.
Of course, creating new housing units is not simple and doesn't happen overnight. Even if we could, causing a crash in housing prices could be disastrous for our economy. Many people have their life savings invested in their houses and wiping that out could cause a lot of bad outcomes, not to mention the investments made by banks and developers. Also, if prices in beautiful San Diego dropped quickly, many would say that we would be flooded with new people coming to the area. Makes sense, but it complicates the question.
Nevertheless, regardless of any complications, we need more housing. As a somewhat recent report from the state Legislative Analyst concluded, building more housing in our coastal areas is needed to control price increases. But how many new units are we talking about?
For a first step, I just wanted to see what it would take to keep pace with population growth. In theory, at least at a basic level, keeping pace with population growth should generally freeze price increases. (A few caveats: some will quibble with SANDAG's population growth estimates, and this analysis doesn't distinguish between low-income housing and luxury units. Also, the rest of the county is just as bad with growth and limiting this to the City of San Diego doesn't take that into account. I acknowledge these shortcomings, but I am willing to forge ahead with my limited analysis. Finally, this is just pure market-rate housing. Some of these units need to be subsidized low-income housing, but I'm not breaking it down by affordability.)
Luckily, state law requires SANDAG to determine how many housing units we need to to keep pace with population growth. In its Regional Housing Needs Assessment, or RHNA, SANDAG takes its population growth model, matches it to the housing units needed per additional person (some people share houses), and divvies up those needed units per jurisdiction. Each city is then required to ensure that it has adequate zoning for the number of units that need to be built. Nice in theory, but some cities (ahem, Encinitas) refuse or are unable to comply with the law and get sued. Also, regardless of basic compliance, most cities never actually build the number of units needed, even if they have the capacity in their zoning.
In 2005, SANDAG issued its first RHNA, which called for 107,301 additional housing units by 2010. In 2005, the City of San Diego had a total of 489,005 units (page 146 of this plan). Under the RHNA, 45,741 of the new units were supposed to be in the City San Diego. Instead, the City had only 514,841 units in 2010, an increase of 25,836 units. Thus, in 2010, we were already behind by 19,905 units.
In 2010, the next RHNA states that the City of San Diego needs to build an additional 88,096 units by the end of 2020, or 8,009 units per year over 11 years, to keep pace with growth. Between 2010 and 2015, we built only 11,336 units when we needed 40,045 units. Adding this shortage to the shortage from 2005-2010, we are currently short 48,614 units just to keep pace with population growth. Add in the future units needed, and we need 96,668 new units in the City of San Diego by the end of 2020. That means about 19,000 units per year. Over the past five years, we built an average of 2,267 units per year. We gotta up our game.
So there is the goal: 100,000 new housing units in the City of San Diego by the end of 2020. Even that much growth won't cause prices to drop, but it will (hopefully) curb additional increases. Our current planning paradigm isn't allowing for such growth, and if we don't make the necessary changes, housing prices are only going to get worse. In a future post (Part Two), I want to explore how to make that happen. If you have any ideas, let me know.
I've been thinking a lot recently about how to actually see some change in San Diego that allows us to move towards the ideal city we want to live in. San Diego tends to stick to the tried and true and doesn't create a hospitable environment for radical change. In the face of that, incremental change may be the most we can hope for, so long as it is confined to acceptable means. As the title of this blog suggests, I think one way we do this is to create more YIMBYs. Of course, one way to do this is to get other like-minded folks involved. The other way is to either lessen the power of NIMBYs or turn NIMBYs into YIMBYs. But how could we do that?
One option is to fight the good fight by appealing to reason with the hope of convincing the NIMBYs of the errors in their arguments against development. If the NIMBYs would only accept that their opinions are wrong, the YIMBYs could rule the world! Right. A virtuous fight, but a tough slog.
But that doesn't have to be the only option. As Ben Franklin once said, "if you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect." If we could find something to give to the NIMBYs that directly results from development, we could in effect "buy" their support.
So what can we give to appeal to the interests of those that oppose new development? NIMBYs commonly argue that their neighborhood can't handle more residents without first getting new parks and libraries and sidewalks and all the other nice things we all want. Of course, it's hard to promise these things given our current state of municipal fiscal affairs. We have no money for anything beyond the bare essentials. And requiring developers to pay for niceties messes with the profitability of projects, making them less likely to ever happen.
So what can we do? Luckily, the state legislature and Governor Brown gave us a possible tool that's been lurking in the Government Code for about a year. After the fall of redevelopment agencies, a new legislative option emerged: Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts. So how do these "EIFDs" work?
In basic terms, the City and County agree to create a new EIFD for any given geographic area. Say, Hillcrest or Bay Park. Or even the Transit-Priority Districts as defined in the Climate Action Plan. Once formed, the EIFD law allows the District to claim as its own any incremental increase in property tax for all properties in the property. So, if the properties within the defined District currently generate one million dollars in property tax and then generate two million dollars in property taxes the next year, the District would get that extra million dollars (except the amount of property tax meant for schools). The District can take all of this additional revenue or any smaller portion thereof.
Once the money starts flowing in, the law allows the EIFD to spend that money on lots of goodies: parks, streets, parking and transit facilities, and affordable housing. To goad developers to move in, the money can also be used to pay for the affordable units included in a private market-rate building. In effect, it allows the District to benefit from any increase in property taxes. The increase in money generated by the District stays in the District. The District can either spend that money or, with a public vote of only 55%, issue bonds to be repaid with future revenue.
Now, of course, this will take money away from the City as a whole. Instead of the money going into the General Fund (where it can be spent on basically anything), it will be dedicated to infrastructure in that given District. In that sense, it is not entirely different from Councilmember Mark Kersey's infrastructure funding proposal.
Why would we, as a City, be willing to do this? That's where the carrot comes in: the City should only form the District if the District is willing to take steps to drastically increase property taxes generated by that District. If the District collects only a portion of the incremental increase, then both the City and the District benefit. In effect, the City could hold a "race to the top" style incentive: go along with a plan to increase property tax revenue, and we will let you keep a sizable chunk of the increase.
In California, there are three main ways to spur property tax revenue growth: (1) trigger new and frequent sales of properties (causing a new assessment under Prop 13), (2) increase the value of the land and (3) increasing the value of the improvements, i.e. buildings, on that land.
Each of those options is best achieved by upzoning the land and fostering development. A community can increase the value of land by limiting the supply of housing, but it is much easier to simply increase the value of land by allowing the owner to do much more with the property, i.e., build more units on the land at as low a cost as possible. This is a "trick" well known by developers with the time and money to seek an upzoning. This will also trigger new construction, which results in more property tax revenue: a new condo building is worth more than a parking lot or crumbling old house. If we also wipe out restrictions on development like parking minimums, restrictive setbacks, and onerous review, the land will only increase more in value.
So, in summary: let's offer the "carrot" of a dedicated infrastructure stream for each community contingent on acceptance by that community of development-friendly zoning. I'm sure some communities won't be interested, but perhaps Hillcrest will change its mind when it sees the beautiful parks, libraries, and sidewalks installed in North Park. Even if only some communities buy in, it will still be an improvement over current affairs.
Moreover, it's not an unreasonable compromise. The areas accepting new residents deserve the resources. If North Park or Barrio Logan is accepting all new development, they shouldn't see the resulting tax revenue shipped off to pave roads in Mira Mesa. Align the benefits with the costs borne by residents, and we might see some NIMBYs turn into YIMBYs.
Just a quick hit of a post:
- The Climate Action Plan calls for drastically increasing the urban tree cover in San Diego: 35 percent of the city by 2035. The City is already getting to work, planting thousands of trees every year.
- At the same time, the CAP also recognizes that we need to get people out of their cars and onto their bikes and walking on the sidewalks.
- In a lot of our urban neighborhoods, the streets are too wide, which encourages speeding and makes the environment less pleasant for walking and biking. If the CAP wants to reduce driving, it would be great to do something about street width. Here is what some look like:
4. One way to calm traffic is to install "pinchpoints" that narrow the road profile. The travel lanes aren't affected, but the visual narrowing slows down drivers.
5. The City has already recognized the value to businesses of reclaiming parking spaces for public use by building parklets. Of course, public seating areas don't really make sense in a purely residential area. (An aside: seems the new policy didn't spur much growth. Wish we had more parklets.)
6. So let's expand the parklets idea to residents. The City should implement a streamlined process for residents to build pinchpoint tree plantings in the parking area directly in front of their property. Like this (excuse my horrible artistic skills):
7. The process would have to involve locating any underground utilities or sewer pipes to avoid problems. If there are no problems, the resident could plant a tree and bear all costs. The resident would not own the tree or the land, they would simply be making a contribution to the public good. The City already has a great guide to suitable trees that won't mess up the street or sidewalk and how to avoid other problems. So long as the property owner is willing to follow that guide, they can tear up the asphalt, dig a hole, build a curb, and plant a tree.
8. Why would anyone do this? Lots of reasons. First, trees are beautiful. You could promote the idea as creating more privacy and (saying this cynically) avoiding having random people leave their cars in front of your living room. But perhaps more importantly, trees provide shade to lower energy bills, slow down traffic to create a quieter environment, and also increase property values. Some studies have concluded that having a mature tree near your house increases the value between three and fifteen percent. With San Diego house prices, that means an increase of at least $10,000 in value. Not a bad value proposition.
9. Admittedly, and purposefully, this would result in a loss of parking spaces. But any opposition to this would be the same people that claim to "own" the street parking in front of their house. To oppose, they would have to argue that the homeowner has no right to dictate what happens in front of their house. NIMBYs are often fine with making inconsistent arguments, but this would just make those arguments seem sillier.
9. Why should the City allow this? Again, many reasons. It shifts some of the costs of implementing the CAP onto residents. Also, by enabling residents to increase their property values, the City is also increasing its property tax revenue. Additionally, it allows individual residents to feel part of the Climate Action Plan and spurs action in neighborhoods. Perhaps not many trees will be planted, but one is better than none. I think it also challenges the premise that the streets belong to cars. The streets are public spaces that belong to the people. If a resident sees more value in a tree than a parking spot, let's let them change their environment and build the city they want to live in.
In San Diego, most development projects and other big planning decisions make a trip to a Community Planning Group, or CPG. Currently, we have over 40 CPGs in San Diego. The CPGs are a creation of the City Council and are currently operated under a Council Policy. The groups, however, date back to 1966, when local residents became wary of the City's booming growth and were concerned that the City was ignoring the opinions of locals by listening only to developers.
The vote of the CPG is purely advisory and is merely presented to the City Council as one form of community input. Despite the advisory nature of the vote, developers want a vote in favor of their project and are often willing to tweak a project to get an approval. If the CPG happens to be NIMBYish, this means projects are downsized or altered before they ever reach the Planning Commission or City Council.
Generally speaking, there are three main purposes for a community planning group: (1) serve as a general town hall where local residents can voice their concerns and city leaders and other politicians can listen and share information, (2) a forum for developers and city planners to present proposed projects to the community, and (3) an voice for the community to provide an opinion on whether they approve or disapprove a proposal. These main goals apply not only to specific projects, but also in forming the Community Plan for each area and providing other input to the Council and other parts of the city government on a variety of topics related to planning.
When you consider how to achieve these three main goals, the current conception of CPGs makes sense when you think about when they first came into creation.
Imagine the 1960s, long before the internet and other modern methods of communication. For a point of reference, here is some weird-looking building under construction in Mission Valley in 1966:
In 1966, if the City was interested in getting the input of residents, the CPGs were the obvious method: hold scheduled, noticed meetings, elect community representatives to serve on the CPG board, and have formal votes to recommend projects to the City Council or Planning Commission. The goal of seeking community input is, and always was, important, and the CPG structure fit the times. There was no way to easily disseminate information to all community residents: photocopiers were barely in existence and the cost of postage would be enormous. Thus, open meetings were required to present the information. Because not every resident could be expected to make every meeting, it made sense to have an election to appoint representative board members. The residents could trust that they voted for someone that represented their views and would vote accordingly.
Even if the CPG format was the best means available in 1966, however, does not mean it was perfect. Many CPG meetings are held once a month, either in the middle of day or in the early evening. These one-shot opportunities to be involved means that anyone that can't get off work or that needs to make dinner and watch the kids can't make it. The result is predictable: CPGs are notoriously full of older retired people or owners of local businesses. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these groups being involved, but it's a stretch to say they are truly representative of the community. Also, everyone but the Board in most circumstances isn't given the opportunity to see the proposal before it is presented to be voted on. Again, this made sense in 1966, but it limits the reach of the groups.
Fast forward to 2016, and CPGs still exist and operate in mostly the same manner as they did 50 years ago. CPG Boards are elected, meetings are held, and recommendations are made. The idea is wonderful, and although the CPG votes are purely advisory, there can be no doubt that CPGs are an important institution in San Diego. The question, however, is whether they are the most effective means to achieve the desired ends.
So how could we make the CPGs more effective at reaching the highest number of community members and getting the opinion of as many residents as possible? If you asked nearly anyone about the best way to present ideas to a large, diverse group and gather input, I would be willing to bet that you may hear the word "internet." But with today's CPGs, the use of the internet is minimal: the posting of a few general plan documents, an agenda for the upcoming meeting, and past minutes. Some groups are good about having an online presence, while others barely exist online. But what if CPGs were to fully embrace the internet? What would community planning look like? Could we lower the "cost" of community involvement?
First, community meetings serving as "town halls" are great and fine. As Howard Blackson likes to point out, this function is important, but should be separated from the advisory positions of the CPG. The town hall function doesn't need to change, although it could be supplemented.
But let's focus on the goal of providing information to the residents about proposed planning matters. Instead of presenting these matters to the Board, all developers could be required to post their proposals online, including all supporting materials. The applicant or city planner could prepare videos of the presentation that would have otherwise made to the CPG and post all materials in clear, colorful PDFs. Residents could sign up to receive any new materials and have them delivered right to their inbox. Because the proposals are online, residents could ask questions and the developer could respond. Likewise, if each community had a managed Facebook page, important community information could be posted quickly and easily. Today, the North Park Planning Group has a Facebook page with 685 followers. Just this week, the Uptown Planners had an election where 540 people showed up and it was considered "exceptional." A far lower number is coming to every meeting. Although the people that are on a planning group Facebook page may be different than those attending the meetings, there can be no question that it reaches a larger percentage of the population than nearly all CPG monthly meetings.
Second, let's look at the output from the CPG. In 1966, elected boards made some sense: it would take forever for people to mail in their comments. People can't make every meeting and needed a representative Board member to make their voice heard. In other words, the "cost" of attending meetings and providing advice to the City was high and in light of this cost, it made sense to have representational Board members selected by a vote. But today, with the internet and the ability to instantly create polls and forms, why does there even need to be an elected Board? The cost of collecting input has plummeted to the point where it is effortless to provide an opinion. Proposed projects could be posted in a way that allows people to annotate the materials and make comments, either in favor or to criticize a plan. The application or other planning materials requiring a vote would have to be posted for at least 30 days and then a vote could occur at any time in those 30 days. Instead of restricting the vote to the elected Board, anyone could vote. The results and comments could then be collected and presented in a standardized form to the City. These results would be much more "loose," but where is the harm if the input is only advisory? The same can be said for draft Community Plans if put online in a way that allows annotations and comments. By allowing for nuance and greater community involvement, the advice presented to the City would be much more valuable.
Some people may say that an online vote would be hard to control to ensure that only residents are involved. My response would be: why do we need to control the vote? The CPG vote is merely advisory and the power is still vested in our actual elected leaders on the City Council to make a decision. When the goal is to only obtain the advice of residents, there is no reason to restrict the ability to vote. Why does someone who rents an apartment in Golden Hill but work 12 hours a day in Sorrento Valley get to have a say in projects involving Golden Hill, while someone who lives in North Park but walks to Golden Hill where he works all day not have a right to be involved? If I am interested in buying a house in Mission Hills someday, why can't I express my opinion about what the community should be? If I am 65 and lived in Little Italy all my life but just retired to La Jolla, why is my input on the community not valued? If I am a tourist and visit Pacific Beach each year, shouldn't I be entitled to have an opinion? If I ride my bike through Hillcrest every day to get to work, can't I comment on the design of those lanes? Why do business owners get a say, but not longtime employees? The list could go on forever. When we are dealing with the amorphous concept of a "community," it makes little sense to try and define the members as only residents and business owners. We can categorize the input based on resident versus non-resident, but let's everyone contribute.
A normal reaction these days to using the "internet" is that it excludes older residents. In 2016, I don't see how this can be credible. Nearly everyone has email, owns a computer, and even people over the age of 60 are regularly reading online and commenting on pictures of their grandchildren on Facebook. But even accepting that this is true, why is it a problem? The current CPG format makes it very difficult for anyone with a job and/or children to participate. Why is that preferable to a method that makes it more difficult for elderly residents? If we were forced to choose, shouldn't planning for the future be focused on gathering the voices of our younger residents? But in the end, I think it is a false choice. The Internet in 2016 is used by everyone, young and old. There is no reason to cling to the status quo because of vague concerns and fear of change. Moreover, if we are still having townhall meeting of the CPG, there is no reason that people who refuse to use the Internet couldn't vote in person. There is no need to limit the input anymore.
Bottom line, the goal of community planning should be to inform as many residents as possible and provide input to the City from as many residents as possible. There may be a better way than I am proposing, but it's hard to make the case that the current procedures are the best methods to achieving the goals of community planning. It's time to move on.
Yesterday, the Chargers announced that they were (maybe?) endorsing the Citizens' Plan Initiative and focusing on getting a joint-use convention center/stadium built downtown. Scott Lewis over at VOSD has a good rundown of the current state of affairs. Everything is still up in the air and things could change, so this might all be moot by next Monday.
It seems few people understand what has to happen and the crazy process it would be to get that convadium built. In my last post on this, I explained why I think the whole idea is destined to fail. I think I got a few things wrong, but in this post I wanted to game out what would actually happen if the Citizens' Plan Initiative passes in November. I'm probably getting some of this wrong, but this is my best guess at what has to happen to get a convadium built.
- Citizens Plan Initiative is approved by the voters. Once the Plan becomes effective, the Transient Occupancy Tax increases for guests staying in hotels and this money flows from the hotels to the City's General Fund. Once there, the City can spend it in any way. This amounts to tens of millions of dollars a year until the hotels decide to try and build a convention center and form a new marketing district.
- The hoteliers decide they want to take advantage of the offered deduction under the CPI to build a convention center/stadium. Under the CPI, they can deduct 2% from the TOT they remit to the City up to the amount they are assessed under a Tourism-Financed Improvement District (TFID) by the City. The deduction is voluntary, but I don't see why they wouldn't want to take it if they are being assessed for a TFID. The CPI also requires them to spend $15 million on the Port's North Embarcadero Project and $5 million for a River Interpretative Center in Mission Valley if they want a CEQA exemption. So the price automatically jumps a bit. None of this money can be spent on the stadium portion.
- Before the hotels can take the deduction, they have to form the TFID and impose the assessments. This is done under a state law incorporated into the CPI. Under this state law, a group of businesses can petition the City to form the TFID. The petition has to be submitted by business owners of the proposed district (here, one district for downtown and a second district for the rest of the City) and those owners have to represent more than 50% of the assessments that would be levied. In other words, there is no "vote" to form the TFID, but a majority of the affected businesses have to support it. Under the CPI, those petitioning parties have to be hotel owners. But it also seems that state law requires the TFID to include all businesses that receive a special benefit from building a convention center. I can't see any way that restaurants, bars, and shops do not get a special benefit from the Convention Center: a bigger convention center means more conventioneers, meaning more patrons. So those businesses would have to be included and assessed. Given that they don't get the nice tax deduction, they might not be so happy with forming a TFID and getting hit with assessments for the next 30 years. The assessments can be weighted based on differing levels of benefit, but it seems the non-hotel businesses would have to be on the hook for at least some assessment. This will take some negotiating. Also, the businesses will have to draft a detailed report to figure out who would be assessed and the proportional shares. That could several months or years to sort out.
- Of course, the hotels are going to want to form the TFID only if the resulting assessments can be deducted from their TOT payments. Otherwise, they are paying the 15.5% TOT and also an additional amount to fund the convention center. And once they agree to impose the TFID assessments and issue bonds, there is no going back until the bonds are paid off. Whether those deductions are legal is the biggest issue up in the air and will most likely result in a lawsuit. That could take a few years to resolve. Unless they are willing to make a big bet, it might be a few years before the hotels are comfortable with forming the TFID and enter into the binding assessments and bonds financed from those assessments. Of course, if it gets thrown out in court before the TFID is formed, the whole convadium is never built. The good news is that the increased TOT will still be flowing to the City, meaning more money for infrastructure and other essential services.
- Oh, one other wrinkle. This TFID can only collect assessments for "special benefits," meaning benefits that provice a particular and distinct benefit only to the assessed businesses and not the city or residents in general. Any general benefit cannot be paid by the TFID assessment, Here, that requires an argument that the City and its residents does not benefit from a new convention center, bayside promenade, or river interpretative center. If the City does receive any general benefit, it has to pay for the share of the improvement that could be considered a "general" benefit out of the general fund. But the CPI prohibits the City from spending any money on this convention center. I don't know how anyone reconciles those requirements, but it's a fine needle to thread.
- OK, let's say the hoteliers have decided to take on the risk, get the other businesses on board, present the TFID petition to the City Council (which is required to approve it under the CPI), the assessments start coming in, bonds are issued, and the convention center can be built. Great! Now let's get to the stadium.
- Under the CPI, the Chargers have to foot the entire bill for the stadium portion. No public money! The Chargers could try and float their own companion initiative to allow public funds, but this gets tricky. The CPI states that it supersedes any other contradictory initiative that gets less votes. So if the Chargers want public money, they have to campaign in favor of the CPI, but also get more votes for their companion iniatitive. If they get less, they can't get public money even if it passes. Since it is likely such an initiative would take a 2/3rds vote, it may be possible, but difficult. And if they do it without public money, it is their stadium: they have to maintain it, they have to pay for any cost overruns, etc. It creates a lot of uncertainty.
Altogether, I think the Citizens' Plan makes it unlikely we will see a convention center and stadium any time soon. It's also impossible to ignore that all of this might have to be done under an opposing mayor. Maybe the Chargers have a secret plan, but there is a lot of uncertainty here. The other possible explanation is that the Chargers know this is going to fail, but decided it's worthwhile to spend a year rehabilitating their image in San Diego to win back some fans.
San Diego High School has been in its current location in the Northeast corner of downtown since 1882. It actually sits on land belonging to Balboa Park and, as a result, its future is in jeopardy: the current lease ends in 2024 and if the school wants to stay, the voters will have to approve the use of the site for a school with a two-thirds vote. The City Council Charter Review Committee recently rejected requests to fix the problem by amending the City Charter and avoiding a direct vote on the school issue.
The City Charter is the source of the problem: the school is on parkland and the Charter requires that parkland be used for park and recreation purposes. Makes sense! Understandably, some are arguing that the school should be razed and new parkland built on the site. I can empathize with those people.
The problem is we have no money for new parkland. As currently built, Balboa Park cannot be maintained by the City. The to-do list would cost about $300 million to complete. If we decide to add even more park, that means money isn't being spent on maintaining the current park and will only add to the future maintenance costs. Unless we can magically find a spare $300 million, I don't see how we can justify spending park money elsewhere. Even if we had enough money, there is still a lot of Balboa Park that is being underutilized. When structures in the heart of the park are crumbling, it's hard to rationally decide to add more to the park. These two concerns are why I suggested selling some of the land to fix up the core of Balboa Park.
Given the history of the school and the lack of funds to expand the park, I think we need to keep San Diego High. If we want to be a truly urban city, we need a public high school downtown. That being said, SDHS currently sits at the interface between downtown and Balboa Park, effectively creating part of a wall between the city and the park. The best outcome would be to find a way to save the high school and somehow connect downtown to the park.
Let's dream a little bit. The current school site is in a prime location that many companies would die for. Additionally, on the other side of the freeway, the City is using a part of Powerhouse Canyon mainly for a parking lot and supply depot. That site is immediately adjacent to Pershing Drive, which will soon connect downtown to North Park with an awesome protected bike lane. Considered together or separately, these are two huge parcels in the heart of our City that are underutilized.
Here is my idea: let's sell the land to whichever company (or companies) can give us the best proposal for a tech corporate campus on the school and Powerhouse Canyon land. If the land is fully developed and urbanized, the campus could contain a huge amount of custom office space and create a new tech center downtown. By providing a slight discount from market rate, we can ensure that the sites are used in a way that benefits the residents of San Diego.
Most importantly, let's require that the company build a true urban campus and devote a few floors or building to the high school. The school would be intermingled with the corporate campus, just like the E3 Civic High Charter in the downtown library. The school district is sitting on bond money to fix up San Diego High. If we require the developer to give the school enough space, then the District can build a showcase campus that would be a model for the entire country.
Imagine going to high school on a campus shared with Qualcomm, Illumina, Google, or Tesla. By integrating the two, and San Diego City College, the high school will be able to offer one-of-a-kind internships and lectures from the region's most brilliant minds. By better integrating the site with downtown, the students will become a key addition to the downtown atmosphere.
Why would a company buy this land? Because, in the words of a commercial real estate agent, the current downtown office space is outdated and "there has been incredible demand for unique, high-quality environments and spaces Downtown, and users are willing to pay top dollar because of the lack of these top-tier options." It is rare for such a large parcel of land to become available in a major downtown area and this would present an opportunity for a campus like the one Amazon is building in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle. San Diego's young, educated millennials want to live downtown and it's only a matter of time before they refuse to commute to Sorrento Valley or UTC. Combined with the upcoming IDEA District immediately to the south, this could transform downtown San Diego into a tech hub. Moving jobs from the suburbs to downtown will also help with the City's Climate Action Plan goals. Although the goal would be to have the workers live downtown, the campus could have its own on-ramp to the freeway, avoiding adding much traffic to the surrounding neighborhood streets.
If we sold both the high school site and Powerhouse Canyon, we could probably raise at least $800 million. So what do we do with this money? Since we are giving up parkland, all of it should go towards Balboa Park and the goal of connecting the park to downtown. $60-100 million could be spent to build a streetcar line from downtown to Balboa Park and beyond, up Park Boulevard. This would provide the best connection yet between downtown and Balboa Park. Additional money could be spent to create a linear park from B Street north, put a cap over the 5 freeway, and continue up the hill along Presidents Way. For those that want to stroll, this would create another connection to the park. The rest of the money can be spent on fixing up our current park infrastructure, preserving it for the next generation. If we need a little philanthropic help, it's worth mentioning that Sol Price, a major San Diego philanthropist, went to San Diego High.
This is a problem that needs to be solved by a vote of a people. This would present a plan that should make everyone happy: preserving a high school, adding a connection to Balboa Park and providing funds for rejuvenating the park, adding public transit, and building a new high-tech employer in our downtown core.
Add this to the mix: the current lease on Balboa Stadium ends at the same time in 2024. The City Attorney has said that the stadium can stay. Imagine if we could get an MLS team in there too. If we could sell the Sports Arena site and build a new arena on the north side of the freeway, the sites the hottest part of downtown. If Powerhouse Canyon is also developed and linked to downtown, it could extend the downtown revitalization into Golden Hill.
This would quickly become every young tech worker's dream: a brand new corporate campus in a downtown location with the best weather in the country, adjacent to public transit and a historic park, and connected to the hippest residential neighborhood with an amazing protected bike lane. Also, what high school student wouldn't want to be at that school? I know I would want to be there.
If this worked, it would vastly improve our downtown with no cost to the taxpayer. I'm in.
With the recent news that the Chargers may be sticking around San Diego after all, combined with the mayor mentioning the Convention Center expansion in his State of the City address, it seemed to me that a key piece of the puzzle that San Diego faces in the near future is the Citizens' Plan Initiative (CPI) proposed by Cory Briggs, his SANDOG friends, Donna Frye, and others. I hate to admit it, but I hadn't studied the CPI yet and didn't have a real grasp of what it was actually proposing. I've seen some of the media coverage, but it seems that a lot of people were perplexed. For a good general overview, look here or here.
In very broad strokes, the plan (1) raises the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) and kills the current 2% Tourism Marketing District "Assessment" so all TOT revenue goes into the City's General Fund, (2) allows hoteliers to deduct 2% from the TOT for any assessments paid to a "Tourism-Financed Infrastructure District," or TFID, and another 2% for a newly-formed Tourism Marketing District, (3) allows the hoteliers to spend their TFID assessments to build a new convention center expansion on Tailgate Park, (4) allows for a stadium to be added onto the Convention Center expansion so long as it is not funded by the City or the hotels, (5) provides CEQA exemptions for such a project or a new stadium in Mission Valley (if no public funds are used), (6) allows for the formation of a new corporation to manage the convention center, and (7) prohibits a waterfront Convention Center expansion and, if the Chargers leave, requires the current stadium site in Mission Valley to be used only for a public university campus and a park. Simple, right?
Once you get past those broad strokes, there are a lot of details. I decided to get into the weeds of the CPI, see what I could figure out, and share what I took away from it. Before I do that, I want to give a HUGE warning: I am still not sure I understand it, I can almost guarantee I am getting something wrong, and I don't have a firm grasp on some of these legal issues. Take everything I say with a huge grain of salt and defer to any experts that disagree with me. That being said, here are my thoughts (and that's all they are: opinions).
TFIDs and PBIDs
The critical question that I came away with was how this potential Convention Center could be funded. The CPI allows for the creation of TFIDs, but doesn't explain how it works. Here's my best guess.
The CPI incorporates a bit of state law called the Property and Business Improvement District (or PBID) Act. Because the PBID Act is incorporated into the CPI, any TFID formed under the CPI has to comply with the PBID law and, by extension, the California Constitution concerning taxes. The PBID Act poses several problems, including potentially short terms of only 5 years before renewal is required, a requirement that ALL benefitted businesses or ALL property be assessed, and a requirement that only special benefits can be funded, meaning that the assessments have to be spent on things that only benefit the assessed businesses, NOT the general population. I'm also not sure that a PBID can directly issue bonds, I think they have to go through the City.
It seems unlikely that the City could claim that a convention center benefits only hotels and not other businesses, like bars, restaurants, or even local residents. Any TFID it seems, or new TMD, could probably not be limited to just hotel owners. If all businesses are thrown in, this makes passage a whole lot harder and results in complicated assessments.
This is especially true under the CPI. To get the necessary CEQA exemption, anyone who builds a Convention Center expansion also has to fund (1) a science center in Mission Valley and (2) help fund the Phase 2 of the North Embarcadero Plan, meaning a nice promenade and other improvements along the bay. Try and explain how those two things benefit only hotel owners and no one else.
I thought I was not quite understanding things, but then I found a memo from the City Attorney from back in 2012. Mr. Goldsmith seemed to reach the same thought and advised the City against approving any more business improvement districts that did not provide only special benefits to the businesses. That memo explains that assessments on all properties could be ok, but the City would be required to chip in for the share of the improvements that could be considered "general" benefits to the public. For that to succeed here, the TFID would likely have to include all residents of San Diego. The City Attorney hasn't changed his mind, and somewhat recently again cautioned against forming and renewing PBIDs. Also, if the City is required to pay its share for "general" benefits, this would be illegal under the CPI, which prohibits the City from spending any money on a Convention Center expansion.
My conclusion is that the CPI makes it very unlikely that a TFID to finance a convention center expansion or a new TMD could be formed, at least in the near future. And if a TFID never forms to expand the Convention Center, that means the joint stadium also fails. The end result would be tens of millions of dollars more for the City's General Fund because the hotels could never utilize the deductions.
The next question is why haven't the hotel owners expressed these concerns in they are true? They like the current TMD and they want a Convention Center expansion so, if my conclusion is correct, they would hate the CPI.
The problem is that a lot of the arguments I am making are the same ones that Cory Briggs and SANDOG are making in the pending TMD lawsuit that is getting closer to trial. If you look at the allegations, they are saying that the TMD falls under this PBID law and the State Constitution and violates them for the reasons I mention above: the terms are way too long, the benefits are general, etc. So for the hotels to come out and say the CPI is bad, they would have to essentially admit that their arguments in the TMD lawsuit are wrong.
I don't think Cory Briggs is being sneaky here. All he is doing is holding hoteliers and the City to their argument that the TMD is fine as it is currently structured. If they think what they are doing is legal, then they should be fine with the CPI. But if they are wrong, and Briggs is right, the Convention Center expansion and joint stadium is dead unless new financing is found in a future public vote. And until the TMD lawsuit is final, I don't know if they will, or can, risk coming out against the CPI. For these same reasons, I think it is unlikely that the Chargers buy into this CPI plan for a future stadium. Even if the CPI is approved in November, it would take several months, if not years, to form this TFID, possibly requiring a city-wide vote. I'm not sure the Chargers would be on board with so much uncertainty.
Reading through the CPI, my main problem is with the section about Mission Valley, which purports to authorize a sale of the site but only if used for a restored river area, a large public park, and a public university campus. All other uses are forbidden. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I'm not convinced that a 166-acre college campus with no new residential units (other than dorms) is the best use of this site. We need more housing! Also, this section seems to contemplate an all or nothing approach: it only permits a sale of the entire 166-acre site. What it the City wants to keep a small portion and sell 120 acres? It seems like this would not be allowed.
I'm not so sure, however, that this part is even binding. The City Charter currently allows the City to sell any land to anyone so long as it is under 80 acres and permits any sale of a larger parcel to any governmental entity. Based on this part of the City Charter, I don't think the City needs to rely on the CPI's "authorization" to sell the 166-acre site. But I'm not sure on this part.
The other problem with Section 61.2806: it requires building a park, but the park would still be owned by the University or another non-profit. This means that although the park must be public, the city would have no control over its design or future maintenance. This seems like it could cause problems.
Defending the Plan
If this CPI is challenged in any way, the plan itself limits the ability to defend it. In Part 8, only the City or the Proponents, that is, Cory Briggs, can defend the ordinance. This means the hotel owners or any new Convention Center contractor cannot defend the project. I'm not sure they will like this.
Also, although the CPI purports to hold the proponents accountable if it fails, the mechanism for doing so is pretty weak. The CPI suggests that the proponents should be liable if the CPI fails and "must be held accountable." The only way to do this, however, is to assess a $5,000 penalty. This is nothing. A Convention Center/Stadium could fall apart, the City may have to refund paid assessments, and the City could spend millions in court, and all they would get back is a measly $5,000.
So What Happens if the CPI Passes?
Just because I don't think a convention center expansion will happen doesn't mean that passage will have no effect on our City. My bottom line conclusion: if the CPI passes, I think the mostly likely outcome is (1) no convention center expansion (with our without a joint stadium) in the near future, (2) Chargers leave, (3) tens of millions in extra revenue for the City that can be spent on infrastructure and other needed things, (4) and a weakened hotel lobby. I'm not opposed to any of these things, so I'll probably support it. But who knows, I may be wrong on all of this.
Also, passage of the CPI would provide a CEQA exemption for any stadium downtown so long as the City doesn't spend any public funds to support it. I think an NFL stadium would cost too much for the Chargers to pay for alone, but that doesn't mean there couldn't be a different type of stadium downtown. John Moores, who owns a large lot where this stadium could go, is a supporter of SDSU and has shown interest in bringing a Major League Soccer team to San Diego. Perhaps Moores uses the CPI to clear the way for a joint MLS/SDSU stadium downtown without any environmental review. Nothing would prohibit SDSU from chipping in some money for a stadium (or the County) and it may be possible for Moores to build a smaller stadium downtown without money from the City. That's just speculation, but it's possible.
SANDAG (finally) released the first details for the Pershing Bikeway to connect North Park and downtown. Like many others, I was pleasantly surprised with how great the plan is. If you haven't already, go check out the proposals and other documents posted on the project website. The day before the open house, I wrote a post about what I hoped for and was delighted to see a lot of my wishes came true. Although I am happy with the general direction of the plan, I had a few more thoughts to share.
1. A lot of people seem concerned that this plan will never happen, but I'm optimistic. The money has already been set aside and SANDAG has committed to the project. Unlike Hillcrest, there is no obvious coalition with money and power to fight this plan. The only conceivable opposition I can see is from people that commute from North Park via Pershing and don't want to see their commute get longer. Although this plan will result in slower driving, the change is minimal and won't add more than a couple of minutes at most to the drive. In reality, it should be a lot less, as more people elect to bike and accidents and the resulting traffic jams are reduced by the safety improvements. I also don't see a problem on the litigation front; I doubtful an EIR would even be required under the new CEQA guidelines.
2. The biggest flaw I see is that it seems SANDAG designed this project in a vacuum and did not consider the other bike plans in the area. The SANDAG Pershing plan proposes connecting to a cycletrack on C Street downtown. But the only plan I could find for downtown San Diego for a cycletrack is in the Civic San Diego Downtown Mobility Plan for B Street or Broadway, not C street. Maybe SANDAG knows something that I don't, but given the information available to the public, it seems like SANDAG should be linking up with B Street or all the way to Broadway. Either way, it would be nice to see the City and SANDAG coordinate. (Update: SANDAG did know something I don't and I was wrong. The new draft of the Downtown Mobility Plan came out after I wrote this post and it shifts plans to C Street. Good job SANDAG)
3. On the same issue, this plan seems a little wasteful near the top of Pershing. Both the San Diego Bike Master Plan and the draft of the North Park Community Plan include a cycletrack or bike path on 28th Street. But SANDAG is now proposing building its own cycletrack on Pershing between Redwood and Upas, only a couple hundred feet away. Given the limited resources available for bike infrastructure, wouldn't it make more sense to coordinate and shift the SANDAG Pershing route over to 28th Street, like my proposal from the other day? Functionally, there is no big difference between the two, but I don't understand the lack of coordination. Likewise, the draft community plan envisions a bike route on Redwood, but this plan provides no connection to 28th or Redwood for cyclists. SANDAG has a history of not being receptive to the needs of our city, but being efficient here would be nice.
4. Indulge me one fantasy: Look at the renderings, consider the location, and imagine this: we should build some two-story apartments and townhouses right along the east side of Pershing on the current golf course (which is losing over a million dollars every year). Build a little public square with restaurants and shops and lots of bike parking just north of the big bend in Pershing, and convince SANDAG to extend the gondolas across Florida Canyon to this square. Use the proceeds to redo the golf course and turn it into a public park, with connections across to South Park for cyclists and pedestrians. These places would be minutes from downtown, North Park, and Balboa Park (with the gondola). Who wouldn't want to live there?