Would you accept denser, taller neighborhoods to fight climate change?
San Diegans face the first tough decision in trying to realize the city’s Climate Action Plan, which calls for hundreds of thousands of commuters to ditch their cars in favor of walking, biking or using public transit.
After much public debate, the City Council is set to vote Tuesday on so-called community plan updates for North Park and Golden Hill — the first of dozens of pivotal zoning plans to be updated since the city approved its climate document last year.
These neighborhood blueprints, which are often not revised for decades, cap building heights and limit the number of commercial and residential units that can be constructed on any given block.
Transit experts and city planners nationwide are nearly unanimous in their belief that dense, walkable neighborhoods — with homes located near job sites and basic amenities like grocery stores — are essential for cutting down on tailpipe emissions that harm the public’s health and heat up the globe.
However, putting such policies into community zoning plans can be politically difficult. While green groups and affordable-housing advocates have pushed to urbanize more neighborhoods in San Diego and across the country, many residents and business owners have vociferously resisted such change. They fear traffic jams and noise pollution.
The issue has become so pervasive that in September, President Barack Obama released a report calling on municipal leaders to overcome local opposition to greater housing density if they’re to ably combat a nationwide housing crisis and protect the environment.
Against this backdrop, San Diego’s vision for North Park and Golden Hill, as well as the forthcoming neighborhood plans for Uptown and San Ysidro, seem to be falling short of the city’s own climate change targets.
Of all residents who live within a half-mile of a major transit stop, the city has called for only half to drive to work by 2035, down from about 89 percent currently.
That benchmark won’t be met by any of the four urban neighborhoods whose community plans are being updated at the moment, according to a recent analysis the city produced after the Planning Commission and environmentalists demanded it.
The proposed updates that will go before the City Council in coming days and weeks closely reflect the plans already on the books — a status quo approach that likely reflects the divided electorate.
On one hand, people like Tom Mullaney, who founded the nonprofit group Uptown United to oppose higher density, said even the plan update being considered for his neighborhood will result in an unbearable influx of new residents and dramatically increased traffic.
Then there’s people like Vicki Granowitz, chair of the North Park Planning Group, who believes her neighborhood could greatly benefit from significantly more growth that focuses on building walkable communities.
In lieu of embracing major increases in each community’s density level, San Diego officials now intend to unveil at Tuesday’s council meeting a series of additional strategies aimed at helping to boost transit, biking and pedestrian traffic in North Park and Golden Hill. The city hasn’t given details, but has hinted that they will include attempts to make public transit, walking and biking more appealing and convenient for residents.
Councilman Todd Gloria, whose District 3 includes North Park, Golden Hill and Uptown, has supported this approach, which eschews a major overhaul of the allowable housing stock.
“It is important to note that the community plan updates are just one part of a comprehensive strategy for reaching the city’s Climate Action Plan’s legally binding goals,” he said in an email. “The city must do its part to support additional local and regional transportation projects …”
While a city analysis did find that neighborhoods can expect to see notable drops in car commuters based in part on new investments in transit, bike and pedestrian facilities, the city wouldn’t give specifics on those investments.
City officials have also pointed out that while the overall number of housing units allowed in each community won’t increase significantly in the next two decades, those neighborhoods have room for growth under their existing blueprints.
The following is a cross-section of people from the affected communities, all speaking about the relationship between climate change and the future character of their neighborhoods.