Density Is at the Center of San Diego Climate Fight – Next City

Density Is at the Center of San Diego Climate Fight

(Photo by Nserrano)

San Diego environmentalists and urbanists are sounding the alarm. They say if the city doesn’t take steps to increase density in its inner-core neighborhoods it won’t be on track to accomplish its climate goals. The city says the advocates are too focused on land use and are ignoring the many other climate mitigation strategies it has in play.

In December 2015, the City of San Diego adopted a Climate Action Plan requiring the city to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 51 percent from 2010 levels by 2035. To meet the goal, the city’s strategies include new and retrofitted green building infrastructure, increased use of renewable energy sources, better waste management, and reduction of car use by encouraging walking, biking, and transit and increasing development in “transit priority areas.”

A little less than a year later, advocates say the city isn’t doing enough to increase density in those transit priority areas (defined by the California Environmental Quality Act as an area within a half mile of a major transit stop). Without greater transit-oriented development, they say the city will miss the Climate Action Plan’s goal of reducing commute driving in transit priority areas from its current 89 percent mode share to 50 percent while increasing transit, biking and walking to 25 percent, 18 percent and 7 percent respectively. And given that transportation accounts for 55 percent of the 2010 GHG emissions baseline, they say failing to meet the transportation goals might leave the city unable to meet its overall Climate Plan goals.

The tension over density is coming to a head over the lengthy community plan update process. San Diego has more than 50 designated communities, each with their own plan that guides land use, transportation, historic preservation and more. The city is in the midst of adopting updated community plans, a process that began eight years ago. In late October, the city council adopted community plan updates for North Park and Golden Hill, two central neighborhoods.

Kathleen Ferrier, of transportation advocacy group Circulate San Diego, says the adopted plans allow for little to no density increase. But, she says, “these inner-ring neighborhoods are where development should happen. This is where we have transit in place, it’s close to downtown, people are already moving there.”

The Uptown community plan is next up for adoption and it too lacks any real increase in density.

In response to pressure from Circulate and other groups, the San Diego Planning Department released a memo the morning of the council hearing on the North Park and Golden Hill plan updates outlining other strategies for reducing car commuting.

The memo, which includes a study from an environmental consultancy, suggests moves such as charging employees market rates for parking in building garages (for an estimated 3.9 percent reduction in driving) and paying employees for not using a provided parking space (for a 1.5 percent driving reduction). It also suggests further expanding buffered bike lane facilities as space frees up from mode-shares shift and “the emergence of autonomous vehicles (driverless) … reduce the need for private vehicle ownership and parking.” They calculate doing so would grow bicycling’s mode share by 2.1 percent.

City Planning Director Jeff Murphy says the memo was meant to illustrate that there are paths to both the mode-share shift goals and climate goals beyond density.

“One thing a lot of people don’t realize is when you look at our Climate Action Plan a very small percentage of our strategies rely on future development,” Murphy explains. “A lot of it is about how we change behavior today. We want to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 and make the city fleet 100 percent electric vehicles.”

But for environmentalists such as Nicole Capretz, executive director of Climate Action Campaign, the memo is just a distraction from the core issues. For one, she says, the parking strategies outlined aren’t citywide. They only apply to future development projects. The memo specifically states it is meant to, “show how these measures when applied to future development help contribute to the reduction of vehicle trips.”

More to the point, Capretz says, “we said in the climate plan we want to focus our new growth in transit priority areas. It’s the pairing of density with high-quality transit or high-quality bike lanes or more pedestrian-friendly infrastructure that’s going to get us to our goals.”

Murphy says that the Climate Action Plan is so new, they haven’t even had a chance to evaluate their progress and that when they do, they can make adjustments as needed.

“We have to do an annual report to see if we’re on the right trajectory and make sure we’re hitting our 2020 and 2035 goals,” he says. “We’ve got not even quite a year under our belt right now. We haven’t finished the analysis for our annual report. That will be coming out by the end of the year. Then we can evaluate whether we’re on the right track or not.”

For Capretz and Ferrier, the lack of increased density and planning for growth in the city’s core in the community plans is evidence that the city is already off track.

“These are 30-year growth road maps and we’re going nowhere down the path that urbanists say we should be going to create thriving urban communities,” says Capretz. “But when the rubber hit the road and they put plans together, it’s just status quo.”

Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.

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