Housing, parks part of plan to revitalize sports arena area

By David Garrick, San Diego-Union Tribune

The area around San Diego’s sports arena would be transformed into dense housing, modern commercial projects, 30 acres of parks and a bay-to-bay trail under a new growth blueprint City officials are proposing.

The plan would make the community more vibrant and less industrial by chopping up its oversized blocks with new, smaller streets featuring bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly plazas.

It would also increase the area’s relatively small residential population from 4,600 to 27,000 by re-zoning land to spike the number of housing units from just under 2,000 to more than 11,000.

Some of the housing would be reserved for low-income residents and much of it would be geared for those with middle incomes, helping to solve the region’s severe shortage of affordable housing.

The proposal would also help achieve many goals in the City’s Climate Action Plan by transforming a car-dependent community into one where residents commute by bicycle or mass transit, using the Old Town Trolley Station.

The changes would happen gradually over the next two decades under the proposal, called a community plan update.

They could accelerate if more than 100 City-owned acres around the arena — branded as the Valley View Casino Center — get redeveloped quickly and serve as a catalyst to other projects. Most of the leases for the City-owned land expire in 2020, and City officials have declined to discuss renewals so that ambitious redevelopment of the area can move forward quickly and smoothly.

The proposal envisions three possible fates for the aging arena: it continues operating as is, it gets replaced by a modern version or it gets demolished and not rebuilt.

A developer is also proposing an upscale office complex on the site of the defunct postal complex on Midway Drive, which could also be a catalyst.

Community Plan Update

The community plan update covers the area next to the arena and the surrounding Midway District — 1,324 acres bordered by San Diego International Airport, I-5, I-8, Laurel Street and the eastern edge of Point Loma .

“This plan update is an opportunity to create a new future for the Midway District as a more vibrant, transit-oriented community,” said Mike Hansen, the City’s planning director. “It will make room for more than 6,500 homes near transit in line with the City’s landmark climate action plan and also accommodate the existing arena or a potential new arena in a mixed-use entertainment district.”

The proposal, which the City’s Planning Commission is discussing, is the 15th community plan update that City officials have tackled since Mayor Kevin Faulconer was elected four years ago. Updated community plans accelerate development by determining the zoning and maximum densities for properties in the City, which allows developers to move forward with projects knowing what the City plans to allow.

Most of the other updates, particularly for primarily residential communities like Ocean Beach, have been far less ambitious about transforming an area. And the few particularly ambitious plans, such as those for Grantville and San Ysidro, are expected to take much longer to come to fruition because those areas are less appealing to developers than the Midway District.

City officials say the area is ripe for development because of its central location between downtown, the airport, Mission Bay Park and the City’s beach communities. The Midway District also has ready freeway access and proximity to mass transit and includes the site of a transportation hub serving the airport that is being planned by the San Diego Association of Governments. The district also includes the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, but the proposal doesn’t make any changes there.

Community Response

Community leaders have mostly embraced the proposal, which would be the first update to the Midway District’s community plan since 1991. They have, however, raised concerns that the plan doesn’t do enough to alleviate the area’s congested roadways.

“Other than bike lanes and pedestrian improvements, how do we get people moving around?” Cathy Kenton, chair of the Midway Community Planning Group, said by phone. “People aren’t necessarily going to walk to the transit center. There needs to be transit improvements if we are going to build this much new development.”

Residents have also complained that the proposal does nothing to alleviate congestion from Point Loma residents who slog through Midway traffic to access local freeways. Some have lobbied for a tunnel underneath Rosecrans Street to solve the problem, but that wasn’t included in the plan as a potential option.

“We know it’s expensive, but shouldn’t we be looking at maybe undergrounding Rosecrans to the freeway and leaving the surface streets for local traffic?” Kenton said. “When we asked for more creative transportation options, we were pretty much told there is no money for it so it won’t be considered.”

The proposal does feature road upgrades that aim to alleviate congestion, including additional turn lanes on most major streets.

Kenton said residents and merchants in the area are upbeat about the plan to scale down the area’s oversized street blocks. “It’s a circulation issue,” she said. “When you have these megablocks it creates congestion because there are no other options. It’s logical — it seems to make sense.”

On parks, Kenton praised the proposed increase from zero acres to nearly 30 acres. But she said it only makes sense with so much new development planned.

The transformation of the community would also boost access to Mission Bay Park, the largest aquatic park in the nation at 4,500 acres. The proposal includes something called a Bay-to-Bay Trail for bicyclists and pedestrians, which would connect San Diego Bay at Laurel Street to Mission Bay at the San Diego River and I-8.

Another hurdle facing the transformation of the area is the City’s 30-foot coastal height limit, which covers all of the Midway District. The arena, which is 75 feet tall, and the former Cabrillo Hospital exceed the limit because they were built before it was put in place in the early 1970s.

Any new construction exceeding the limit couldn’t move forward without a ballot measure seeking majority approval by residents across the City. Some have suggested the City place a measure on the ballot exempting all City-owned properties from the height limit.

Kenton, contending the Midway District probably shouldn’t have been included in the area governed by the height limit in the first place, said the ballot measure might also include exempting all property there — not just City-owned lots.

The proposal is scheduled to be debated by the City Council’s Smart Growth & Land Use Committee on May 24. A final version is scheduled to be adopted by the full Council on June 26.


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