AIASD President SD Union Tribune Op-Ed: To tackle development issues, San Diego must become city of ‘Great Villages’

To tackle development issues, San Diego must become city of ‘Great Villages’

PHILIP J. BONA

“Transit-Oriented Development” (TOD) needs a makeover. The term has become toxic and evokes fear in neighborhoods where well-meaning planners seek to implement the concept. But TOD’s holistic approach is in fact an elegant solution to the complex problem facing our region. Affordable housing, parking, traffic congestion and air quality are all interrelated. These issues must be tackled together if we hope to accommodate projected population growth and maintain our quality of life. But if transit-oriented development is dead on arrival, let’s reframe the conversation, starting with a new term and some updates to the basic idea. But first, here are some facts.

Housing: 90 percent of available land in San Diego is occupied; cheap suburban development in the city is gone — the other 10 percent includes unbuildable sites. Because of the limited inventory of homes for rent or for sale, the prices continue going up. This is aggravated by the high cost of entitlements and permits, which has been reported to be 40 percent of home construction cost.

Traffic and parking: Most of our houses are in low-density single-family neighborhoods with jobs spread out over diverse employment centers. Current bus service doesn’t penetrate into neighborhoods, failing to service the “last quarter mile” proximity to homes — the walkability distance found to be critical to the success of public transportation usage. This makes the city’s Climate Action Plan for increased public transit difficult to achieve; perpetuating traffic and air pollution for years to come. There are at last count eight parking spaces in San Diego for every car. Why? Because typically where we park during the day, working or shopping, are not the places we want to park on weekends and evenings.

However, using public transit, we can stop the car culture of congested freeways and asphalt parking lots.

The way forward: Remember the concept of the “City of Villages”? It was conceived to address growth and improve existing communities by combining housing, commercial, employment centers, schools and civic uses together in areas where a high level of activity already exists. It has struggled because there has never been sufficient money to pay for the needed public services. TOD calls for mixed-use development to be located around public transit stations with increased housing density — often a deal-breaker.

Combining the two concepts into a new and better nontoxic concept of “Great Villages” would be a step up in the evolutionary ladder of urban planning.

With a network of Great Villages connected by efficient public transportation — down to the last quarter mile — we can live and work in our own neighborhood and move about the county without our own private vehicle. Those of us who still need a car to do our jobs would face fewer cars on the roads. College students could ride a trolley to any of the university campuses. We could get to a doctor appointment or a hospital without having to time it around rush hour traffic. There could be parks and schools a few blocks from home. Best of all, a coffee shop a block from my house!

This basic idea has been around for years but rarely succeeded in San Diego. It appears the public has a series of concerns that are misinformed. First of all, Great Villages will not diminish property values in the surrounding area. In fact, the opposite is true: Historically the value of the surrounding neighborhoods has increased because of the improved services. The second fallacy is that it will attract the wrong people, whoever “they” are. Again, the reverse is true. If planned correctly, Great Villages create a balanced community for all ethnic and economic classes, particularly the young and elderly. Increasing traffic is the third myth. Traffic is in fact reduced by this strategy of well-planned and well-engineered communities.

San Diego is going to continue to grow. Most of that growth will come from births, not immigration. This isn’t about keeping some people out of San Diego; and we aren’t going to keep our wives and daughters out of the hospital maternity wards. To accommodate inevitable growth, San Diegans need to stop being NIMBYs and become YIMBYs. Our communities need to demand that our city grow wisely along accessible public transportation that connects our new Great Villages into a brilliant necklace.

Bona  is 2017 president of the San Diego chapter of the American Institute of Architects and a practicing architect with BNIM.