By BRIAN SCHRADER
There is no way to sugar coat this: San Diego desperately needs more housing, and if you’ve driven through North Park or University Heights lately then you’ve seen the city’s latest attempts to provide it. This construction has prompted a backlash from many residents, especially regarding the latest projects on 30th Streets and Adams Avenue. But a group of Uptown residents believe they’ve crafted an elegant solution. They call it ‘Smart Growth,’ and I’m going to explain why it doesn’t work.
Proponents of Smart Growth claim the proposal minimizes change to a given neighborhood while attempting to maximize the amount of new housing built. This is a worthwhile goal, in principle. The issue arises in the logistics of how Uptown’s ‘Smart Growth’ plan could actually become a reality.
The Smart Growth Plan goes like this: instead of constructing larger or taller housing complexes in our local communities, which supporters claim would alter the neighborhood and fail to provide suitable parking for new residents—the city should prioritize constructing smaller three-to-four story buildings along the entire length of Adams Avenue, like an almost Parisian thoroughfare, with shops on the lower floors and housing on the top. This concept has a unique appeal, don’t get me wrong, but it won’t solve any of the problems it claims to address and it could arguably make them much worse.
Let’s dive into the biggest issues.
First: parking. Larger projects—taller buildings—usually come with a substantial amount of parking provided by underground lots. Smaller projects—like two or three story complexes—tend to waste lot space on cheaper above-ground lots which reduces the amount of livable space the complex can provide and therefore reduces housing potential. A line of smaller buildings like this would likely provide less parking than a single taller building, resulting in an outcome that directly contradicts the Smart Growth plan’s stated goals.
Next: ‘neighborhood culture.’ This incredibly squirrelly term is often used as a dogwhistle by those who seek to police their neighborhood’s socio-ethnic makeup, but for this discussion let’s assume that everyone is acting in good faith. Uptown does genuinely have a unique character. It is one of San Diego’s original street-car suburbs and it’s filled with smaller shops, a thriving art scene, great bars, and stellar restaurants. It’s also home to community events like the Adams Avenue Street Fair. I agree that this stuff is important; it’s why I choose to live in Normal Heights after all.
Now consider these two scenarios. Which is less ‘disruptive’? In one, the vast majority of the neighborhood remains the same except there are a few taller buildings interspersed throughout. They stick out a little, but add new housing and parking within a relatively small footprint. In the Smart Growth scenario, we instead need to bulldoze every classic one-story building, including all those shops, bars, and restaurants, along Adams Avenue to make room for the new complexes. Do the proponents of ‘Smart Growth’ really support a plan like that? I doubt it.
This all belies the real point of the ‘Smart Growth’ plan. Housing advocates like me can explain that many new multi-story complexes include street-side commercial space, that parking minimums are detrimental to housing density, or that according to the recent state estimate San Diego must provide 108,036 housing units by the end of the decade to end this crisis. But it doesn’t matter. The actual result of the ‘Smart Growth’ debate is to stop growth entirely. Let me explain.
Let’s imagine for a second that all of these problems were solved. Under what timescale would this new ‘Smart Growth’ plan be achieved? It takes years to get a single new building project approved, and before that we would need to wait for every single lease along Adams Avenue to expire and be purchased by a developer willing to go along with the idea. At minimum this would take multiple decades, while San Diego requires over 100,000 housing units by the end of this one.
I would like to live in a city that is actually capable of addressing one of its most critical needs. The ‘Smart Growth’ plan doesn’t work and its only real effect is to block desperately needed housing projects. Our neighborhoods need solutions, not pipe dreams. We deserve real growth and soon.