Understanding North Park Part II – Planning for change

A big Masonic lodge across from a new joint use field in an elementary school. Considering historic buildings is one thing residents will consider

A big Masonic lodge across from a new joint use field in an elementary school. The role of historic buildings is one thing residents will consider

I mentioned in a previous post that I’d do periodic updates about how some residents of North Park are planning for its future.  Or, more accurately, how we are helping the City plan for growth and change in our community.  I wrote an initial post here about land use, and what follows helps to build on that.  Here goes…Once a month a group gets together to consider the future of land use in Greater North Park.  That is, the group considers what we think people and businesses should be able to do with the property they own in our community.  I know, that probably seems a bit odd–or at least off-putting to some–to be making decisions recommendations about what other people should be allowed to do with their property.  In one sense, it seems to run afoul of the core property rights protected in the Constitution.  In another sense, if we believe in the state’s police power to create a safe and orderly community, it’s a good idea for government to solicit input from the people it seeks to police.  Essentially, planning is an example of exercising that police power.  Also, just a reminder, all of the information about this process is publicly available and you can click here to read more background at your leisure (why read The Notebook or Paradise Plundered when you can read this?!?)
Moving to the practical, like many communities in the San Diego region, ours is going to continue to grow.  More people living in a fixed amount of space necessarily means we need more places for those people to live.  We can’t just stick our heads in the sand and so being thoughtful about where we can build is important for having a community that isn’t some big, jumbled mess. Map 1 below reflects the changes in Allowable Density in our community. And once we’ve given thought to where and how much can be built, the next logical question is what should be built?   Should we encourage multi-family homes, retail shops, towers, parks, or some combination of all of the above?  Map 2 below shows the types of Commercial Designations that exist in our current land use element.  Then, when we’ve tackled the issue of what we should build, we can deal with whether we care about any consistent design guidance for all these new buildings.  Map 3 below shows how the Design Criteria are broken down across our community in the current land use element.
As a reminder, these maps are related to the maps I posted here.  One of the Planning Committee volunteers (his blog) dedicated a ton of time to creating these maps.  It’s just a reminder that people care about our community.  There are three maps, each of which highlights an aspect of the changes from the old map to the new one.  The nitty gritty details aren’t super important to getting a basic understanding, my goal is just to help you understand what’s going on and share your feedback if you feel like it.  As a reminder, the big picture here is what we as members of the North Park community want the community to look like in 10, 20 or 30 years from now.  *Quick Disclaimer: The text is my interpretation of what these maps mean.  If you want more information or to be connected to the person who made the maps please just let me know.*
Higher density construction in East Village downtown San Diego. North Park will need to consider whether large projects will be appropriate to help manage growth in our community.

Higher density construction in East Village downtown San Diego. North Park will need to consider whether large projects will be appropriate to help manage growth in our community.

Map 1 – Allowable Density (changes to maximum density)
This is a map that shows a comparison of how many homes could be built per acre on the old map versus the new map.  The orange to dark purple shows a scale of where the allowed density will be reduced between the old map and the new map.  Orange is the “zero point” where there is no change in the allowed density.
Map of proposed change in allowable population density

Map of proposed change in allowable population density

If you look for your house, you can kind of tell that many of the residential places aren’t really proposed to change in terms of density.  The dark purple shows the most reduction in allowed density, which might seem odd because most of it is along the busiest areas where it might make sense to have more large condos or apartment buildings.  The trick is to realize that this map shows a difference between what was allowed before and what is allowed now.  No one currently has built anything in the community that reaches the maximum of the new standard, so it isn’t necessarily curtailing larger development just because it looks like a reduction.  Also, because the city reduced its standard for maximum density it put a new ceiling on how many homes could be built per acre in our community.
One question you might ask is whether we should have any limitation at all on the amount of homes that could be built in an acre.  No restriction would mean that you could account for many more people in a relatively small area.  This could be good if you want homes that people can afford and enough people to get cool restaurants and shops to decide to come.  It might be bad if you are more concerned about traffic or becoming a more crowded community.  These are only some of the trade-offs to consider.  Here are some questions to consider:
  • If we do get to be a more dense community (and the area is growing from within, regardless of what we do, click here for data), where in Greater North Park that density should go?
  • Would you want bigger commercial centers or to foster independent small businesses or more open space (or some combination) and how can the land use map help?
Example of project being designed near Counterpoint in Golden Hill (not in Greater North Park, but I like Counterpoint and it made the, umm, point.

Example of project being designed near Counterpoint in Golden Hill (not in Greater North Park, but I like Counterpoint and it made the, umm, point.

Map 2 – Commercial Designations
This map might look a little confusing.  It only deals with the commercial designations (i.e. where businesses and mixed business/residential can go).  The interesting thing about this map is it shows how there are many different rules for how you can use your property within the commercial areas generally.  Each color shows a slightly different set of rules.
Map of existing commercial areas in Greater North Park

Map of existing commercial areas in Greater North Park

One question you might ask is whether it would make more sense to have the same set of rules all along the strip so that businesses would have an easier time understanding what is possible.  On the other hand, you might think that having different designations helps keep the character of a restaurant grouping at, say 30th and Upas versus a more retail grouping at 30th and El Cajon or an entertainment district type feel along University.  What matters to you when you think about the business areas?
This craft brewer is near a growing mini-district at 32nd and Thorn Street (known as "T-32" by some locals, it's in the Altadena neighborhood). Design standards may be something to consider in this part of North Park

This craft brewer is near a growing mini-district at 32nd and Thorn Street (known as “T-32” by some locals, it’s in the Altadena neighborhood). Design standards may be something to consider in this part of North Park

Map 3 – Design Criteria
This is a map that shows the different design criteria for residences from one area to the next as they exist now.  Again, to read the current land use element and its maps (current as in from 1984, actually) you can click here.  This map shows different colored patches that represent changes in design criteria (that is, how the buildings should look) across parts of the community.
Map of current design criteria in Greater North Park

Map of current design criteria in Greater North Park

You might notice how Morley Field or 28th street has a lot of craftsman homes or that Hamilton Row is a little more modern looking.  Do we want different design guides depending on where in Greater North Park you are?  Does it keep the uniqueness of our homes within the community?  Would we be better served by one set of design criteria for the whole area?  One thing to consider is that there are no design criteria other than what is required in city zoning law for the large portion in the bottom of the community.  Should there be?  Do we need to consider how the growing area around Thorn and 32nd (where Thorn Street Brewery has opened and the awesome SoNo Holiday Festival happens every year) should be designed or how it should develop?
To be honest, I’m not entirely clear what the differences are between each of these design areas.  If you want that level of detail shoot me an email and I’m happy to put you in touch with another volunteer (who works in land use for his day job, by the way) for that information.
What’s the Point?
The reason for having all of this conversation is that the economy isn’t going to stay bad forever and our community is growing.  So we need to think about how we want it to grow in the future when people start wanting to build again.  My bias is in support of density in areas where it makes sense.  I believe you get more interesting communities if there are more people to support small businesses closer to home.  I also think that’s good for existing businesses.  The big X factor to me is the parking and “park-ing” issue.  That is, more people sadly still means more cars that need places to park.  I’d think we can encourage alternatives by making transit easier.  But some people are still going to want/need cars, so that’s an issue.  Until you can easily get from North Park to UCSD or downtown on something that is efficient, people are going to drive.  And you can’t fit Qualcomm or Sony into North Park I don’t think so for now the car must be planned for.
Maybe we should consciously change parts of our community to be more like cities where you really and truly don’t need a car, or you can get by with Car2Go or something.  The other “park-ing” issue has to do with actual places to play and be.  Parks for kids, for soccer, for being outside.  If you think parks are important, how do we get more of them as we have more people?  Should we have some more areas designated for future mini-parks?  Do we need hybrid designations so that every vacant lot can be re-purposed as a park if the owner doesn’t want to build yet? Heck, how do we make sure there is money to pay for the maintenance and the staff when all these new parks exist? It’s a tough call and something we need to think about.
About the Committee
Neighborhood groups sometimes get a bad rep.  Heck, I sometimes lament advisory groups as having too much say in how a project unfolds.  It’s an honest assessment, in my view, but only part of the story.  Anyone who tells you that no community group has ever voted to oppose a project simply because they didn’t want it in their neighborhood is either ill-informed or not being terribly forthright.  It happens.  I can’t speak to every community group, because although in my career I’ve presented to more than 30 of them around the County, I don’t know the people and their backgrounds.
In North Park, I know everyone on our Community Planning Group at least a little.  I know we have at least five people other than myself who work or have worked in fields related to either civil engineering or land use.  I know we have a few small business owners who understand the pressures of operating on occasionally precarious profit margins and who have dealt with the challenges of inconsistent signals from neighbors or municipal government.  I know we have at least a few who have dedicated decades to understanding nuanced aspects of planning and social work and economic development to grapple with the human side of the issues we face.  What I’m getting at is that although I recognize there need to be limits to the role of community groups, it doesn’t mean that community groups are either necessarily ill-equipped nor necessarily NIMBY-ist in their approach to neighborhood planning.
Like any group of people, this Community Planning Group is made up of, well, people.  With our frailties and egos and pet issues in tact just like any other group of people.  I agree with limitations on groups like ours because of these human quirks and because of the significant self-selection that occurs.  This just means that certain types of people are more likely to choose to participate than others.  We are more likely to be retired or not have a full-time day job than the community in which we live.  And we are more likely to have strong views about how the future of the community unfolds than some of our neighbors.  We need to be aware of these limitations and quirks, but perhaps we should also realize the upside.  Planning Groups, however limited, provide some representation of the community that is physically and socially close to our neighbors, and that may very well help ensure that City decisions account for community needs.  In reality, I’d love to have the money to hire Competitive Edge Research to do a study of Greater North Park and compare the attitudes of the larger North Park population with the Planning Group.  But failing a large windfall of money, this system seems to be the best we have.
About the Process
The Community Plan Update Committee in North Park was selected based in part on who was already on the Community Planning Group at the time an Advisory Committee for the update was formed.  Some additional seats were allotted for other members of the community and interested industry experts.  The Update Advisory Committee has changed as the members of the Planning Group has changed (I was initially on neither, for example).  There has been, and continues to be, outreach to the business districts and the neighbors, and anyone who wants to have a voice–even if it is just sending an email or leaving a voice mail–has a way to do that.  That also applies to industry groups like builders and realtors and restaurants and bars.  All are permitted encouraged to participate and the meetings aren’t closed.  And you can always drop me a line if you like.  Thanks for stopping by.

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