San Diego may soften park construction requirements to spur more housing

San Diego would get fewer new parks but existing parks would get more amenities under proposed policy changes that aim to accelerate construction of affordable housing.

City Councilman Scott Sherman, who has been spearheading efforts this year to address the city’s housing crisis, is proposing to soften parks construction obligations that housing developers face.

Projects proposed near Balboa Park, Mission Bay Park or one of the city’s other regional parks would begin getting credit for their proximity to those parks, which hasn’t been part of the city’s formula for determining developer obligations.

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Developers could also spend some of their required parks contributions on adding playgrounds or other amenities to an existing park nearby, instead of being limited to cash contributions toward future parks that might never get built.

And the definition of what qualifies as a park would be broadened to include children’s play areas, urban plazas, hiking trails, private parks and other recreational areas the city deems equivalent to a park.

The changes would stay in place until city officials complete in 2020 or 2021 a recently launched effort to revise the city’s parks master plan for the first time in decades.

The revised master plan is also expected to spur housing construction by revising requirements downward and giving developers more certainty about what parks requirements they will face across the city.

Some local neighborhood leaders have raised concerns about Sherman’s proposals, ranging from simple frustration that San Diego would get fewer parks to complaints about how the fee breaks for developers would be calculated.

Others have called Sherman’s proposal a more realistic way to view the future of parks in much of San Diego, particularly the city’s older urban neighborhoods where land needed for new parks is expensive and hard to find.

They say it makes sense to shrink the city’s parks acreage requirements going forward because they are based on an outdated urban sprawl model San Diego was following when communities like Tierrasanta and San Carlos were built.

Sherman says the changes are crucial because they would make a small but important dent in the local housing shortage, while also helping upgrade existing parks in neighborhoods where parkland is scarce.

He said softening parks requirements in areas near regional parks or open space parks was long overdue.

“It's mind-boggling and absolutely absurd,” Sherman said. "You can be at the beach developing something and they require a park even though Mission Bay Park is within a stone's throw.”

In addition to Balboa Park and Mission Bay Park, the areas affected would include Presidio Mission Hills Park, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park and Otay Valley Regional Park.

Sherman said it’s a real problem that housing developers have been paying high parks fees in those areas despite the presence of regional parks and open space.

"Those fees go on to the cost-per-unit, and those fees aren't just paid by the developer — they get passed on to the consumer and that's why we have a housing crisis," he said.

Some community leaders, particularly those near Balboa Park, have been critical of such proposals. They also want smaller parks to be built that are more personal to their neighborhood.

The proposal to allow developers to pay for amenities instead of contributing toward long-term parks construction is also crucial, Sherman said.

The city has about $400 million in such “developer impact fees” languishing in accounts with little chance of being spent any time soon, he said.

While those fees also cover construction of libraries, roads and fire stations, nearly 68 percent of the money is earmarked specifically for parks.

And the percentage is much higher in some communities, such as Otay Mesa at 88 percent, Mission Valley at 86 percent and Barrio Logan at 85 percent.

"We have a whole bunch of money that sits stagnant in accounts for projects that may never be built," said Sherman. "Let's get some amenities that benefit the public in place now."

David Moty, chairman of a group of neighborhood leaders from across the city called the Community Planners Commission, said that proposal seems reasonable.

But he also said the list of eligible amenities seems flawed, such as paying for storm water upgrades or solar panels in parks.

"It might be commendable to do, but that's not recreation," Moty said. "I can't go to the nearby park and tap dance on the solar panels."

Moty’s committee voted 18-4 last week against Sherman’s proposals, but said that opposition could morph into support with some changes.

Another key concern for the committee was how developer fee breaks for proximity to regional parks would be determined. They criticized the proposal as lacking standards and giving too much discretion to city planning staff.

“Without standards, credit could vary wildly between projects, and possibly expose the mayor, City Council and staff to charges of favoritism or discrimination,” the group wrote in a joint letter to Sherman.

The proposals are expected to be presented this fall to the city’s Planning Commission, the City Council’s Smart Growth and Land Use Committee and eventually to the full council for possible approval.

They are among more than a dozen proposed policy changes the city is considering to boost construction of affordable housing.

Other proposals include streamlined project approvals, bonuses for densely-built projects, lower parking requirements in transit areas and loosened regulations for granny flats and business owners living in their workplace.

david.garrick@sduniontribune.com (619) 269-8906 Twitter:@UTDavidGarrick

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