Is the College Area ready for more high-density housing?

Inside a College Area church, city planners displayed an array of posterboards and invited residents to give feedback on the future development of their neighborhood. Residents added colored sticky notes to bullet-pointed plans, scrutinized rezoning maps and penciled in their own thoughts on proposed locations for high-density housing.

But first, they had to walk past a starkly different display. Outside, a grassroots group fashioned a posterboard display of their own, rebuffing the city’s attempt at compromise and imploring residents to sign a petition that would “Save San Diego’s College Area.”

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The open house held last month illustrated the deep divide between many residents and the city of San Diego’s Planning Department, whose visions for the community plan update for the College Area — where land use has been a hot-button topic for some time — diverge.

While many College Area residents want to preserve the character of their quiet family neighborhoods, city planners need to account for the substantial population growth forecasted in the area and beyond. In a nutshell, that means more high-density housing will need to break into the predominantly single-family neighborhoods.

By 2030, San Diego’s current 1.46 million population is forecast to grow by some 230,000 people, reaching 1.69 million, according to the San Diego Association of Governments. By 2050, the city’s population is forecast to be 1.95 million.

With the lack of availability yet high demand for housing, every urban San Diego neighborhood is having to explore ways to address these issues in their community plan updates, or long-range plans that provide the framework of land use and urban design policies to guide community development for the next 20 to 30 years. That includes dictating how new buildings should look and what amenities or infrastructure are required to meet future needs.

After seeing an increase in accessory dwelling units in the College Area in recent years, residents are pushing back on the city’s proposals and expressing their concerns with the zoning changes in the draft plans.

Whereas city officials have said accessory dwellings are the fastest and cheapest way to address the local housing crisis, many residents in areas like the College Area disagree, saying the backyard units will only lead to more “mini-dorms,” where single-family homes are rented to multiple students from nearby San Diego State University. A judge ruled in 2017 that two ordinances adopted by the city to regulate mini-dorms were unconstitutional, leaving no way to stop what many residents see as a problem.

Now, residents are worried that their predominantly single-family neighborhoods will receive another influx of high-density housing under the new draft plans, where rezoning would allow the construction of multistory developments in their neighborhoods.

“Everybody is really angry now — I’ve never seen this level of involvement — and I feel like we don’t have a voice,” said College Area resident Sharlene Thompson. “And, we all know that once something is built, it’s never coming down. … We’re going to be stuck with those buildings forever.”

However, city planners said they are working to garner feedback on the draft plans, hoping to find a compromise with residents.

“We understand in some instances these represent big changes, and that rezoning, particularly in the single-family zones located farther from key corridors and intersections, may not ultimately be desired to be achieved through the community plan update process,” said Tara Lewis, a spokesperson for San Diego’s planning department. “We value this feedback. It is a critical part of the planning process as we work together to provide more home opportunities that are aligned with our housing, climate and equity goals.”

Tenochca Residence Hall on the campus of San Diego State University.

Tenochca Residence Hall on the campus of San Diego State University.

(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A college town

Like many other areas of the city, the College Area is projected to grow substantially in the next 13 years, according to SANDAG’s most recent forecasted projections. From 2020 to 2035, the area’s total population is estimated to grow from 25,437 to 48,012, an 88 percent increase.

To accommodate this growth, SANDAG projects the total number of housing units will need to more than double, increasing 108 percent from 8,402 in 2020 to 17,494 by 2035.

However, the College Area is unique, as San Diego State University’s 216-acre campus comprises the second-largest portion of the nearly 2,000-acre community next to single-family-home neighborhoods. The typical student age group of 18 to 24 — a population of 11,037 in 2020 — accounted for the largest percentage of the College Area’s total population at 43 percent, according to SANDAG.

Although enrollment at the university, currently at about 35,000, has remained steady for years, the College Area’s overall population has increased by 22 percent from 2012 to 2020. The total number of housing units has not kept up, increasing by slightly less than 1,000 units, or about 13 percent. SDSU’s on-campus housing provides beds for about 7,000 of those students, according to its website.

While the university isn’t a direct part of the community plan update discussion, College Area residents have struggled for decades to coexist with the growing number of students, a problem they said will only worsen with the projected population growth in the area.

San Diego State University officials said with the addition of SDSU Mission Valley, over time the school is looking to grow from 35,000 to 50,000 students, consistent with state funding for enrollment growth.

Construction of primary north/south road at SDSU Mission Valley is underway

Construction of primary north/south road at SDSU Mission Valley is underway just east of Snapdragon Stadium.

(Kirk Kenney / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The entire campus project calls for 4,600 residential units, 80 acres of parks and open space, 1.6 million square feet of office and research space in an Innovation District, 400 hotel rooms and 95,000 square feet of campus shops. The first stage of construction will include the new stadium, the River Park, and the initial phase of residential housing and research/innovation space. The project is anticipated to be finished by 2037.

“The university is excited about the growth of the campus and the opportunities that will be available to students and the greater San Diego community with SDSU Mission Valley,” a statement SDSU provided to the Union-Tribune read. “As our community will be able to work, live and play at SDSU Mission Valley in the future, we are excited to deliver on the promises made and to also make a positive impact on the environment and lives of the College Area community and every San Diegan.”

Competing visions

The College Area’s community plan was last updated in 1989, so with SANDAG’s projections, community groups have long been discussing their vision for these kinds of updates.

In 2020 — before the city launched its own official work to update the plan — the College Area Community Council presented a 53-page report to city planners, addressing their concerns.

“With only 18 total vacant developable acres in the entire community, the College Area is largely built out,” the report stated. “This raises the question of where these new housing units will be built, and what kinds of projects will be necessary to meet the projected demand.”

The report went on to detail the council’s “7 Visions” that addressed housing, mobility, parks and more and reflected the need for the revitalization of corridors such as El Cajon Boulevard with high-density development while protecting the integrity of single-family neighborhoods.

Jim Jennings, who is president of both the College Area community council and planning board, said residents are not opposed to change, but their plan reflects “reasonable growth.”

Residents discuss the city's College Area Community Plan Update at a community open house

Residents discuss the city’s College Area Community Plan Update at the city’s open house.

(Pat Hartley/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

However, when city planners presented their two draft plans in February, many residents said their proposals were ignored.

The city’s “15-Minute Neighborhoods” plan would focus the highest density of infill residential, commercial and mixed-use around San Diego State’s campus and the Alvarado Street trolley station. It would also encourage “missing middle” density, transitioning much of the current 35-foot height limit single-family zoning to three to four stories.

The other, the “Grand Boulevards” plan, would instead focus on higher intensity development along key corridors and nodes. This plan encourages townhomes and walk-up redevelopment zoned for two to three stories in a majority of the single-family neighborhoods, while adding “medium” three- to five-story density along major streets and near the university. Both plans include “very-high” density areas up to nine stories.

Lewis contended that these new plans were intended to capture the input received from the community council and address the key visions detailed in the council’s 2020 report, which, she said, “included meeting housing needs through campus centers, along corridors and major intersections, connecting the community with the college campus, and planning for active and thriving public spaces and parks.”

Moreover, Lewis said these plans and land-use approaches are still in draft form, meaning they are being used for discussion purposes to facilitate feedback from the public.

“No final decisions have been made at this time,” Lewis added, “and the planning department is committed to refining the land-use approaches based on the input we have received from the community, including the potential removal of certain areas from any ultimate rezoning, where home opportunities that are aligned with our housing, climate and equity goals can still be achieved.”

A sign reads "no re-zone" sits outside a community open house

A sign reads “no re-zone” sits outside a community open house where residents discuss the city’s College Area Community Plan Update.

(Pat Hartley/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘Bad and worse’

Although some residents are vehemently against the city’s draft plans, many are still taking the opportunity to provide feedback for the future development of the College Area seriously, including dozens of people who attended the city’s open house last month.

Some residents said they remained neutral and were there to learn more. “I think it’s great that the city’s giving us a chance to give our input on these plans,” said College Area resident Marisa Dillon. “I know some people are angry, but we’ve got to give them a chance.”

Others openly expressed their displeasure with the draft plans, which Geoff Hueter, chair of Neighbors For A Better San Diego, said some residents are calling “bad and worse.”

Among the issues residents presented to city staff was the lack of open space and parks included in the draft plans. The area’s only park other than the open space on SDSU’s campus is Montezuma Park, which has no playground.

“I’m all for the high-density housing but would love to see some more park areas,” said Eddie Tiller. “We literally have nothing right now, and I have to drive my kids out of the neighborhood just so they can play on a jungle gym. Parks should be a priority, not an afterthought.”

Many also expressed safety concerns due to the shortage of law enforcement and first responders in an area they said is already spread too thin. Last month, an 18-year-old was shot and killed as he and his friends drove away from a house party in the College Area.

A map of the College Area says "do not change the zoning"

A map of the College Area says “Do not change the zoning” as residents discuss the city’s College Area Community Plan Update at the open house.

(Pat Hartley/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Residents who have lived in the area for decades call the College Area a historic neighborhood, where some homes are approaching their 100th year, and were among those most frustrated with the drafts.

“It really hits a nerve with us because this is our front yard,” said 63-year-old Anita Anderson, who has lived in her College Area home all her life. “Would you want this (high-density housing) in your front yard?”

Anderson wrote a three-page verse she called her “rezoning lament” that she showed Nathen Causman, project manager for College Area Community Plan Update, part of which read, “We say it best in verse. Your zone plan could not be worse. To you we plead, rezoning we just don’t need. We say no to rezone. Just leave our neighborhoods alone.”

Save San Diego’s College Area, a neighborhood grassroots movement working to preserve the integrity of single-family homes in the area, is encouraging residents to sign a petition, calling for city leaders to completely stop rezoning plans in the College Area.

Three weeks before the open house, Neighbors For A Better San Diego and the College Area Community Council held their own community meeting, which was attended by more than 100 residents, where they, too, mapped out their ideas. The resulting maps were gathered into a report, which organizers sent to city planners.

Later this summer, city planners will meet with the College Area Community Plan Update Committee to share revised land-use scenarios based on input received via an online survey conducted in April, as well as feedback from the open house and community groups, Lewis said.

Then in the fall, city planners will share these updated scenarios with the city’s Planning Commission as part of an information-only workshop to obtain the commission’s input. Following this workshop, Lewis anticipates the planning department will release a first draft of the updated plan “Community Discussion Draft.”

“We will also welcome additional feedback after that and will continue to meet with the committee to obtain its input,” Lewis added.

The Community Discussion Draft will then be followed by a more developed draft plan, and appropriate environmental review, which is anticipated to occur in early to mid-2023. Adoption hearings for the plan are expected to be held with the planning commission and City Council in the fall of 2023.