CP&DR News Briefs September 17, 2019: Mission Valley; Housing Plans; SMART Rail; and More

Brett Simpson on
Sep 16, 2019
Mission Valley Plan Would Welcome 50,000 New Residents
Heralding major changes for Mission Valley, the San Diego City Council adopted a new 30-year community plan that rezones the entire region and allows for more housing and commercial development near transit in the area surrounding the city's former major league football and baseball stadium. The council voted unanimously to adopt a Mission Valley Community Plan Update that’s been in the works since 2015 and replaces the previous 1985 plan. This overhaul shifts the community’s focus from commercial, auto-centric zoning to reorganize the region around the San Diego River, in four “urban villages” that place housing and commercial space alongside mass transit. By adding the “mixed use” designation to zoning type, the plan adds as many as 28,000 new housing units by 2050 and 7 million more square feet of commercial development. The plan accommodates for a 248 percent balloon in residential population – from 20,800 people to 72,400 people – by 2050. It also identifies new parks, roads, bridges, recreation centers, and an aquatics center. It also requires pedestrian walkways and bicycle infrastructure. “I’m a big believer in local planning, that San Diego should control what happens in our neighborhoods, not Sacramento,” Councilwoman Barbara Bry told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “I think today is a poster child for why San Diego should be in charge of what happens in our city.”

Vast Majority of California Cities Behind on Housing Plans
Up to 89 percent of California cities and counties may miss their deadline to update local housing plans and receive a noncompetitive planning grant for supportive housing, according to the nonprofit Hub for Urban Initiatives. AB 2162, signed into law last September, offers $165 million in non-competitive funding to create streamlining plans for supportive housing approval, meaning funds are guaranteed if jurisdictions apply and meet grant guidelines by the November 30 deadline. But there’s a catch: the jurisdictions must have updated and approved housing elements in their general plans to qualify. According to the Hub’s data, only 58 of California's 538 cities and counties have completed applications for the all-but-guaranteed funding. Another 72 have begun applications – and 408 have not begun at all. So far, the only jurisdictions awarded these funds so far are the cities of Banning, Folsom, Gonzalez, Long Beach, Monterey, Redlands, San Jacinto, Shasta Lake, and Woodland. "The more permanent supportive housing, the fewer chronically homeless persons on the streets. Period,” said Joe Coletti, CEO of the Hub for Urban Initiatives. "If they miss this deadline to get help updating their housing plans they will miss this window of opportunity to save lives and transform their towns and counties. It would be tragic."

New Bay Area Commuter Rail Struggles to Cover Costs
Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) commuter rail line may face service cuts by 2024 if voters don’t extend a quarter-cent sales tax initially passed in 2006. The two-year-old train line connects Sonoma and Marin to San Francisco, offering an alternative to driving for long-distance commuters. However, the $600 million line has failed to generate enough riders to offset its costs. It currently hosts about 2,800 passengers per day and recovers only 10 percent of costs through fares. By contrast, BART recovers 73 percent of costs through fares, and Caltrain recovers 66 percent. For many commuters, the line is still clunky: it has service gaps and requires multiple transfers to reach San Francisco. Still, it’s sparked transit-oriented development projects in Rohnert Park, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa. In November, voters will be asked to extend the sales tax past its 2029 expiration date. According to Randy Rentschler, legislative director of the Metropolitan Commission, even if SMART were to raise fares and cut service, it would still have to shut down if the tax expires in 2029. “We have a quarter-cent sales tax, and we’re not going to increase it. We’re only asking voters to extend it,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. (See prior CP&DR coverage.) 

California Holds Firm to Support Clean Water Act
The Environmental Protection Agency formally announced long-expected rollbacks of key Obama-era water protections – but California’s sweeping new wetlands policy, passed in April, largely protects the state from federal policy changes. The Trump administration repealed a section of the Clean Water Act Thursday that protected watersheds like wetlands and shallow streams from pollution and made it harder for farmers, builders, and industry leaders to develop private land. Obama passed those protections in 2015. But EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler recently said that the EPA and the U.S. Army would reinstate water rules that were issued in the 1980s, and would begin redefining which waterways can be regulated. But California’s wetlands bill explicitly secures state oversight of California’s watersheds. “We kind of locked it into place out of fear of what would happen today,” Jared Blumfield, California’s secretary of Environmental Protection, told the San Francisco Chronicle. (See prior CP&DR commentary.)

Report Finds Increasing Homelessness in Bay Area
Addressing the San Francisco Bay Area homelessness crisis will take a monumental cross-regional and integrated effort, according to a recent report from consulting firm McKinsey & Company. The report notes that record-high homelessness rates throughout the region are only increasing, and that 67 percent of the Bay Area homeless are unsheltered. They attribute these numbers to the affordable housing crisis, insufficient inventory across the homelessness spectrum, and a lack of coordination between the Bay Area’s major crisis-response providers. The report then proposes a few major solutions: first, they recommend measures to meet existing needs by expanding the housing supply. Such a supply increase will, they note, mean reducing the time and cost to build new units and incentivize housing production for lower-income brackets. Second, they recommend greater state-region collaboration that integrates funding, data collection, and advocacy efforts between services and across regions. They suggest creating a Bay Area Homeless Management Information System to integrate and process this data. Finally, they recommend engaging private and philanthropic capital to improve services and create new solutions. They cite the recent Partnership for the Bay’s Future – supported by Facebook, Genentech, Kaiser Permanente, and others – as one such example of a privately-funded fund to test and scale effective solutions.

Quick Hits & Updates

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority is kicking off a bike superhighway feasibility study, after being awarded $800,000 to fund the study from the California Department of Transportation in May. The study aims to find a preferred alternative for a 10-mile paved low-stress bikeway through the center of the county – and will be just one of a grid of bikeways along the 12 major county corridor. Major challenges to be examined are how to navigate around the San Jose International Airport, and how to circumvent bridges, freeways and rail lines. The study will kick off in October and should be complete by February 2022.

The Santa Clara City Council unanimously approved a developer for a proposed teacher housing project in Palo Alto across five school districts. The developer, Mercy housing Management Group, will build an affordable facility catered toward school employees starting or in the middle of their careers. Since its proposal in January 2018, the estimated $36 million project has gained $6 million from the Santa Clara County Board, $3 million from the Palo Alto City Council, and a combined $3 million from the five school districts. (See prior CP&DR coverage.)

In the latest development in the the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians’ plans for a 10,000 seat arena in downtown Palm Springs, the tribe announced it will have a "comprehensive parking plan”. The announcement came in response to complaints at a community meeting that the site was previously planned for a parking study; and that such a large arena will create major difficulties for downtown parking.

The San Francisco Planning Commission approved a massive housing and retail redevelopment project at UCSF’s Laurel Heights campus. The plan will contain 744 new housing units, including 186 units for seniors, a childcare facility, five acres of open space and 35,000 square feet of retail space. The project’s construction will be phased over the course of several years – drawing opposition from neighbors who object to such a protracted timeline.

The San Francisco Bay Ferry and the San Francisco International Airport have teamed up to offer ferry rides and free shuttle buses to SFO on weekday mornings to residents of the East Bay. The trip begins at the Alameda Main Street Ferry Terminal or the Oakland Terminal to South San Francisco, where a free SFO Ferry Connector bus will carry riders the 20-minute drive to the airport. Overall, the trip is 75 minutes from Alameda or 65 minutes from Oakland. The reverse trip is available on weekday afternoons and early evenings.

In what some local lawmakers are dubbing "the YIMBY initiative", the San Jose City Council will consider a forgivable loan program for people to build accessory dwelling units in their backyards. The program, backed by Mayor Sam Liccardo, would provide property owners a forgivable loan up to $20,000 for planning, permitting, and other pre-development costs of building. Once a house gets built, homeowners would have to restrict the unit’s rent to a low-to-moderate household income level for five years. The city council is expected to approve a $1.25 million agreement with Housing Trust Silicon Valley to initiate the program.

In a two-pronged move to address the local affordable housing crisis, the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved funding a new pilot program to accelerate affordable housing construction, and proposed changing a housing code to allow for a greater mix of housing types. The pilot program provides funding to help the county meet its goal of ensuring that 10 percent of all housing built in unincorporated areas is affordable, and building 132 affordable units a year for the next 20 years. The proposed housing code change will allow for more small duplex, triplex, tiny houses, and accessory dwelling units in future building.

The privately-funded high-speed train from Victorville to Las Vegas is moving forward, according to a representative from Virgin Trains USA. The train will travel at speeds up to 150 miles per hour in a nonstop 75-90 minute trip that will cost $60 per passenger. The project, the first privately-funded passenger rail system in the U.S. in over 100 years, is expected to cost over $4 billion and will begin construction in February 2020.

In a move directly billed as homelessness prevention, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to make a permanent rent control measure for unincorporated communities. The measure would tie annual rent increases to inflation and require landlords to have “just cause” for eviction. The rules would apply to 43,500 multifamily units built on or before February 1, 1995, in unincorporated communities like East LA, Willowbrook, and Rowland Heights. This is following on the heels of similar measures in Inglewood, Culver City, Pasadena, Long Beach, and Glendale earlier this year.

A nonprofit group sued the city of Whittier saying its garage conversion laws are too restrictive and prevent homeowners from converting garages into accessory dwelling units. The lawsuit, filed by Californians for Homeownership, said the city’s rules on garage conversions violates state law. It takes particular issue with Whittier’s requirements for replacement parking. The city pushed back, saying that those state laws are still pending in the Legislature, and that requiring replacement parking is necessary to keep parking available to the city’s residents. A trial-setting conference is set for December 10.

The Los Angeles Housing Authority (LASHA) has failed dramatically to reach most of its goals, according to an audit from a city controller. The audit found that, in spite of doubling its staff in the last two years, LASHA did not meet most of its goals to move people from the streets into housing, shelters, or treatment for substance abuse and mental illness. For example, last year, workers were supposed to put 10 percent of people they assessed into permanent housing – but they placed only four percent. They also fell far short of their goal to place 20 percent of people in shelters – by placing only 14 percent.

The Pleasanton City Council unanimously approved updates to the Downtown Specific Plan, which update city regulations and goals for downtown properties for the first time since 2002. No major changes came for building heights or parking, both hot topics among residents. The council approved maintaining the existing commercial downtown building height limits at a 40 foot, three-story maximum with two stories encouraged. They also supported an existing working group to address parking supply downtown – and faced criticism from city commissioners who argued that they failed to address a downtown parking shortage.