How NIMBYism Stifles San Diego’s Sustainability Goals

Photo: Dustin Michelson/Voice of San Diego

Earlier this month, the California environmental group Next 10 released a study ranking the walkability of nearly 500 rail stations in the Golden State’s major cities. Not surprisingly, San Diego’s transit stations rated at or near the bottom.

Andrew Keatts at Voice of San Diego says the culprit isn’t bad planning. And it’s not the lack of a market for walkable development. To the contrary, transit-oriented development is the “basic goal that’s motivated every major planning document in urban San Diego for many years,” he writes.

It’s not even that San Diego’s light rail stations are too new to have generated much development. Many of the stations were built three decades ago.

The problem, simply enough, is NIMBYism, he says.

Over and over again, San Diego leaders have caved when nearby residents object to walkable development by the city’s rail stations. Cities around the country face the same problem. But San Diego, it seems, has done an exceptionally poor job of following through on its transit investments by producing walkable development.

For example, San Diego is currently planning a $1.7 billion rail expansion between Old Town and University City. This project, which will add two new stations, isn’t complete yet and already public officials have more or less given up on adding significant housing and jobs near the stations.

Last year, in response to neighbors’ “revolt,” Keatts reports, city officials announced they would abandon plans to allow six-story buildings instead of the current height limit of 30 feet. Enabling greater housing density was still feasible even then, but the city’s lead planner, Tait Galloway, recently said that’s off the table too. This planning failure — spending $1.7 billion to expand light rail while simultaneously limiting access by severely restricting development by the stations — helps explain why San Diego’s transit stations do so little to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

And that’s more the rule than the exception, writes Keatts. Near another station, the city recently spent $1.4 million planning for transit-oriented development, and that may go nowhere. Legislation backed by some nearby property owners who want the area to remain zoned for low-density industrial is currently advancing in City Council.

To make matters worse, the regional planning organization, SANDAG, released a new transit-oriented development policy with no teeth. Advocates say it lacks any incentives or mechanism to help overcome San Diego’s NIMBY politics.

  • CeeTee55

    I think the bottom line is Americans just don’t like density/densification, for a variety of different reasons: 1). They believe it will increase auto traffic and thus inconvenience them by making driving more difficult and parking more scarce 2). They believe it will destroy “the view”, or their city’s “unique character” (low-density development is somehow unique?) and/or 3). They believe it will lower their property values or allow “the wrong sort” to move perilously close to them.

    Add to this many people just don’t like change, period. Sometimes their concerns are couched in language that suggests that TOD is just being “a giveaway to developers”, however, such criticisms are almost never levied against low-density sprawl accommodations (because this form of development, though sometimes disliked, is never subject to the level of opprobrium as TOD).

    The U.S. system gives property owners a huge stake and voice in local politics, and our driving culture and suburban-oriented mindset being what it is, it can be expected that ‘neighbors’ will frequently revolt against what they see as a devaluation of their biggest personal assets, namely, their real property. Until a few brave jurisdictions and elected officials start openly defying well-connected and organized opponents of these developments I can’t see any major headway being made towards shifting development towards the TOD model.

  • neroden

    We know for a fact that Americans love density and densification — they vote with their dollars whenever they bid up housing and apartment prices in dense areas. There’s a large premium for housing in dense areas, therefore they’re popular.

    It is true that Americans as a whole do not like change, period. I was once lectured about this by a Canadian, in the context of US money. All our bills are the same size AND the same color AND have no Braille despite this being terrible for the blind and already ruled illegal under the ADA. We still have dollar bills when every other country switched to dollar coins. We still have the penny which is worth so little that any other country would have abolished it. We haven’t changed the faces on our bills or coins for 100 years (we changed them all the time in the 19th century). The resistance to the metric system falls in the same category.

    Finally, the desire to gain from appreciated property does drive part of the NIMBYism — everyone sees how valuable the land in billionaire NIMBY enclaves like Beverly Hills is, and people dream of selling their property for that much money. Too few people dream of selling their property for billion-dollar apartment buildings.

    The “wrong sort of people” fears are also very common. Frankly, I’m just going to call this racism and classism. And it’s also very stupid, because prohibiting renters from living near you isn’t going to keep poor people out of the neighborhood — rich people hire poor servants all the time.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Well, at least with numismatics, it’s slowly getting a little bit better. We now have a regularly minted dollar coin, though it has yet to replace the paper dollar. I’ve heard anecdotally that the $2 bill is getting more popular (which may be a good sign for eventually phasing out paper $1 bill). And the nickel (and to a lesser extent, the quarter) received a new obverse design and surprisingly the nation did not fall into chaos and anarchy!

  • CalRobert

    San Diego has a more auto-centric culture than even LA. The ignorance of transportation options, and degree of hatred for bicyclists, is staggering.

  • Joe R.

    We just need to get rid of the penny, and soon after the nickel. That will free up space in cash registers for $1 and $2 coins. Those may take some getting used to, but if we discontinue the same denominations of paper money people will have little choice but to use them. I personally feel we should eventually move to an all coin cash system, perhaps even start using precious metals in high denominations like $20 and up. I’d personally love to see something like a $1000 legal tender gold coin which actually sees a reasonable amount of circulation but I’m not holding out much hope for that.

  • ranzchic

    San Diego still likes to see itself as a sleepy little town, so no surprises there. I love the city but it’s leaders have no spine.

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