Jeff Clemetson | Editor
At the January meeting of the Navajo Community Planners, Inc., board chair David Smith announced that he intends to be “very vocal and persistent” throughout 2019 in pressuring the city to fix the flooding problem along Alvarado Creek in Grantville — and so far it seems he is sticking to that goal.
On Jan. 29, Smith addressed the City Council during public comments with a presentation laying out the case for fixing the flooding problem.
“The Alvarado Creek storm channel is averting the city’s vision, state mandates and developer interests to build affordable and transit-oriented housing around the Grantville Trolley Station,” he said.
Despite a rezoning effort for Grantville in 2015 that allows the highest density development the city allows, developers are still unable to build, Smith added.
“While this rezone was extremely beneficial to the community, it left out a solution to the FEMA flood plain that overlays the properties where high-density residential is to be built.”
Flooding has been a problem for businesses along the Alvarado Creek for years and in 2017, the city took steps to address the issue when it produced the Grantville Trolley Station/Alvarado Creek Revitalization Study — a $500,000 Transnet grant funded project that produced a plan to widen Alvarado Creek and fix the flooding problem. The plan was adopted by the Navajo Community Planners in May 2017 but has yet to be adopted by the city.
“Because this report is only a study, it bears no legal requirement for developers to adhere to,” Smith said. “It has not been adopted by development services, nor was it included as part of the community plan update.”
This creates an immediate problem, Smith argued, because current plans to develop housing on MTS property at Grantville Trolley Station allows the developers to obtain building permits without requirements to contribute to the costs and implement final flooding solutions for the study.
“We strongly ask the City Council to endorse and close this loophole forever and adopt the study before our community loses the opportunity to build approximately 4,000 units around a major transit corridor,” he said.
Smith is one of a group of property owners along Alvarado Creek who hopes to one day redevelop their light industrial use properties into dense housing — a goal that matches the city’s climate action plan as well as SANDAG’s regional plan for transportation.
Grantville Trolley Station housing projects
Smith’s urgency for the city to take action on the Alvarado Creek study is spurned by proposed housing projects at the Grantville Trolley Station. Two developers, Greystar and Affirmed Housing, have plans to build 261 student housing units and 182 affordable housing units, respectively.
“What is important to note is the total density of the two projects is only 47.4 dwelling units per acre,” Smith said. “The problem is, that is an incredibly low number. The focus plan amendment allows up to 109 dwelling units per acre on that site.”
Smith said that the low density is understandable considering the high cost of building high-rise housing units.
“It doesn’t make much sense for the developer to go any more than that because once you go more than that amount of density, construction costs change and you can’t get the rents from the students to subsidize the steal construction,” he said “The issue is, you only get to build around a trolley station one time. This is a one-time shot.”
In mid-January, Smith and other stakeholders along Alvarado Creek met with MTS to discuss the projects and how the developers and MTS plan on handling the Alvarado Creek study.
MTS, Smith said, plans on respecting the study by not building on any of the land marked for widening the creek and developing the structures needed to avert the flooding, which is good news for the other property owners along the creek who hope that the flood plan is someday implemented. But it was not all good news. Although the housing developments will not encroach on the land needed for the flood plan, MTS is looking to give the creek land to the city through the use of an IOD (irrevocable offer of dedication). This would essentially put the burden of financing the flood plan on the city.
“What essentially that does is it stalls, kicks the can down the road, it sheds liability to the city and it negatively impacts all the property owners around the trolley station, except for MTS,” Smith said. “Because their unwillingness to contribute and do their portion and push it to somebody else, that means that the rest of us that are in the flood plain will not be able to develop.”
MTS Director of Marketing and Communications Rob Schupp said that MTS doesn’t have a “strong position” on the IOD yet. That plan was presented as one way the Grantville Trolley Station housing projects could move forward, while at the same time recognizing that the flooding mitigation needs to happen.
“We want to move forward with the project, so we’re doing the project in a way that doesn’t preclude mitigation. But who pays for it, who’s responsible, how it involves all the other property owners around there — I think that needs further discussion and we’re kind of waiting for an official project by the city,” Schupp said. “Until the city comes up with an official project that identifies all this stuff, it’s hard to respond to a non-project.”
If the city does not officially adopt the Alvarado Creek study and turn it from a non-project to an official one, there could be repercussions for other property owners along Alvarado Creek. According to Smith, allowing MTS to pass on the cost of fixing the flooding to the city is an unnecessary burden on taxpayers and the other property owners. MTS, he argues, will be leasing the land for a sizeable sum of money — money that can be used in other ways, or not collected at all so developers have more leeway in building more density.
“MTS is not a landlord, not a for-profit entity, they are a public agency,” he said. “So if they are to do what’s best for the housing crisis in San Diego, and what their mission statement is, [MTS] president Gomez should be more concerned about allowing the developers to build as much as they possibly can. And they shouldn’t care if MTS even makes a dollar on their rental.”
That would be one option. Another option for the property — one preferred by Smith — would be to allow the lower density projects to be built, but have the city reject the IOD and force MTS to eventually build its portion of the flood project. This would create a path toward finishing the Alvarado Creek flood plan and spurring redevelopment in Grantville that would bring thousands more housing units and increase ridership on the trolley.
“That would be a homerun for the community,” Smith said.
— Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.