San Diego will challenge a court order striking down a voter-approved voting measure that sought to ease building height restrictions in the Midway District – while simultaneously developing a back-up plan.
Mayor Todd Gloria said on Friday he had asked staff to start preparing an environmental impact report that examines taller buildings in the 1,324-acre area in case a second vote is needed. The work will take place as the city’s attorney general’s office also appeals the decision of San Diego Superior Court judge Katherine Bacal to overturn Measure E.
“This analysis can go forward without impacting the legal appeal of the decision,” the mayor said in a statement. “My obligation is to respect the will of the people, and San Diegans voted with a large majority to remove the 30 foot coastal height limit in the Midway planning area. The ability to build over 30 feet is key to the city’s sports arena property redevelopment, which will add thousands of new homes to help solve our housing crisis – and which is key to revitalizing a neighborhood that has waited decades for transformation.
The appeal process will likely take “over a year,” so the additional analysis could pave the way for a new vote on the measure in 2022, the mayor’s office said in a press release.
The dual-track approach is designed to avoid derailing San Diego’s second attempt to remake the 48 acres of land it owns at 3500, 3250, 3220 and 3240 Sports Arena Blvd. in the Midway neighborhood.
Currently, five development teams are fighting over a long-term ground lease and come up with dense projects with apartment buildings that exceed the 30-foot restriction. The contest, which is only in its early stages, marks a repeated effort to unload plots after the state of California said the first bidding process was in violation of land law surplus.
Judge Bacal apparently crippled the effort when she struck down Measure E last week. The ordinance, approved by 57 voters in November 2020, was aimed at hitting the coastal zone region and clearing the way for vessels over 30 feet.
San Diego should have studied the environmental impacts of taller buildings before presenting the initiative to voters, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act, the judge said, siding with petitioner Save Our Access. A mandate barring the city from implementing Measure E is expected to be finalized next month and will spell out how the city can potentially rectify the situation.
“It’s a victory for public information,” said Everett DeLano III, an attorney representing Save Our Access. The group was founded by local environmental activist John McNab. “This case says, before we change the height limit, let’s make sure we have an honest and faith-based discussion of the impacts associated with this.”
San Diego planners, led by the mayor, will now specifically assess the environmental impacts associated with removing the 30-foot height limit – even while the city’s attorney’s office holds firm in court. The city maintains that the Midway District community planning documents, approved in 2018, already weighed the impacts of taller buildings when it considered the plan’s zoning changes.
Both approaches take time, but the two-pronged answer is likely aimed at giving sports arena site developers enough confidence to keep moving forward.
“You talk about several months, maybe even a few years, before getting a decision (on appeal). Either way, it is likely that the losing party will file another appeal with the state Supreme Court, ”said Cary Lowe, retired lawyer and town planner. “In the meantime, the city can certainly do (the environmental scan) faster than that.”
Bidders for sports arena venues are currently in a 90-day negotiation period with the city and are expected to present their proposals to city council members next year.
“It’s so early in the process that I don’t think (the decision) has a significant impact on selecting a partner and then negotiating a trade deal,” said Penny Maus, director of the city real estate and airport management.
Once selected, the winning group will still have to conclude rental and development conditions with the city. These talks could last anywhere from six to 18 months based on previous real estate deals, giving the city some leeway to resolve the building height issue.
“It’s a little disheartening that almost on the exact day we filed our final submissions, the court ruled against the measure,” said Marco Gonzalez, co-founder of Coast Law Group and advisor to the HomeTownSD team. “For a process that has been associated with so many uncertainties, this just adds another layer of uncertainty and risk. However, I know that our team, and probably others, are fully committed to finding a solution that both respects the required process and achieves a great project on this site.
Environmental reviews are often multi-year processes, although the city will seek to expedite the process.
Typically, the CEQA process begins with a preliminary analysis called an initial study which identifies potentially significant impacts and determines whether or not an in-depth environmental impact report is required. If formal analysis is needed, then there is a readiness notice that initiates a scoping period during which the public and various organizations can influence the parameters to be considered. The process continues with months of analysis and a draft report that is reviewed by the public and government agencies before a final assessment is certified by a government agency – in this case, the San Diego City Council.
Planners, depending on the wording of the mandate, may only need to study the visual impacts of buildings over 30 feet, instead of looking at a wider range of impacts, such as the quality of the building. air, noise and traffic. Presumably, they can also rely on the Environmental Impact Report prepared for the Midway District Community Plan Update to move the schedule forward. This report, or what’s called an EIR program, looked at the addition of more than 10,000 residential units in the District of Midway and estimated a population boom of 23,660 new residents.
At the last count in 2015, the District of Midway had only 1,935 residential units and a total population of 4,600 people.
In the best-case scenario, the environmental work could be completed in the coming months and the measure sent back to voters in the November 2022 poll.