Architect's rendering of Bayview Plaza
Architect’s rendering of Bayview Plaza, a proposed transit-oriented infill development on Morena Boulevard. Courtesy Protea Properties

There are two critical urban land use debates raging across the San Diego region today. How they play out will determine whether our region’s ecosystem becomes more resilient over the next several decades.

The disputes involve first, the future of urban sprawl in the far-flung rural suburbs of San Diego County, and, second, infill policy and increasing densities in San Diego’s urban core.

A common thread links these polemics and is staring us in the face, from the planet’s changing climate conditions, to the technological and digital revolution that is dramatically altering the way we occupy and move through urban space.

So, let’s take a closer look at these debates.

First up: will the County Board of Supervisors adhere to its General Plan, updated in 2011, steering growth into and near the county’s villages, while protecting rural terrain and reigning in leapfrog development, also known as sprawl?

That was a policy-wise, climate action-driven vision reached by consensus after a decade of consultation with experts, policy-makers, community and interest groups in the region.

Yet, some developers, real estate investors and public relations firms responded to the plan update with a new strategy: ignore the new plan, purchase adjacent, cheaper rural lands, then mount a campaign to convince either the public (via ballot box initiatives) or the Board of Supervisors (via General Plan Amendments) to allow parcels in rural areas to be rezoned for mass housing construction. Their tactic was to argue that the new suburbs would be “affordable” (home prices in the $600,000-700,000 range leave some doubt, though), and sustainably designed to be safe from wildfires (no scientific study, to date, offers a convincing, fire-safe way to design sprawl developments).

There are at least five large-scale, master-planned housing projects proposed on rural or semi-rural zoned land parcels: Harmony Grove Village, Newland Sierra, Lilac Hills Ranch, Valiano, and Otay 250. The current strategy is to “bundle” them into a single General Plan Amendment to go before the County Board of Supervisors. Meanwhile, the group Safeguard Our San Diego Countryside stands opposed.

There is an alternative to building more car-centric subdivisions out in the far-removed, rural fringe of our region: carefully raise densities in older neighborhoods on selected land parcels, as many cities around the nation and across the planet are choosing to do. It’s called infill.

This leads us to the second debate, a face-off between anti-infill interests in older neighborhoods vs. future residents, especially young people who will benefit from higher density, and more affordable housing closer to the urban core city.

A case in point is the Morena Boulevard corridor, where the new trolley line will soon connect downtown and Old Town with UC San Diego and UTC. The Morena Corridor Specific Plan was adopted by the City of San Diego to manage building at higher densities around each of the new trolley stations along the Blue Line: Tecolote, Clairemont Drive, and Balboa Avenue, as well as at the Linda Vista station on the Green Line.

If ever an area called out for innovative redevelopment at higher densities, it is here. The corridor, especially between Linda Vista Road and Tecolote Road, is a ghost town of parking lots or empty structures. The city’s Specific Plan would transform this urban void into an attractive, modern town center, with medium-rise condos and town homes, an artisan district, linear parks, bicycle paths, pedestrian promenades, new restaurants, fashionable cafes, and public plazas.

What’s not to like, if it’s done well? Existing neighborhoods nearby would benefit from higher land values, added local amenities, and access to the trolley line to downtown or UTC.

In fact, the City Council recently approved of mid-rise housing to be built along this corridor. It may still need to tweak the design plan to make these new villages more bike and pedestrian friendly, but this is a huge step forward.

Not so fast, say opponents. Enter the neighborhood groups, including Raise the Balloon, Morena United, and Clairemont Cares. There is talk of a lawsuit. Raise the Balloon, on its website, employs loaded and seemingly exaggerated phrases like “massive up-zoning,” (not really) “unsustainable migration,” (from El Cajon, Phoenix, or the East Coast?) “busting height limits,” and “taking away local control” (property owners rights remain the same) to galvanize homeowner opposition to infill.

In the end, these two debates—allowing urban sprawl on the rural periphery, or infill with higher densities in older core neighborhoods—really are two sides of the same coin: a sustainable and greener future San Diego.

We are left to ask ourselves: if we want our region to be less car-dependent, why not reign in the excesses of past urban sprawl, that have now gone too far out into the fringes where wildfires burn, and where too much energy will be wasted to move too many individual vehicles millions of miles across a mega-region each year?

And if we are going to finally scale back sprawl at our edges, why oppose what is now a healthy national trend: infilling in the healthy spaces that can easily accommodate more growth? Alongside our existing communities, isn’t it time to embrace an alternative model of urban living, with, higher densities, in the form of well-designed, affordable condos and town homes, in mixed use “villages” served by transit?

The future is happening all around us, from Portland, Seattle, and the Bay Area, to Austin, Miami, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

But, are we San Diegans ready for the future?

Lawrence A. Herzog is professor emeritus of city planning in the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University. He will be a visiting scholar in the Bioregional Center affiliated with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at UC San Diego in 2019-20. Herzog is currently writing his fifth book, on the subject of urban design and placemaking.