The right to live in the suburbs

I was honored and happy that Voice of San Diego published an op-ed that I wrote about density. I was also pleased to see the comments section light up with arguments for and against density. It’s a conversation that needs to happen.

There is one argument that I find interesting, although ill-informed. It is essentially, “ I have the right to live in the suburbs, and government policy should accommodate everyone wherever they choose to live.”

To that I say, yes – you do have a right to choose wherever you live — as long as you are willing to pay for it.

Low density developments are essentially government subsidizes. Land Use in low density areas is so financially unproductive that it is impossible to build and maintain the infrastructure needed for them to exist. Not only do the streets, sewers, water, utilities, etc cost more to initially install, suburbs do not generate the tax revenue required to maintain them. The suburbs are draining city government coffers at an alarming rate. Is it any wonder San Diego has $3 billion dollar infrastructure deficit?

Low density land use

It not just suburban infrastructure that cost the rest of us. Required services like fire, police, garbage, libraries and schools also must be subsidized. We even pay to bus suburban kids to school because it is usually too far for them walk. 

In the USA, citizens have generally agreed that subsidizing freeway construction is worthwhile because it helps increase the movement of goods and services – and therefore increases the GDP. However a 2-3 hour commute to work is not productive. Not only do the extra cars on the road cause congestion and slow the movement of goods, but they cause wear on the freeway, and damage the environment. Gas taxes and tolls (user fees) only cover about one-half the cost of highways – the rest comes from the general fund.

Sure, you can live in low density areas – IF you will pay extra to maintain your infrastructure, bus your kids to school, pay a carbon tax to offset your car dependency, and pay tolls for highway maintenance … along with many other hidden costs.

If the government subsidizes anything, I would prefer we, as a society, subsidize housing for the poor and homeless, instead of subsidizing housing for a middle class fantasy of living the “good life.”

If you can afford to live the life of the “landed gentry”, good for you!  Congratulations. Just don’t expect the rest of us to pay for it.

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Squeezing into those old, outgrown jeans

I haven’t worn a size 32 waist since college. Yet it doesn’t stop me from trying to squeeze into an old pair of  jeans I keep around “just in case”. The fact is, I’ll never be a 32 again, no matter how good of shape I am in.  I suppose we can all dream, though.

Soon, the traffic in Uptown won’t be able squeeze into its existing street system, based on projected growth. For that matter, neither will the traffic in Downtown, North Park, or Golden Hill.

The Dream

As Uptown, North Park and Golden Hill consider Mobility Plans for their Community Plan Updates, it’s important to ask, “How will we grown without becoming overwhelmed and chocked by car traffic?” 

If they do nothing, or even the same thing, these communities will face a future of congestion, gridlock, and declining quality of life. 

There is a solution. By simply adopting policies that emphasize and prioritize walkable, livable, bike friendly communities – outcomes most people say they want – these urban San Diego neighborhoods can emerge as better and healthier places to live. Sound impossible? Read Uptown 21C and then decide.

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Growing a City

Cities are organisms like people. So, “Urban Planning” has always seemed to be an odd thing to me. It’s akin to attempting “Child Planning”.

As every parent know, there is no such thing as planing a child’s life for the next 25 years. The best “Child Planning” anyone can do is provide a set of fundamental values and priorities, set a good foundation, and then stand back and let them grow up. Too heavy a hand, and they grow up to be dysfunctional.  Too loose and they can be a mess too.

Yet, Planning departments too often use a heavy hand, trying to dictate every little bit of growth, every lot use, every car, every building, everything. Not surprisingly, it never turns out the way they wanted, and the heavy hand usually begets some form of dysfunction. 

The best thing a City’s Planning Department can do is to set fundamental priorities, values, and goals, create a good foundation, and then stand back and let the city grow. Use a gentle hand in making sure the values and priorities remain in focus. But just like a Parent, letting go is the hardest, but most important part of growing up.

Ease up Planners. 

Walter Chambers

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Right Sizing Uptown

The hot topic in Uptown is the Community Plan Update (CPU), with special emphasis on building heights. Is there a right size building height for Uptown? Yes there is – and No there isn’t. 

The streets of Uptown are about as diverse as its populace. There are narrow streets, there are medium width streets, and then there are the behemoths like University, Washington, and Park Blvd.

So when talking about building heights, how could one size fit all? It can’t. There is no “one size fits all” for Uptown. A 65 foot tall building isn’t going to look or feel the same on a narrow street as it is on a 100 foot wide street. That is impossible.

However, there is a right size building height for Uptown. 

What does Uptown Want?
Listen to Uptown residents and most are saying they want a human scaled, walkable, neighborhood that is somewhere between the high-rises of downtown, and the  low-rise no-place of suburbia. Can that desired outcome be translated into building heights?

Too Tall

Too Small

There is a lot of evidence, knowledge and studies on how building heights effect the feel and perception of a neighborhood and the street. The secret (not very well kept) is the ratio of the building height to the width of the street (called HWP). 

For Uptown, a building height to street width ratio between 1:2 to 1:1 is perfect for the desired place-making outcome of a comfortable, pedestrian oriented, human scaled, yet urban environment. A maximum building height in Uptown of 1:1 HWP, and minimum building heights of 1:2 can easily be added to the Community Plan Update.

Confused? Don’t be. It is simple. Here are some examples:

University Ave between 5th and 1st Streets:
Street width = 62 feet
Max. Bldg. Height = 62 feet
Min. Bldg. Height = 31 feet

East of highway 163, University Avenue becomes much wider.
Street width = 100 feet
Max. Bldg. Height – 100 feet
Min. Bldg. Height = 50 feet

A maximum height of 1:1, and minimum height of 1:2 gives Uptown a variety of building heights that fit each neighborhood. It is nuanced, yet simple. Pairing these ratios with architectural design guidelines such as building setbacks after 3 stories, windows and doors to the street, and interesting materials, Uptown would have the foundation for good urban design and great place-making. Click here is a more detailed proposal from Great Streets. Also, see the Great Streets St Louis website for an explanation of HWP with graphics and pictures.

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Documenting Hillcrest’s Parking Problem

Parking is a contentious issue in Hillcrest, – or at least the perceived lack of parking. Lately the issue has threatened to delay, dumb-down, or even derail the construction of really great, protected bike lanes on University Avenue.

University Avenue from 10th to Center Street

I thought I would check into the parking problem along University Avenue in Hillcrest. I photographed on-street parking from 10th Avenue to Center Street, at approximately 1o:oo am, 12:00 noon, 3:oo pm, and 5:00 pm. This area is home to shops, restaurants, and small professional businesses.

The findings: There is no parking problem. There was plenty of available on-street parking, in each block, at each time of the day I photographed the street.

The problem, at best, is a parking management problem. At the worst, Hillcrest has been conned by a small group that is spending tens of thousands of public dollars to “fix” a parking “problem”, instead of improving our streets with better sidewalks, street trees, bike facilities, and managing the existing parking.

As you can see in the photographs, plenty of on-street parking was available at each time of the day in each block.

10:00 AM

Parking is nearly completely empty with very little traffic


12:00 Noon

One might expect more parking issues at the lunch hour, but there were still plenty of open parking spaces on each block.


3:00 PM

Available parking at 3:00 PM is similar to 10:00 AM


5:00 PM

5:00 PM had the busiest traffic, and most full parking, especially from Normal to Richmond. However, the parking spots on Normal Street were still nearly completely empty.

Hillcrest should demand accountability from the Hillcrest Parking District before the District is allowed to spend more public money on creating additional parking, (especially free parking), and before the District tries to negatively influence the SANDAG Regional Bike Plan.

Walter Chambers


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Recently, we were asked to “Imagine”. Now it’s time to really imagine, San Diego - to Re-Imagine.

What is Re-Imagine Urban San Diego? It is a vision for a truly high quality, urban life in the heart of San Diego. It is a vision that says we can no longer plan for San Diego’s future in the same way we have done in the past.

Part reality check (no, we are not yet a world-class city), and part dream, Re-Imagine Urban San Diego dares and challenges San Diego to imagine beyond our self-imposed limitations. 

“San Diego doesn’t suffer from a lack of imagination, or a failure of imagination, as much as it suffers from a timidity of imagination.” 

The ideas may seem radical to some, and common sense to others. In this world, sometimes common sense is radical. However, in order to change, we must start dreaming, thinking, and acting differently, now.

“It’s our generation’s duty to dream big, think differently, and act urgently. Doing the same thing is no longer an option. The dream needs to be big, and it needs to start happening now.”

GSSD challenges San Diego to really imagine. We can make San Diego a world class city for the 21st century. Let’s start now, and Re-Imagine Urban San Diego. 

Walter Chambers





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The Candidates for Mayor on Livable Streets

The Livable Streets Coalition* (of which Great Streets San Diego is proud to be a member) hosted a Mayoral Candidate Speaker Series in October to speak with them on important issues related to livable streets and to get specific answers on 5 questions. Three events were held, one each with candidates David Alvarez, Nathan Fletcher, and Kevin Faulconer. Results from the Q&A are below.

  1. How would you implement the goals of smart growth and provide a mix of transportation options amidst fears of parking loss and traffic congestion that arise from infill development, bike lanes, and pedestrian improvement projects?

D.A. – We must build up and not out. We can accomplish this through Specific Plans and through Community Plan Updates. We need to move forward with the remaining Community Plan Updates to ensure there is no impediment to development.

K.F. – We need new political will to move this forward and flexibility to know that one size does not fit all. We need to let communities know how this will benefit them. We have 30,000 residents in downtown currently, but the Downtown Community Plan calls for 90,000 residents. We cannot build enough parking spaces (to accommodate new growth). Downtown is one of the few areas where people don’t oppose growth, they embrace it. I want to encourage walkability and smart growth in our downtown, make the right decisions to make transit convenient so people will adapt. Another example is the Bayshore Bikeway. I worked on this and prioritized balancing business needs with bikeway vision.

N.F.— Smart growth is right on. It requires us to do things differently. We need to invest in our neighborhoods. I can talk about what other cities are doing, but no one is talking about San Diego. How do we get other cities to want to be like San Diego? Everything should align with these goals whether it be infrastructure, public safety, density. Land use policy is important in moving these things.

  1. As mayor, what goals would you set and what steps would you take to make San Diego’s streets safe for everyone and reduce the City’s higher than average pedestrian fatality rate?

D.A.— We need to focus on implementing the Pedestrian Master Plan. The City needs to invest in small inexpensive projects with big impacts. I will adopt a Vision Zero platform with the goal of zero bike and pedestrian fatalities. We currently don’t have the culture of a walkable and bikeable city but this is changing with the bike share program and sharrrows being added throughout the City. Walkability and bikeability go together, and together they tell drivers that they have to watch out for people not in cars.

K.F. – We need human scale (design) to interact with each other and our environment. I championed the North Embarcadero Plan, a portion of which is now under construction. This will make the waterfront more pedestrian friendly and help activate the public space we have there. I have also championed the new world class public park at Horton Plaza. This will be a major gathering space for our downtown. As much as we need the big projects, we also need smaller projects. I helped to install a new traffic light at Mission Bay to make it safer. It was not expensive, but it made a lot of sense to do it to promote greater safety.

N.F. – Without a goal there is nothing to measure success with. New York City said we are going to cut deaths in half. Others have said zero deaths. I’ll assemble a Mayoral dashboard to gather ideas. I’m willing to work with you. There will be a series of steps.

  1. How would Neighborhoods First fit into your administration?

D.A.— I was the one who originally proposed neighborhoods first. The City must respect Community Planning Groups, make transit first, and build Safe Routes to School projects. I have supported the funding of these kinds of projects as a Councilmember and will continue to do so as mayor. The State of the City’s infrastructure, such as roads and public buildings, has been allowed to deteriorate. We have the opportunity, through smart planning, careful prioritization of resources, and a better long term vision, to rebuild San Diego into the world-class city we know it can be. 

K.F. – The pension debacle was bad for our city and we are still paying it off. We need smart governing decisions to get our city back on track and I am doing this on the Council. We repaved 500 miles of street last year. We will continue to prioritize this work. We need simple economic choices. We have ignored critical issues like infrastructure, sidewalks for too long. I will prioritize bringing back funding back for these.

N.F. – Our city has neglected its neighborhoods. In the past several years, our roads have gone from the eighth worst in the nation to the fourth worst, responses to 911 calls were late more than 37,000 in the past 2 years alone, and sidewalk and pipelines are years behind on their repair and maintenance schedules. As Mayor, I will conduct a comprehensive assessment of the backlog of neighborhood needs, develop a way to consistently receive public input on needs, and implement the plan with city leadership in partnership with communities. It’s important that each neighborhood develop their own culture and identity yet that we find solutions for them together. 

  1. What steps would you take as Mayor to ensure that a variety of projects in the Bike Master Plan are completed, in a timely fashion, and that bike ridership increases in the City?

D.A.— Steps include increasing expenditures on bike projects from $500,000 to $1 million and leveraging more grant funding for bike projects. I will lead an effort at the City to get people passionate about walking and biking.

K.F. – I’m a cyclist myself. Having a mayor who is also a cyclist will help. I understand the issues. We need new dedicated bike lanes and plans that are actionable. We have the Bike Share program coming to San Diego which is going to take off and promote more cycling. I will lead political will to make sure the Bike Plan is implemented.

N.F. – I will set clear goals such like doubling the miles of bike lanes in San Diego by 2020, and increasing the number of San Diegans choosing to commute by bicycle to 65,000. The failure to move common sense solutions for bike commuters forward is not from lack of funds, but from failure of leadership. I’m committed to bringing together the people and the organizations that are dedicated to improving safety for bicyclists and pedestrians to get things done.

  1. Describe your vision for San Diego’s public realm and how you plan to catch up to other cities that have embraced Livable Streets as a way to improve the urban environment. Will you appoint a full time manager to oversee the transformation of San Diego’s public realm?

D.A.— San Diego’s leadership has been lazy and relied on tools that made their jobs easy, for example redevelopment. We need to challenge ourselves to find other financial tools, especially in our neighborhoods and not only through major projects downtown. Every part of the City wants to see reinvestment in their neighborhoods. For example, we have wide streets that can be redesigned as public spaces. We can look at our trolley line and focus on Transit Oriented Development. I want to include neighborhood residents in the decision making process to make these things happen. 

K.F. – I believe in world class public spaces. Yes, I will bring on great staff to create public spaces. I gave the North Embarcadero project example earlier – this is now funded and under construction. It will be a transformative project. We need to match this with more trees, innovative ideas like parks on rooftops. May be more expensive but it is worth the investment. Bottom line, let’s try something. Let’s see some action.

N.F. – I would consider appointing a manager to oversee the public realm. The City is more than its structures. It’s about the people. We want to create an environment where people feel connected. We are always going to have cars but we need to provide options. Our question is how do we support these options? Who are we as a city? We don’t want to build structures for the sake of building. We need a vision and the public realm is a big part of that.

* The Livable Streets Coalition is a coalition of transportation non-profits, planners and designers, representing thousands of San Diego residents passionate about rebuilding our city’s streets and neighborhoods. Read more about our vision for livable streets in our 5 in 5 Plan which outlines 5 strategies to achieve livable streets in San Diego.

To read more about the candidates’ platforms and visions for San Diego, click on the plans below.

David Alvarez, Blueprint for San Diego

Kevin Faulconer, Streets and Neighborhood Repair Plan, Neighborhood Fairness Plan

Nathan Fletcher, Cycling to the Future, Neighborhood Investment Plan,

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Why the IHO is a #FAIL for Uptown, Todd Gloria, and Everyone in Between

The third Interim Height Ordinances (IHO) was passed by City Council yesterday. As passed, the IHO represents a complete failure for Uptown and for everyone involved.

If you are not familiar with the IHO, here is a brief synopsis:  The IHO caps building heights at 65 feet in Hillcrest, and 50 feet in Mission Hills without discretionary review. Buildings Heights in Bankers Hill (Park West) are limited to 65 feet, but in Bankers Hill discretionary review is allowed for taller structures. The two Interim Height Ordinances have been in effect for nearly 6 years, and look to be in effect for a full decade before (if) the Uptown Community Plan is completed.

#FAIL for the Uptown Community:
When talking about the IHO, activists in Uptown almost always talked about Outcomes such as “community character” “human scale development”, “walkable neighborhoods”, etc. Somehow, building height came to represent these outcomes, when in reality building height has little to do with them. Just look around; There are a already plenty of examples of buildings under 65 feet in Uptown that harm community character, are not human scaled, and are auto-centric. Sadly, there is nothing in the IHO that requires or encourages buildings under 65 feet to produce the outcomes that the community wants. Tragically, the IHO, by eliminating discretionary review, removes any input the community might have had on the design of buildings.

#FAIL for the Planning Department:  
Why, over the past 6 years, was the Planning Department unable to come up with a building form proposal that addressed the communities concerns and which could have been seamlessly rolled into a future, completed Uptown Community Plan? It was supposed to. In fact, the first two IHOs were passed with a sunset provision for the specific purpose of putting pressure on the Planning Department to do just that, and they still failed. Instead, 6 years – soon to be nearly a decade – will have been wasted on an ordinance that, as admitted by department staff, has no basis in urban design or urban planning principles.

But the real #FAIL of the Planning Department is that it did not listen the community. Instead of proposing a solution that would address the real concerns of community character, walkability, and human scale, the Department lazily latched onto the public’s misperceptions about building heights, and completely ignored what the community was really saying. They turned a deaf ear to what the community was saying and ignored their needs.

#FAIL for the Uptown Community Planning Group (CPG):
Instead of working with the Community and the City to create a working ordinance that would encourage good development in Uptown, the Uptown CPG voted to do just the opposite. Because the IHO does not allow for discretionary review, the Uptown CPG willfully gave up its own voice, and forfeited the voice of the community. Until the completed Community Plan is in place, the CPG and the community has no say in the design of buildings in Hillcrest and Mission Hills. In other words, they cut off their nose to spite their face.

#FAIL for The City of San Diego:
The City of San Diego has created commissions, committees, and teams, comprised of citizens and professionals that are not politically motivated, to act in an advisory capacity on complex issues. The Planning Commission and the Code Monitoring Team are two such advisory boards. In the case of the IHO, both the Planning Commission and the Code Monitoring Team emphatically recommended against the IHO and offered recommendations to improve the ordinance and address the community’s desires. However, the City Council chose to ignore the recommendations of the Planning Commission and Code Monitoring Team. Which begs the question, why go through all the effort of getting professional, non-political advise if it is repeatedly ignored?

#FAIL for Todd Gloria, Interim Mayor, and District 3 Council Representative (including Uptown):
As early as late spring 2013, word on the street was that Councilmember Gloria would support the IHO as written. If true, that means that his mind was made up prior to the Code Monitoring Team review, prior to the Planning Commission review, and prior to City Council discussion. True or not, Gloria failed the Uptown Community in many ways:

By allowing a small group of activists set the agenda (and the law) for Uptown, Gloria ignored the voices of the entire community, including the 1,300 members of the Hillcrest Business Association who opposed the IHO. To add insult to injury, those voices have now been silenced due to the lack of discretionary review in the IHO. They have no more say.

Building Heights became a political issue, not a planning issue. As discussed above, the Outcomes that the community desired were ignored by Gloria in favor of political expediency. The Planning Commission and the Code Monitoring Team both recognized this issue, but Gloria chose, on more than one occasion, to ignore their recommendations. Had he listened to the Commission and the community, the desired outcomes could have been address with a much better solution.

Needless to say, 10 years of an interim planning ordinance has spooked developers, and nearly halted economic development in Uptown. Now Uptown can only sit by and watch as new development goes up in North Park, Little Italy, Golden Hill, Downtown, and Bankers Hill.

Mr. Gloria was in the perfect position to find a solution that worked for all parties. Instead he took the easy and politically expedient route. That is a major failure of Leadership.

Walter Chambers

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When the Streets Got Mean

Matt Johnson at Greater Greater Washington gives a brief history of the war on pedestrians, and how pedestrians lost. Today, when road diets, bike lanes, and crosswalks are proposed, opponents cry “War on Cars”. But is it really?

Before the car became king, streets were for all users. Pedestrians could just stride right out into the street. Traffic on the street, horses, streetcars, and motor cars moved at very slow speeds.

With a growing mass of automobiles, drivers tried to go faster. By 1923, according to the episode, over 17,000 people were being killed by cars each year. That was up from just 12,000 in 1920, a 47% increase. The outcry was loud. People held parades to memorialize the dead, and cities began to propose laws that would make it difficult to drive.

The issue came to a head in 1923, when Cincinnati voters put an initiative on the ballot to require that every car have a governor which would limit speeds. Car manufacturers realized that if it became too difficult to drive in cities, people wouldn’t buy cars and instead choose transit or other modes.

The car lobby responded by taking the approach that cars weren’t dangerous, people were. Drivers can be reckless, they said, but then so can pedestrians. However, Americans weren’t sold on the idea of a reckless pedestrian. The lobby began to use the word “jaywalking” as a way to coerce pedestrians to cross only at corners, mainly though peer pressure. Los Angeles passed the first anti-jaywalking law in 1924.

Walter Chambers

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The Not So Mean Streets

Making our streets more livable, more walkable, and more bike-friendly is not a zero-sum game. It’s not either/or, –  us vs. them. If we do it right, everyone benefits from Great Streets. Yes, cars benefit. Businesses benefit, people benefit, bikers benefit, our children benefit, and your quality of life goes up. 

Watch this very important video to see what the streets of San Diego could be.

Walter Chambers

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