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San Diego Begins Drafting ‘Flexible’ Zoning Rules to Help Lure Life-Science Developers

San Diego officials have begun crafting new rules intended to encourage developers to build new life-science and other high-tech campuses closer to the city’s downtown, and to create mass-transit stops that link the resulting commercial hub to other urbanized sections of the city.
The rules would flesh out the city’s International Business and Trade zoning designation, created last year, by giving developers greater flexibility in building and dividing campuses in the urban part of San Diego by office, research and development, warehousing, and other types of space.
The International Business and Trade, or IBT, designation will allow a wide array of industrial occupancy, “so you could have office and light industrial next to each other, and the market will determine how it will evolve,” Bill Anderson, San Diego’s director of city planning and community investment, told BioRegion News earlier this month.
“What we’re trying to get away from is this whole debate of ‘What type of building are you?’” he said. “It used to be an industrial building was clearly an industrial building, and a light-industrial building was a light industrial building. But now we get flex space — campuses that have industrial and office [space] — [and] we get the scientific research space with large floorplates. It became such a confused debate because people had different interpretations.”
The city’s answer to the debate, Anderson said, is creating sets of zoning criteria, or “packages,” that cover three types of IBT properties: “We would probably have a suburban one, an urban one, and then the flexibility for what we call a ‘planned industrial development’ where [a developer] wants to do a custom design.”
For instance, the IBT designation would allow developers to build taller, and thus denser, campuses than the low-rise suburban campuses that dot the region. “Here, you have biotechs in more of a campus environment, but there are examples around the country where you have biotech in urban campus environments, with housing nearby,” Anderson said. “We anticipate over time we’ll be seeing some of that here in San Diego.”
Currently, San Diego’s planning and development-services departments are drafting the IBT zoning rules, which are “part of our work program over the next year or so to develop these packages,” Anderson said.
Anderson spoke three weeks after San Diego’s City Council adopted an updated “General Plan,” a set of policies enacted last month designed to shape future land use and community-development decisions such as transportation and conservation.
The updated General Plan, available here, promotes the development of new commercial space near residential neighborhoods and mass transit stops with the hope of alleviating the region’s steadily worsening traffic.
Over the next several months, the Plan will be translated into site-specific zoning changes to the city Land Development Code. Longer term, it will be reflected in each of San Diego’s 46 neighborhood-specific community plans as they get updated.

“We would like to see some housing closer to job centers so people have the option to live closer to where they work, and relieve the pressure on our regional infrastructure.”

“The city's policies anticipate a future economy supported by technology, telecommunications, biotechnology, earth and environmental sciences, education, health products and services, maritime, tourism, professional services, trade, defense, and new unnamed industries that will emerge in the ever-changing global economy,” according to the General Plan’s economic prosperity section or “element.”
The plan also designates those industries among the city’s “base sectors” — among them life-science and other tech sectors — that San Diego aims to expand.
The General Plan is “going to make it much more difficult for commercial development to encroach on the tech and the bio clusters,” Kevin Carroll, executive director of the American Electronics Association’s San Diego Council, told BRN. “It may put additional hurdles on additional development that’s non-base sector.”
Carroll’s group, known as AeA San Diego, worked with BIOCOM, the region’s life-science industry group, and other tech groups to press officials for a General Plan that would end several years of slow but steady decline in the amount of commercial space suitable for labs, warehouses, and other non-office uses.
Carroll and Jimmy Jackson, BIOCOM’s vice president of public policy, attributed the decline to a series of decisions by local boards over the past 15 years that located schools, large-scale housing complexes, retail centers, and other politically unpopular uses in residential areas, far from opposition. But those decisions caused San Diego to lose at least 800 acres of industrial land.
According to Jackson, the availability of industrial land “really had a lot to do with the growth of our biotech and our electronics corridor in San Diego,” which have emerged as economic engines in the two decades since the region’s defense industry shrank following the end of the Cold War.
While the city sought to promote both industries in the years since then, it lacked a basis for more than ad-hoc planning decisions concerning its industrial land, Anderson said: “Prior to the General Plan, we didn’t really have a policy framework to say, ‘Well, that’s a good thing’ or ‘a bad thing.’ It was evaluated all on a case-by-case basis.”
According to data prepared for the General Plan, which can be seen here, San Diego has some 1,600 “net” acres of vacant industrial space suitable for development. Most of it is in two sections: about 1,200 acres in the community of Otay Mesa and 200 acres in the Mission Gorge area of the Navajo community.
Without an updated General Plan, regional tech groups and the Industrial Environmental Association, a group representing San Diego’s manufacturers, worried that developers would re-develop this land with non-industrial projects.
Looking to address that issue, the General Plan separates the city’s industrial land into two categories: “Prime” sites, comprising about 60 percent of industrial land with clear buffers against encroachment by other commercial or residential uses; and “co-location” sites, which allow a mix of industrial and non-industrial uses, including housing.
“In [co-location] areas, we are open to introducing housing. But it has to be in a planned way, and in a way that has sufficient buffers, so as not to create land-use conflicts between the residential-commercial mixed use and the industrial uses,” Anderson said. “We would like to see some housing closer to job centers so people have the option to live closer to where they work, and relieve the pressure on our regional infrastructure.”
By not allowing housing within prime industrial areas, Anderson said, the city hopes to stave off a potential source of opposition to future life-sciences and other tech-expansion plans.
“We find sometimes when we have housing, the residents start trying to put constraints on the industry because the industry is working with certain chemicals or because they are working two or three shifts, or they have trucks,” he said.
“The General Plan upholds the integrity of having half of our industrial land being in clusters for our tech sector export industries, our different base sector industries, so that any future proposals to change land use in these areas would have to go through a higher level of scrutiny,” Anderson added. “Applicants would have to demonstrate why the land is not needed for our base sector industries, and evaluate what the impact would be to our regional economy if the land was converted.”

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