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Opinion: Are We Willing to Trade Homes in Midway for a New Arena — Again?

OpinionOpinion: Are We Willing to Trade Homes in Midway for a New Arena — Again?

Neighborhood Next housingHousing envisioned in the Neighborhood Next plan for redeveloping the Midway District. Courtesy of the development team

We’re all talking about homes these days — how impossibly hard it is to afford one, and how to help the people who don’t have one. But now that we have a chance to build a significant number of homes on the city of San Diego’s biggest piece of available land, why are we suddenly talking about something else?

The public conversation over which of five teams should develop the 48-acre Midway site, currently home to the sports arena, has been dominated not just by a discussion around how the site can be used to help solve our housing crisis (we don’t have enough), but also how the site can be used to help solve our arena issue (it’s kind of old).

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Much of the dialogue has been around questions like, What size arena should be built? What kind of teams should it house? Should we build new or revitalize the one we have?

Allow me to pose a different question: In the most unaffordable housing market in the United States, why is building a new event space from scratch factoring so heavily into the discussion about land that’s perfect for homes?

I joined the Neighborhood Next team because we wanted to design a true neighborhood with an arena in it, not an arena district surrounded by some apartments. A community that puts housing first. An authentic place designed around the people that will live there, not a corporate playground that changes with the expiration of a naming rights contract.

We worked with top global designers and trusted, local affordable and middle-income home builders (that’s where I come in) to design a walkable, green neighborhood that will feel like strolling down El Prado in Balboa Park mixed with a trip up India Street in Little Italy. We didn’t want to try to mimic other venues from around the world, but rather build upon what’s great about our own city and create something even better.

Our proposal provides by far the most homes of any team, the most true middle-income homes, a world-class renovation of the current arena, and is in the top three of affordable homes when compared to the other bidders. But it’s the breadth of housing diversity and how we’ve woven it together that we’re most proud of. There is no poor neighborhood and no rich neighborhood. It blends different income levels throughout the community.

But what happens when you make the pursuit of a brand new sports arena a priority over housing? The Neighborhood Next plan proposes 5,700 homes — that’s 1,500 more houses than the next highest proposal. Is a new sports arena worth 1,500 homes — as homelessness and unaffordability continue to rise? This is the question San Diego needs to be asking.

This is particularly relevant given Midway’s troubling past. Through our own research in preparing our plan, and later reported in-depth by Voice of San Diego, we discovered that the sports arena site used to be home to 20,000 people in affordable homes. But city leaders callously evicted these residents, mostly people of color, to make room for a parking lot and a sports arena.

Let’s not make the same mistake again. Let’s not allow chasing a new arena blind us to the fact that homes are what we need above all else.

The most cost-effective, sustainable, and socially responsible thing to do, is to design a neighborhood with the arena we already have, and to transform that arena into a state-of-the-art, iconic venue that makes our city proud.

What we build at the Midway property should reflect the values of the city we want to be. Let’s create a neighborhood for all: all income levels, all age groups, all stages of life, all people.

The City Council’s land use and housing committee recommended city staff negotiate with all five bidders, and next week the full city council will vote on that recommendation. This is the right approach.

In addition to a full financial vetting of all five proposals, the city should also ask itself which plan achieves its policy goals, including the climate action plan and the Midway community plan.

Here’s a cheat sheet for how to fulfill our civic values: Climate resiliency? Build lots of homes in Midway, which is close to transit and job centers. Vision zero? Build homes in Midway around a new urban grid that embraces walkability and bikeability. Equitable economic growth? Build many homes in Midway so more workers can afford to live in San Diego. Homelessness? Build homes in Midway that bring people off the streets and into an environment where they can thrive.

The goal of public land should be to create the biggest benefit for the public. The public is talking about homes. Let’s turn words into action in Midway.

Andrew Malick is founder and principal of Malick Infill Development, a San Diego-based urban infill firm focused on walkable, transit-oriented projects.

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