Planning for Healthy and Sustainable Communities:
National City Offers a Model
National City is a disadvantaged community located 5 miles south of downtown San Diego and 10 miles north of the Mexican border. Pollutants from major freeways, industrial businesses, a port, and a military base negatively impact the air and water quality in the region. The emissions generated from these industrial facilities can increase rates of obesity, diabetes, asthma, and other serious health conditions. According to the statewide pollution screening tool, CalEnviroscreen, National City currently ranks among the top 5-10% of communities in California impacted by pollution. Local elected officials are hoping to change that with new policies and plans addressing housing and transportation options in the city.
Residents celebrated in 2010 when National City’s council adopted the Westside Specific Plan; a plan created in direct response to community concerns over negative health and welfare impacts in the city. The plan addressed incompatible land uses, focused on remediating vacant land that was previously unusable due to the high levels of pollution, and included public transit, a public park, bicycle and pedestrian trails, and an affordable housing project called Paradise Creek.
National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis grew up on the west side and went to school at what would become the future site of the Paradise Creek affordable housing project. She describes the area prior to revitalization as riddled with abandoned shopping carts and drug paraphernalia. She also acknowledged that the area had a beautiful view and access to transit, providing the community an opportunity to evolve and beautify it. Approval of the Westside Specific Plan was her first major vote on the city council. As she takes her seat as the first Latina Mayor in 2019, the once contaminated plot is now a state-of-the-art sustainable affordable housing complex. She boasts of the Paradise Creek project, “now it is walkable, provides safe routes to schools, meets density and height requirements, and incorporates all elements of the plan and strengthens what we as a community saw as important”.
The Paradise Creek project was developed as a public-private partnership between National City and Related California and Community HousingWorks. Because of the associated GHG reductions with the project, it was eligible for California Climate Investments grants and was awarded $9.2 million in Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities funds. It is placed near the 24th Street trolley station, parks and recreational centers, retail, schools, the library, and a medical clinic. The goal of the project was to provide an incubator for home ownership. On-site supportive programs, such as financial management and academic success, as well as diabetes prevention and group exercise classes are offered as well.
National City just completed the ribbon-cutting for Phase II of the Paradise Creek project. It includes 92 affordable housing apartment units and incorporates open space and gardens. The total cost of both phases, including remediation, is about $100 million. The loss of redevelopment and cleanup of the surrounding contaminated site are just a couple of the hurdles National City faced during the development of the project. The transformation of the previously inhabitable area has drawn more than 3,000 applications for the rental units and emphasizes healthy living with its sidewalks, bike lanes, and adjacent parks.
While the Westside Specific Plan has boasted successful projects aimed at reducing air pollution, the city continues to take action. Under an amortization ordinance, National City was given the authority to terminate nonconforming businesses that pose health hazards to residents. Using an EPA-approved formula, the city identified 137 businesses that were flagged for potential removal and were given the option to clean up. Since passing the ordinance, two auto shops have been relocated. The City is currently searching for a consultant to take over the effort and continues to review policies related to enriching the community.