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As the Navy grows, San Diego County's National City embraces the needs of sailors

At this new residential development in National City, on F Street, the developer estimates about 60-70 percent of the tenants are from the local military.

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By DAVID HERNANDEZ | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: February 21, 2020

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — While developers usually like to build profit-making condos and one-bedroom apartments, KirE Builders has found a niche in National City's housing market: two-bedroom apartments, sought by Navy sailors.

"We can't build them fast enough," COO Adam Hutchinson said.

It's no surprise KirE is focused on the housing demand in the city of roughly 60,000 residents, where the home builder completed five projects in 2019, adding a total of 108 units to the market. In the planning stage are three more developments.

The home building highlights purposeful efforts in National City that aim to accommodate a growing population as the U.S. Navy adds ships and sailors to the region. At Naval Base San Diego, which abuts San Diego's Barrio Logan neighborhood and National City, the Navy plans to add eight ships and an estimated 1,200 sailors, plus their families, by 2024.

In response to the growth, base and city officials see an opportunity to work together to encourage developers to build more housing, especially in the downtown area adjacent to the base.

Along with either planned or completed public improvements designed to enable the use of alternative modes of transportation, in an effort to eliminate the need for a car, city and base officials envision sailors being able to live, work and "play" in the area.

The strategy, officials said, would alleviate traffic that builds up on Interstate 5 and streets near the base, where roughly 30,000 sailors work.

Building on the vision is an ongoing study that is looking at ways to connect walking, bicycling and transit options to new technologies such as electric bicycles and ride hailing in the area between the base/waterfront and downtown National City. The region's planning agency, the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, funded the "Waterfront to Homefront Study."

Per Department of Defense policy, the Navy is required to maintain a minimum level of housing; specifically, it must house 10 percent of its population, said David Zajac, Naval Base San Diego community planning and liaison officer.

Beyond its housing supply, the Navy relies on private and public developers to house sailors.

"The base can't grow any bigger than we already are," said spokeswoman Krishna Jackson. "We're looking to work with our community partners to house families and sailors — and hopefully in close proximity to commute."

For the city, the housing demand fueled by the Navy's growth could help accomplish a long-established desire for a more dense — and vibrant — downtown. A blueprint for the area made way for 5,500 units in 2005, but development has been laggard.

"The Navy is an opportunity to compliment (the city's) slow growth," said Megan Gamwell, the city's economic development specialist.

With that in mind, the city has been working with base officials and developers to convey sailors' lifestyle and housing needs. The message is that many sailors are young, active and social. Many want to live off base to disconnect. And they get a housing allowance.

"We've been working really hard to play that liaison role," Gamwell said.

A prime example of a development that aims to cater — in part — to sailors is a mixed-use project dubbed 8th & B, which broke ground recently on the corner of Eight Street and B Avenue, about a half-mile away from the southernmost entrance to Naval Base San Diego.

While the development will offer a mix of condos, apartments and townhouses, some 90 of the nearly 130 units will be furnished studios.

The concept targets sailors who are promoted beyond a low rank and, therefore, forced — per Department of Defense rules — to live off base, said Andrew Malick, the developer behind 8th & B.

"I'm going after the class of sailor that's getting booted out of the on-base housing," he said.

Pointing to 8th & B's location and the plans to improve access between the base and downtown, Malick said he saw an opportunity to offer housing for sailors who want to live near the base and not go through the hassle of buying furniture.

"They can flip on the TV and be at home," he said of 8th & B.

As a way to possibly further cater to sailors, Malick and city staffers have explored the idea of turning parking spaces into spots for motorcycles — a move that would increase the ratio of units to parking spaces. It's an option down the road should there be a demand, Malick said.

Gamwell, the city's economic development specialist, said the idea is an example of how the city has tried to ensure a project pencils out in return for a developer's willingness to address a need — in this case, housing that accommodates sailors.

Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis said that as she sees it, the Navy's growth — and the response to it — benefits all of her constituents. She pointed to a growing demand within the Navy for child care — a need that could lead to business opportunities in National City.

"It's about working together to meet our mutual needs and leverage opportunities," the mayor said.

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