By Ken Williams | Editor
The draft Community Plan Updates (CPUs) for Greater Golden Hill, North Park and Uptown have been forwarded to the San Diego City Council despite stakeholders’ concerns that the documents don’t adequately address potential historic districts or the Climate Action Plan (CAP).
In addition, the city’s Planning Commission on Oct. 6 fiddled with the draft Uptown CPU, but the big news is that the panel unanimously recommended that the City Council initiate a Specific Plan for the Uptown Gateway project that would significantly redefine “downtown” Hillcrest. The Gateway project has been a lightning rod for controversy, adamantly opposed by residents who oppose density and tall building but praised by those who believe Hillcrest must grow vertically in order to provide adequate affordable housing that is so desperately needed.
The planners also announced the dates when the three CPUs would go before the City Council. The Greater Golden Hill and North Park CPUs will be reviewed on Tuesday, Oct. 25, and the Uptown CPU will be evaluated on Monday, Nov. 14.
These meetings also mark the final times for the public to make comments on three important policy documents that will guide growth in those planning districts for the next 20 years.
The draft CPUs have been an exhaustive work in progress for the past eight years or so. The volunteer planning groups in each of the three planning districts have worked with city planners and local stakeholders to craft documents that embrace the needs and wants of the local neighborhoods, which include Bankers Hill/Park West, Golden Hill, Hillcrest, Medical Complex, Middletown, Mission Hills, North Park, South Park and University Heights.
This fall, the three volunteer planning groups approved the draft CPUs and sent them for further review to the city’s Historic Resources Board, the Infrastructure Committee, the Committee on Smart Growth and Land Use, and the Planning Commission. The City Council, which has the final say, will decide on whether to approve the CPUs.
The road toward a final vote has been pocked with some unexpected potholes. Last December, for example, the City Council approved a groundbreaking Climate Action Plan (CAP) that legally binds San Diego to slash its carbon footprint in half by 2035 by committing to 100 percent clean electricity and zero waste. It also requires at least 30 percent of the population to bike, walk or take public transit to work. And to achieve this ambitious goal, city officials are urging higher density housing projects to be built along major bus and trolley lines.
But the CAP, coming at virtually the last minute, threw a wrench into the draft CPUs. Despite years of work, the volunteer planning groups had no way of anticipating such a challenging plan would be initiated, so their documents do not reflect the demands of the CAP. Earlier this year, city planners tried to adapt the draft CPUs to meet the CAP requirements, but they were often operating without clear guidance or set policy. As a result, members of the planning committees — and many residents — felt frustrated that city planners were rushing the CPUs toward a final vote by the City Council without adequately addressing the CAP issue.
This did not go unnoticed by prominent CAP supporters, including Nicole Capretz, executive director of Climate Action Campaign, and George Courser, conservation chair of Sierra Club San Diego. They recently wrote an opinion piece in Voice of San Diego, expressing their frustrations:
“With all eyes on our city, the first big test of our commitment to implementing the plan comes in the form of community plan updates — the long-term roadmaps for growth, development and mobility in individual neighborhoods. We cannot reach the 2035 climate targets without creating compact, mixed-use and transit-rich neighborhoods close to where families work,” they wrote.
“Four Community Plan Updates are coming to a vote this fall. They include North Park, Uptown and Greater Golden Hill — all communities surrounding Downtown and jobs — in other words, the most likely and appropriate places to begin building these more compact neighborhoods where folks would have real options to go to work and access services without a car,” they continued.
“After months of calling for an analysis of how well these three draft community plan updates implement the Climate Action Plan and achieve its goals, the city finally conducted one.
Unfortunately, none of these three draft Community Plan Updates conform to the plan nor meet the minimum thresholds set for shifting commutes to biking, walking and transit.”
Golden Hill and North Park
On Oct. 5, the city’s Committee on Smart Growth and Land Use reviewed the CPUs from Greater Golden Hill and North Park, and heard public comments. Capretz was among those who pointed out to committee members that the CPUs did not show how the two documents met the demands of the CAP.
Vicki Granowitz, chair of the North Park Planning Committee, criticized city staff for springing a last-minute memo of considerable length titled “Role of the Supplemental Development Regulations in the North Park and Golden Hill Community Plan Updates Final Program Environmental Report.” She said her committee nor the public got a chance to read the document in advance.
Granowitz said planners wanted to rely on the existing 45-year review process, which she termed “inadequate,” instead of embracing the tougher regulations recommended in the CPU.
District 3 Councilmember Todd Gloria, who is a member of the land-use committee, acknowledged that more work needed to be done to resolve those issues, but was reluctant to hold up the process. Still, he urged members to “get it right.”
Gloria, who is in his final weeks in office due to term limits, said he was happy to hear that concerns about density were not part of the discussion and hoped that the North Park CPU would be a blueprint for other communities who will be working on CPUs.
“By and large, the [North Park] plan is good,” he said.
Jack Straw, from the mayor’s office, told Gloria that Mayor Kevin Faulconer wants the CPUs to go forward, even if tweaks are still necessary.
Later, the committee debated the Greater Golden Hill CPU. Similar issues came up, and the members arrived at the same conclusions as with the North Park CPU.
In the end, the committee sent both CPUs to the City Council without giving a recommendation. Concerns raised about historic districts and the CAP prompted Planning Director Jeff Murphy to confirm that his staff would remove those items from the CPUs before the council reviews them in coming weeks. Murphy said his staff would work further with Greater Golden Hill and North Park to fine-tune those issues.
At the Oct. 4 meeting of the Uptown Planners, where they discussed the draft Uptown Community Plan Update’s Impact Fee Study and final Environmental Impact Report (EIR), members such as Bill Ellig criticized city planners for “dismissing customer feedback” and for overriding a lot of the public comments. Ellig said the process was being rushed through, a comment echoed by a number of other members.
Leo Wilson, the chair, said that overall the draft update “is a good plan,” but he criticized its Mobility Element as being “badly outdated.” Wilson peered into the near future, noting that self-driving cars would dramatically change the way San Diegans will commute and that electric cars and hydrogen-fueled vehicles will swiftly usher in an era of zero emissions.
“The future has to be faced,” Wilson said. “This [Mobility Element] is a horse and buggy plan.”
Meeting on Oct. 6, the Planning Commission reviewed the Uptown CPU. A number of people spoke for and against the document, mostly over historical districts and issues involving height limits and density.
Several parties representing the Uptown Gateway project showed PowerPoint presentations and even a short video outlining how the proposed redevelopment — 11 acres roughly bounded by Washington Street to the north, Pennsylvania Avenue to the south, Fourth Avenue to the west and Seventh Avenue to the east — would reshape the future of Hillcrest. Visit hillcrestgateway.com to learn more about the project.
Marcela Escobar-Eck, representing the property owners, said the Gateway district is served by six bus lines and is perfectly located for density. She also advocated for no height limit, so the buildings could go vertical, not horizontal, leaving space for parks and outdoor gathering places.
“If not Uptown, where will we put density?,” she asked.
Architect Ricardo Rabines, who is involved in the project, said the Gateway district could use Portland, Oregon’s Pearl District as inspiration. That 60-block area was redeveloped into one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Portland.
“The Hillcrest community is slowing dying at its core,” he said.
Sherm Harmer, representing Urban Housing Partners and also the Pernicano family, said the CAP mandates the city has more density and that Hillcrest is the perfect place for developments where you can “live/work/shop/play/learn.” He, too, cites the numerous bus lines in the community.
But a number of Uptown Planners members, including Tom Mullaney and Bill Ellig, spoke against density in the Hillcrest core and instead sought to push taller buildings to Park Boulevard. A trolley line is scheduled for that area by 2035.
But Maya Rosas, also of Uptown Planners, shared her view that millennials like herself wanted to live in denser communities where they can live, work, shop and play without ever needing to own a car. Several other millenials echoed that theme, prompting two commissioners to agree with them that the CPU should address their needs and concerns.
Leo Wilson, chair of Uptown Planners, acknowledged that Hillcrest is the heart of the LGBT community. “This is our Castro,” he said, referring to the famous San Francisco neighborhood. Wilson worried about redevelopment triggering a “cultural desecration.”
After a long debate, the Planning Commission unanimously approved the motion to adopt actions in the staff report with the following modifications:
- Include Commissioner Hofman’s two mobility policies.
- Keep the adopted community plan land-use map without the Interim Height Ordinance.
- Include the CPU policies.
- Eliminate the Planned District Ordinances and go to citywide zoning.
- CAP recommendation.
- Initiate a Specific Plan for the Gateway project.
- Plan changes in the errata (Attachment 14 of the staff report).
Furthermore, the commissioners tackled the height issue. They voted unanimously to recommend to the City Council to use the current Community Plan Implementation Overlay Zone, which automatically triggers a site discretionary review for projects that exceed 65 feet.
—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.