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The next big thing in Hillcrest?

Posted: February 10th, 2017 | Feature, News, Top Story | 24 Comments

By Ken Williams | Editor

Like the Big Bad Wolf from the fairy tales, the Uptown Planners huffed and puffed and tried to blow the house down.

Some members of the Uptown Planners got all heated — and even confused — as they reviewed plans for a mixed-use development proposed to be built on 1 acre located at the southwest corner of Robinson and Seventh avenues. The project, proposed by the developer giant Greystar, is known as Hillcrest 111.

The proposed Hillcrest 111 building, seen at night from the corner of Seventh and Robinson avenues in Hillcrest (Artist rendering courtesy of Architects Orange)

After hearing a presentation from the developer, listening to public comments and debating the project’s merits, the Uptown Planners took a series of conflicting votes on Feb. 7. The volunteer group, elected by local residents to serve on the city’s official advisory group to the Planning Department on development matters pertaining to the Uptown communities, was meeting for the first time in 2017. More on that later. But first, here’s some background on the project.

About the property

The site is currently owned by Pacific Bell Telephone Company, which does business as AT&T California. The property is being used as a parking lot for AT&T trucks and personal vehicles used by employees working out of the monolithic AT&T complex on the north side of Robinson. The project would require the parking lot’s demolition.

AT&T is selling the bulk of the land to Greystar, but will retain ownership of 16,800 square feet on the south side of the property with plans to build a detached parking garage with 86 oversized parking stalls spread out over three subterranean levels and one level above ground. The garage would be accessed from Seventh as well as the alley, which runs between Robinson and Pennsylvania, on the west side of the property.

Greystar is a multifamily real estate business based in Charleston, South Carolina, and has more than 10,000 employees nationwide. In Southern California, Greystar has offices in Solana Beach and Irvine, and was represented at the meeting by its local development director, Jim Ivory.

About Hillcrest 111

Greystar proposes building 111 residential units, including nine apartments for very-low-income families, and 4,880 square feet of commercial retail space along Robinson and Seventh.

The retail space would not include a restaurant, but is expected to attract the kind of businesses that would cater to the apartment residents, said Marcela Escobar-Eck, principal with the local land-use planning agency Atlantic Group that is working with Greystar. She listed potential tenants as offices, salons, retail shops and a small coffeehouse.

The current site of the proposed Hillcrest 111 building, seen from the corner of Seventh and Robinson avenues in Hillcrest (Photo by Ken Williams)

The 100,824-square-foot building would have seven floors and rise 90 feet — about the same height as the AT&T complex on the north side of Robinson.

Below the Hillcrest 111 building, Greystar would construct three levels of underground parking with 183 spaces — 15 more than required — for residents and retail businesses. There also would be stalls for 50 bicycles and 11 motorcycles or scooters, in a bid to entice residents to use alternative modes of transportation.

Approved by subcommittee

The Design Review Subcommittee of the Uptown Planners voted 6-0 last month to approve the Hillcrest 111 project, listing two conditions for its approval:

  • Recommend the applicant avoid white stucco for the exterior walls and consider a higher quality material for white surfaces. The developer confirmed at the Feb. 7 meeting that they had change the stark white color to an antique white color, and added a contrasting color to the middle portion of the building facing Seventh.
  • Recommend the south elevation of the project feature greater architectural interest through the use of varied finishes and/or materials similar to the west (alley) elevation. The developer said it took that advice.

The Feb. 7 meeting

Hillcrest 111 is the first large project out of the gate since the City Council approved Uptown’s Community Plan Update (CPU) late last year. This project, however, came forward under the rules of the old CPU.

Greystar has applied for a Process 2 Neighborhood Development Permit, one of the Planning Department’s easier application processes, simply requiring action by the Uptown Planners and then a decision by the Planning Department staff. Any appeal of a staff decision would be heard only by the Planning Commission, which would make the final ruling.

Working in conjunction with Atlantis Group, Greystar is utilizing the city’s Affordable Housing Density Bonus and will be required to provide the apartments for lower-income families for 55 years. By using the bonus, the developer is entitled to two deviations and asked to:

  • Exceed the 65-foot height limit, which also would be subject to approval by the Federal Aviation Administration due to its proximity to the airport.
  • Reduce setbacks along the alley on the west side of the project.

Under the old CPU, the Interim Height Ordinance (IHO) limits building heights to 65 feet. The IHO, though, was eliminated when the new CPU went into effect on Feb. 6.

The building’s proposed 90-foot height drew the ire of Mat Walstrom and Tom Mullaney, two members who typically oppose projects proposing greater density and height.

Other members were concerned about the building’s stepbacks and setbacks; a perceived lack of solar, even though the developer said solar would be used to warm up the building’s water system; or wanted more parking spaces in the AT&T garage, which didn’t make much sense due to safety issues.

Walstrom and Mullaney proposed a motion to delay a vote until the developer got all the issues cleared. That motion passed 8-5 with the chair, Leo Wilson, abstaining as usual. But city staff said that motion was essentially meaningless, since the developer was already addressing staff’s concerns, so the Uptown Planners voted to undo the motion.

Then the Uptown Planners voted 7-6-1 in favor of a motion to encourage the developer to incorporate a 15-foot setback of the building’s upper floors that face Robinson and seek more solar options and more parking spots.

Next came a series of failed votes to recommend lowering the building’s height. Attempts to lower the height to 72 feet and 80 feet failed both times by 8-5-1 votes.

Someone in the audience laughingly suggested voting for a height of 150 feet. The joke helped break up the tension in the room.

The flurry of motions, votes and re-votes left the audience as confused as the Uptown Planners appear to be. Escobar-Eck, from the Atlantis Group, spoke up and said the votes were “as clear as mud.”

Entrance to the lobby; Retail shops would be located on the ground floor. (Artist rendering courtesy of Architects Orange)

A day later, on Feb. 8, Escobar-Eck emailed San Diego Uptown News an updated response:

“We received a unanimous recommendation of approval from the Design Review Subcommittee with two conditions. Our team worked hard in the subsequent two weeks to incorporate the subcommittee recommendations into the design we presented at the Uptown Planners,” she wrote.

“We are disappointed that after working through the process with the Design Review Subcommittee, we ended up with a recommendation from the full board that was confusing and extremely difficult to implement. We were surprised to hear a couple of board members say they would sacrifice the affordable housing in exchange for eliminating a minor incentive that the project needs to use to be able to incorporate the affordable housing when the city is struggling with a major housing crisis,” Escobar-Eck said.

“We feel that we have designed a great project that will be a significant enhancement for the neighborhood and very much want to be part of the historic Hillcrest neighborhood.”

Since the Hillcrest 111 project is seeking a Process 2 permit, it now only faces a discretionary staff-level decision. Once staff members feel that all their concerns have been addressed, then they will make the decision on whether to grant the permit. That decision could be appealed.

—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and can be reached at ken@sdcnn.com or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.

24 Comments

  1. Charles Kaminski says:

    The rendering or image is false. Robinson and Seventh are not that wide and spacious.

  2. Tim Gahagan says:

    This interesting project will provide 111 new luxury apartment units in Hillcrest (9 of these will be a little cheaper for lower-middle income residents). The Uptown Planners Board asked that this tall big-box building include:

    1) a 10-foot set-back (street-level) and a 15-foot step-back (sky-level)
    2) some solar
    3) try to provide more public parking

    Is that really so hard for the developer and the Uptown News editor to understand? Does someone have an agenda here?

  3. Charles Kaminski says:

    The owner and their representative do not not have Hillcrest neighborhood or livability or walkability in their hearts. They are in for the ROI. Nothing wrong with that; but destroying the sense of community is what this project will do no matter the profit that the out of town owner makes. Their consultant, Atlantis, is paid to be their spokesperson. I don’t trust their words. 9 affordable housing units out of 111 and that will address affordability in the city? LOL!. Give me a break. If this is approved it will destroy Robinson and Seventh. Robinson is too narrow to support this hulk.A project of this size belongs in the real core and not on the periphery where buildings should step down and especially on the traffic clogged Robinson. Adding service vehicle garage and resident garage will just increase the impact to both streets and make this area less desirable. As for stores and retail? Instead of congregating in the core these shops will spread thinly into the periphery and need to be destinations on their own (doctors, dentists?) or they wont survive. In any case, that’s more traffic on the street for offices and retaill.
    Need shadow analysis thru all the seasons as this building is on the south side and will cast long, large and dark shadows across the sidewalk and into adjacent properties. Also no set back from street means “pedestrian walkability” is compromised and non-existant.

  4. Donna Shanske says:

    This new condo site is being built on a very congested street in Hillcrest. Don’t suppose there are plans to widen Robinson?? —– Didn’t think so! What is “affordable housing” — 50% of $6,000/month? For building just 9 of these units, the developers and their Lobbyist, Ms. Eck, are getting a LOT in return, but so it has always gone with their kind and the San Diego Planning Commission.

  5. Barbara Kelley says:

    While I know the city is devoted to growth and density, this project seems far too aggressive for the particular neighborhood. It is a very busy intersection with narrow streets. No setbacks and 92′ seem far beyond reasonable.

    Setbacks from the sidewalk and a lesser height seem more reasonable for the area and for the neighbors impacted by this project’s big design. Maybe this is too far along for comments to matter; nonetheless, these are my comments.

  6. Bob Martynec says:

    Whoever said the AT&T building across the street is about 90 feet is a liar. Anybody can look and see the building is 4 stories across Robinson. That’s 40 feet. Hillcrest has a very generous height limit of 65 feet. That’s about 7 stories. Even so, 65 feet is too tall for this location. There is nothing else on this block that is more than 2 stories. There’s no reason Hillcrest should be ravaged by greedy developers like this. There are plenty of new developments around Hillcrest that are 40 feet tall. Why can’t these developers do the same?

  7. Gregory says:

    So sick of these developers shoving a preconceived design in where it’s out of place with the surrounding neighborhood. I think in this location it should LOOK BETTER THAN THE AT&T BUILDING. Why not compliment the buildings on the east side of 8th Ave? Spanish Revival. Make it classy, instead of “POP-GARISH FAUX-MODERN” This “look” has already worn itself out, and is not “modern”, it’s a cheap design of the past that no one likes. I’m very disappointed with the architects architecture schools are producing these days. Style has died.

  8. CommunityUnity says:

    In my opinion, Escobar-Eck continues to run a business based on separating communities and assisting developers in skirting the rules…she makes it like a war and characterizes residents as unreasonable…NOT TRUE, I am for increased housing but not for developers and their consultants like Atlantis skirting rules established to protect communities and residents…most notably STEPBACKS AND SETBACKS (effecting community quality of life and safety) STANDBACKS AND SETBACKS are established for SMART city planning…this is most especially important when you are skirting the rules on height…As a resident, my view is that Atlantis’ strategy is consistently to separate the community and not work within it…this is WRONG…our local representative need to help fix this…in my opinion, it looks like Escobar-Eck wrote this article…I am happy to see the vote especially considering the conflicts of interest on U.P.’s…STEPBACKS and SETBACKS are VERY important and this project will set precedent for future projects…

  9. ann slater says:

    Re article: Next Big Thing in Hillcrest. I noticed some discrepancies between my notes at the meeting and your article.Art: 1) 4880 sq. ‘ commercial space versus 998 sq.’ retail? 2) City Council approved Uptown Plan Update from last year? No. City council shot down the Uptown Plan constructed by local volunteers after 7 yrs. work. 3) Density Bonus requires renters age 55 yrs. or older – not for 55 years duration. 4) Article didn’t mention step back requirement for over 3 stories. 5) 8 to 5 against height, setback, step-back. Period!

  10. Dennis Seisun says:

    Ms. Escobar may think the Uptown Planners’ efforts are “as clear as mud”, but what is crystal clear is the different motivation of each side of the argument. One is to maximize profit, the other is to protect a unique environment while achieving reasonable growth. A 90′ height limit with no setback requirements is simply out of character.
    Dennis Seisun
    Hillcrest Resident

  11. NIck says:

    The real story I find interesting is all of the chaos with the Uptown Planners. I actually think I might attend a meeting with a diet coke and some popcorn.

  12. Juliana Johnson says:

    This project does not fit the look or needs of the community. 65-90′ height limit is utterly ridiculous in Hillcrest. The developers and consultants have no style or sense of the community. The area is far too congested for the proposed architecture. And how is 9 units lower income units helpful?

  13. Nancy Moors says:

    Here we go.

    The first project planned since the approval of the new community plan. This project was actually applied for under the old plan which had a 65′ (6 stories) height limit. So why does the developer get to build up to 90′? And BTW…that is not comparable to the height of the ATT building just across Robinson as stated in the article.

    The developer is seeking additional height in return for including nine “affordable” units. So, the developer gets to line their pockets with additional heights and more market rate housing.

    The developer explained to Uptown Planners that the building would have elements to honor the history of Hillcrest. In this article Ms. Eck says that the developer “very much want to be part of the historic Hillcrest neighborhood.” Oh please…there is nothing historic about this building and there will be nothing left of our historic neighborhood when Ms. Eck’s clients are finished.

    San Diego needs affordable housing and there are plenty of places in Hillcrest where new developments would be welcome. Let’s just make sure that when the city is giving out bonuses to developers that the neighborhood gets something too…other than a building that is inappropriate for this location.

  14. Andrew says:

    Escobar-Eck always seems to be there when property owners and developers want to destroy the character and livability of an existing neighborhood and replace it with trashy dumb-growth development that makes no sense environmentally, aesthetically, or in any other way other than making a quick buck.

    Uptown Planners needs to get some backbone and reject these preposterous schemes.

    Eck and her acolytes say “Yes in my backyard” — but of course, it’s not their backyard that they’re talking about.

    The new community plan that Todd Gloria sleazily inflicted on Uptown through backroom deals in violation of public notice requirements is going to be rejected by the courts.

    But Uptown Planners was still willing to add 20,000 new residents to our already built-up neighborhood, and most of that population increase would be dumped in Hillcrest, creating a polluting stalled traffic nightmare throughout Uptown, including Mission Hills, Bankers Hill and University Heights.

  15. Steven B Johnson says:

    All these NIMBY comments from friends of the Uptown Planners are simply absurd. This is a well designed and considered project that deserves the community support. Hillcrest needs more housing, affordable and regular and I for one support this project.

  16. Ken Williams says:

    Hi, Ann! The City Council approved the Uptown Community Plan Update late last year; you are correct that it was not the same one sent up by the Uptown Planners, which kept getting changed every step along the approval process. You are misinformed about the density bonus; it is not a senior citizen’s bonus and the affordable housing must be offered for 55 years. The stepback, setback and height issues were voted on several times, as reported. Ken Williams, editor of San Diego Uptown News

  17. Ken Williams says:

    No agenda, Tim, just reporting the news. I heard the developer talk at the meeting about providing solar heating of the building’s water system. As far as providing more public parking, it seems doubtful that AT&T would allow the public to share their private garage when they are parking company vehicles that have valuable equipment onboard. That would make it a security risk for AT&T. I’m sure you will work diligently on getting more public parking spaces in the underground garage at the multi-use building. _Ken Williams, editor of San Diego Uptown News

  18. Andrew says:

    Ken: The city council did not approve the Uptown Planners community plan update — it changed it at the last minute.

    To pretend that it was only Uptown Planners that made changes leads me to question your honesty and or journalistic accuracy.

    You say, “I’m just reporting news.” No, you’re not.

  19. Deirdre Lee says:

    Ms. Eck and her clients have made it clear that they are not interested in history or neighborhood character or working with the community. What does this project offer the community? It is very very too big for that congested location, without setbacks it is oppressive, and the design is, well, boring. The renderings misrepresent and obscure. Nice tree in the middle of one. Another of front steps that is nowhere in the project. What about some serious affordable housing without giving away 30 ft in height? The only purpose here is to make lots of money for someone outside the community. Her client “wants very much to be part of historic Hillcrest.” What a joke. They will be nowhere around. This project destroys the spirit of Hillcrest and sets a really bad precedent.

  20. […] right?  Here’s what was said about the affordable housing included in the proposed 111 Hillcrest mixed-use project (shown above) at last month’s Uptown Planners […]

  21. Brent Butler says:

    I support this project for an ugly and underutilized corner and I live on seventh avenue. We are also going to end up with tattoo,parlors and nail salons only in this neighborhood because other businesses cannot survive without some more density! Bankers hill will become the p,ace to be while hillcrest goes down hill.

    I also attended a planning meeting for this project and was pleased with the project and some of the changes that the developers were making to the building. Capital Hill in Seattle was dying when they added some density to the main shopping area and it’s thriving as a community once again!

  22. Kelly says:

    I live on 7th St and I support this project. Yes, it’s not pretty, but that corner is a hangout spot for homeless people and this is far better than that. The shops in Hillcrest keep closing down and we have tons of empty storefronts. We need more people here to reinvigorate the neighborhood and add money to the local economy. This would add a bunch of luxury apartments that would raise the property value of other homes in the area, and it has parking spots for every resident plus extra, so it won’t affect parking. Yes, I’d rather it look better and more unique/interesting, but I don’t have as big a problem with the height as some other commenters do. I’d rather they keep it the same height and make it prettier as opposed making it shorter.

    Hillcrest is in the center of San Diego, and we should be at the center of new growth, instead of watching all the money going into downtown and North Park. We have been saying no to everything, and I think it’s been to the detriment of Hillcrest.

  23. […] read previous coverage of Hillcrest 111, go to bit.ly/2kPyfMg and […]

  24. […] (Re: “The next big thing in Hillcrest?” Vol. 9, Issue 3 or online at bit.ly/2kPyfMg.) […]

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