By Ken Williams | Editor
Say howdy to the Uptown Gateway project in Hillcrest and hello to density along transportation corridors in the Uptown communities, and goodbye to height restrictions in Hillcrest.
After four hours of sometimes heated public comments and discussions by councilmembers on Nov. 14, the San Diego City Council voted 7-2 to approve Uptown’s Community Plan Update (CPU), an important policy document that will guide growth and development for the next 20 years.
“Today’s approval of the Uptown Community Plan Update is an important and necessary step not only to comply with our General Plan and Climate Action Plan, but to also set the right course for the future of our city going forward,” Councilmember Todd Gloria said in a statement released after the vote.
“With this update, we will be able to foster vibrant, walkable and transit-oriented communities in Uptown that reduces automobile dependency, protects the integrity of our historic resources, and embraces new urban growth,” he said.
Gloria joined the council majority in approving the CPU. Council President Sherri Lightner and Councilmember David Alvarez voted against the plan, saying they did not like the “mixing and matching” between the 1988 CPU and the draft proposal. On Oct. 6, the city’s Planning Commission recommended keeping the existing land-use maps and axing the Interim Height Ordinance that had temporarily restricted the construction of buildings over 65 feet in height. That recommendation forced city planners at the last minute to fold the 1988 land-use maps into the 2016 draft proposal, angering many members of the Uptown Planners who had worked for almost eight years to craft the new document.
With the Uptown communities being within his District 3, Gloria made a lengthy motion that included changes he wanted made to the final CPU document. According to his office, they included:
- Closing the gap in the University Avenue bike lane project to improve bicycle/pedestrian safety and increase bicycle infrastructure in accordance with the city’s Climate Action Plan. The city would fill in the gap in the biking plan that was previously approved by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).
- Rezoning residential areas of Mission Hills by lowering density to protect the single-family character of its neighborhoods. This pleased members of the Mission Hills Heritage group, which advocated for protecting the historical homes.
- Providing discretionary review for building or development in the commercial areas of Mission Hills in excess of 50 feet in height.
- Maintaining and expanding a 30-foot height restriction west of Park Boulevard in University Heights to preserve community character. This thrilled members of the University Heights Community Association, which opposed changes to density and heights. The west side of University Heights is part of the Uptown Planners zone, while the east side is in the North Park Planning Committee area. While the community association has requested the entire neighborhood to be united in one planning zone, they found little support among councilmembers, including Gloria. Park Boulevard is the dividing line.
Gloria, who has represented District 3 since 2008, plans to resign his seat by month’s end to begin his freshmen term in the California Assembly after his election on Nov. 8. Councilmember-elect Chris Ward will be sworn into office on Dec. 12 to represent District 3.
The Uptown planning district comprises some of San Diego’s oldest and most historical neighborhoods, including Bankers Hill, Hillcrest, the Medical District, Middletown, Mission Hills, Park West and University Heights.
The biggest surprise in the newly approved Uptown CPU is the last-minute addition of the Uptown Gateway project, which was never considered by the Uptown Planners for inclusion in the final draft document nor requested by the 18 property owners who formed the Uptown Gateway Council.
Critics of the ambitious plan to create a signature “gateway” to Hillcrest said the Uptown Gateway Council did an end-around on the Uptown Planners and other stakeholders by appealing directly to the city’s Planning Commission at its Oct. 6 meeting to review the Uptown CPU draft proposal. The Gateway group showed a slick video and a PowerPoint presentation to outline their proposal to transform about 11 acres in the urban core of Hillcrest, roughly between Washington Street to the north and Pennsylvania Avenue to the south, Fourth Avenue to the west and Seventh Avenue to the east. Visit hillcrestgateway.com to learn more about the project.
The Uptown Gateway Council successfully convinced the Planning Commission to recommend a Specific Plan for the Gateway project to be included in the Uptown CPU, and the City Council agreed to go along with that recommendation.
Former city planner Marcela Escobar-Eck, who represents the Uptown Gateway Council, said the “gateway” area is served by six bus lines. An Uptown streetcar is also under consideration to connect Hillcrest to Downtown.
Sherm Harmer, representing Urban Housing Partners and the Pernicano family, said the Gateway area is perfect for density and higher heights, where residents can walk to Whole Foods, restaurants and pharmacies. He said Hillcrest needed a signature gateway, since a major entrance to the community is off state road 163 at Sixth Avenue, which he called an eyesore.
“The first thing you see is the ugly AT&T building on the left and an empty parking lot on the right,” he said.
Density and heights
Other supporters of the CPU plan told the City Council that density and increased heights were necessary to bring affordable housing to the Uptown communities. A number of millennial residents spoke in favor of the plan, saying they wanted to live, work, shop, walk, bike and play in the same neighborhood.
City planners identify the transportation corridors as Park Boulevard, where a new trolley line is planned to connect Uptown to Downtown and San Diego State via El Cajon Boulevard; University Avenue; Washington Street; and Fifth and Sixth avenues, where existing bus lines operate and a streetcar line may eventually be constructed.
Critics worried about losing the historical nature of the Uptown communities or feared increased traffic and parking woes.
When the public comments session closed at 9:45 p.m. Nov. 14, the City Council then discussed the matter. After Gloria made his lengthy motion and Councilmember Myrtle Cole seconded it, other councilmembers weighed in. Councilmember Scott Sherman acknowledged that the CPU had divided the community, but said he was very supportive of Gloria’s expansive motion. Councilmembers Chris Cate and Lorie Zapf concurred.
With the approval of the Uptown CPU, the City Council has now passed CPUs in North Park and Greater Golden Hill, which includes South Park.
The city’s urgency in updating the neighborhood CPUs is related to the groundbreaking Climate Action Plan, which 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.
To achieve this ambitious goal, city officials and planners are urging higher density development along transportation corridors and building more rapid bus routes and trolley lines — and the CPUs are reflecting that challenge.
—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and can be reached at email@example.com or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.