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Uptown CPU is approved; Gateway plan added

Posted: November 18th, 2016 | Featured, News | 5 Comments

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.

Uptown Gateway

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 ken@sdcnn.com or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.

5 Comments

  1. Andrew Towne says:

    Well, we can dispense with the notion that San Diego’s community planning groups have any say in the planning process.

    They were never more than advisory, but now we have a situation in which their advice wasn’t even sought — specifically a last minute proposal to demolish 9 square blocks of central Hillcrest and fill them with high rises.

    Calling this the creation of “affordable housing” is a joke. Units will sell for $750,000 up into the millions of dollars. No one will pay those prices without getting parking. And the residents of those buildings will “live, work and play” all over San Diego County, not just in Uptown. They will be driving cars, not taking buses.

    Uptown’s population of 36,000 residents will increase by about 22,000 residents — with no increase in parking, recreational facilities, parks and other amenities. Most of that increase will be in Hillcrest, which already has traffic jams.

    This “plan” claims to to help reduce green house gases. On the contrary, lines of stalled and idling cars will be increasing those gases and worsening the climate. Large buildings built to the lot line will eliminate trees and other vegetation, which absorb CO2. Hillcrest will become the proverbial soulless concrete jungle which could be anywhere — in Pittsburgh or Saint Louis.

    In the meantime, there is no commitment in the plan to fix roads and sidewalks, fill pot holes, or replace aging sewer and water pipes.

    Uptown already has a huge infrastructure deficit just for its existing residents. That deficit will be even bigger with 22,000 new residents. And then, of course, there’s the drought and San Diego’s permanent problem with obtaining fresh water.

    The “millennials” who support demolishing Hillcrest always begin their spiel by claiming that they “love Hillcrest.” Yes, they love it only if it is no longer Hillcrest — a walkable, green and historic community.

    It is easy to see what a bunch of phonies they are — shills for landowners and developers who couldn’t care less about climate change and affordability.

    What they care about is making money, and what they are doing is called “gentrification” — driving all but the wealthy out of Uptown,

    The good news is that this Community Plan Update can be defeated in court. It is not just a bad plan. It is not just unable to fulfill its promises of improving the quality of life in Uptown. It is outright preposterous. Yes, it’s a sick, pathetic joke.

    The city, led by Todd Gloria, has acted in bad faith with the community. So my suggestion is that the community stop giving the city the benefit of the doubt and take back all of the concessions it made before the city made its decision.

    Instead of accepting a population increase of over 50%, it should demand that no population at all be added until the city has fixed our roads and eliminated the rest of Uptown’s infrastructure deficit.

    After that, population growth should be limited to one half of one percent per year up to an absolute maximum of 10%.

    If the city wants to do dense infill development, it can do it in places north of Highway 8 where density is low — places like Scripps Ranch.

    Uptown is already built out and as populated as it needs to be.

  2. Donna Shanske says:

    Democracy is now dead in Uptown. We can dispense with the Uptown Planners group – total waste of time. Thanks,Todd!

  3. Glenn Younger says:

    The just approved CPU for Uptown includes many of things long envisioned for this district. Just as the Sears to Uptown Shopping Center (now HUB) redevelopment improved the Hillcrest neighborhood just after the adoption of the last Uptown CPU, the Uptown Gateway can remake a part of Hillcrest for the better. Some of the eyesores that have long been complained about, (hello Pernicanos), will finally be improved.

    An increase in both market rate and low income housing will help moderate the cost of housing in this neighborhood.

    The increased density will allow more businesses to thrive. Hillcrest has long been a destination for great shopping as many people drove from other zip codes to take advantage of the Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Hillcrest Farmers Market and the variety of local retail, eating and entertainment establishments. More neighbors in a walkable neighborhood will help all Hillcrest and Uptown businesses.

    Some longtime Uptown residents may want to maintain the suburban density. That level of density will not support the mass transit, public spaces, interesting businesses, public art, services and amenities that everyone wants.

    Every walking trip to a store takes one more car off the streets of Hillcrest and reduces the need for one more parking place. Increased density will make mass transit a more viable solution further reducing cars on the streets. Improved bike infrastructure will also help tie the east and west sides of Hillcrest together. This was a vision in the last CPU that had never fully been realized.

    It has been a long processes and I am happy the city council had the courage to move forward with a plan that will help this important neighborhood grow into the future. I am looking forward to the next vibrant phase of this over 100 year old neighborhood. Let’s go!

  4. Elizabeth Robinson says:

    The creation of a Gateway District in Hillcrest is a tool the community can use to get the things that the City has been unable to provide like park space and an improved walking experience. In exchange for providing these public benefits, developers will be incentivized by increased density that allow for smaller and more affordable units to be built; also a public benefit.

    As far as the Planning Group is concerned, they cannot disregard the City’s governing documents like the General Plan and Climate Action Plan and then cry victim when their recommendations are not adopted. Additionally, the Planning Group’s vote to downzone Uptown was not a unanimous one. That combined with differing recommendations from the City’s Code Monitoring Team, Technical Advisory Committee and Planning Commission, plus broad based support for a more progressive Plan from the business community, property owners, residents and environmental groups, the City Council’s vote could only go one way.

    The Plan that was adopted aims to serve the entire community instead of the established few. Well done!

  5. Sharon Gehl says:

    The new Uptown Community Plan is a compromise that keeps residential densities at the current level. It takes the middle ground between the Uptown Planners’ recommendation to reduce densities below what is now allowed, and the City of San Diego Planning Commission’s preference for higher densities that would both increase the supply of housing, and fight climate change, by allowing people to live close enough to jobs, public transportation, and stores to walk or bike.

    The Uptown Planners recommendation represented the view of the majority on the board who are against change in Uptown. It would have reduced the amount of housing that could have been built in the future, and driven up the cost to buy and rent for everyone; while at the same time hurting property owners financially by lowering the value of over $7,000,000,000 in property.

    The City of San Diego Planning Commission has to consider what is best for the City as a whole, not just what one board recommends. Before voting on the plan, they talked about the housing crises in San Diego. They noted that other communities had increased densities when they updated their community plans, rather than trying to keep people out.

    They also said that the newly adopted Climate Action Plan, which the Uptown Planners voted in favor of, calls for increasing the percentage of people who walk or bike to work. That means that we need to allow more people to live close enough to walk, bike, or take public transit.

    The compromise the Planning Commission voted to recommend to the City Council, won’t result in much new housing in the 20 years before the next Uptown Community Plan, or do much to fight climate change. The proof is that the current densities haven’t resulted in much new housing in the 28 years since the last community plan lowered densities in 1988. While planners might say that if everything that could possibly be built were built, we would have 22,000 new residents at build-out; build-out never happens in an existing urban community like Uptown. The reality is that not everything that can be built gets built, and what is built rarely is built as big as it could be.

    Since relatively few buildings were built in the last 28 years with the current land use densities, it isn’t logical to expect that many will be built in the next 20 years with the same densities. We have had only .4% annual growth in Uptown since the 1988 Community Plan. At this rate, (.4% x 20 years), we would expect only 8% growth in population in the next 20 years, or an increase of only 2,880 people over our current population of 36,000. That isn’t enough growth to accommodate our own millennial children.

    To build enough new housing for our children, and other people’s children, and fight climate change; we need to find ways to actually increase densities in the right places. The Gateway District is one of those places. It is close enough to walk to jobs in the medical complex, to stores and restaurants, and straddles 6 public bus routes. This project is big enough to include infrastructure improvements, a public park, and finally a new public parking garage for Hillcrest!

    Todd Gloria and most of the City Council voted to approve this compromise plan, because they considered it better for the future of the City of San Diego and Uptown, than lowering densities to keep our children out. For the sake of our children and their future, we should be thanking them!

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