By Ken Williams | Editor
From the first time humans congregated together, community members have consistently squabbled over whether to embrace growth or to resist it. It’s a hot button issue that has come to Mission Hills, as city planners put the finishing touches on the update to the Uptown Community Plan.
The Mission Hills Town Council, led by president Mike Zdon, devoted most of its Nov. 10 meeting at the Francis Parker School Auditorium to how the update proposal would affect the neighborhood. Of particular interest to residents are key changes to the city’s historic preservation policy, as well as density bonuses and height restrictions.
City planner Marlon Pangilinan — who is in charge, as he put it, of a “plan update cluster” involving the Uptown, Greater North Park and Greater Golden Hill community plans — presented an edited version of the Uptown update tailored specifically to Mission Hills. A community plan is a crucial policy guideline for local growth and development over the next 25 years, and Uptown’s plan hasn’t been updated since 1988.
Pangilinan gave a nearly half-hour presentation that was followed by a lively, but civilized, debate about the issues concerning residents.
Sharon Gehl, a member of the Mission Hills Town Council’s board of trustees, summed it up succinctly. “It boils down to growth vs. no growth,” she said during the question-and-answer session.
Gehl opined that the “no growth people” got their way in the update plan, which proposes lower density throughout the community, including in residential areas as well as commercial hubs along Washington and India streets.
Well-known for her unwavering support for density bonuses that encourage developers to build community amenities in exchange for being allowed to add more units per acre, Gehl argued that Mission Hills risks becoming unaffordable to young people who want to live there and support local restaurants and businesses. She also said the plan should not discriminate against people who live in multi-family housing units, slamming the proposal to convert some areas zoned for multi-family residential to single-family residential.
“This is Mission Hills, things keep getting better. The new restaurants, new condos, street landscaping, and the multimillion-dollar single family homes just make it more wonderful,” Gehl said in an email sent ahead of the meeting. “There is no reason to turn back the clock. The city’s proposals to restrict growth would be bad for property values, and bad for the environment.”
But Tom Mullaney, a member of the Uptown Planners, bashed bonus densities as bad for the community in which he lives. Mullaney has given the same speech to various community groups, including the North Park Planning Group and the Hillcrest Town Council. He repeated his story about the Atlas medium-rise building in Hillcrest, stating that the developer took advantage of the bonus density plan by adding a small public space with a fountain. His punch line, which usually gets a few chuckles, is that all the “public amenities” are now removed, “including the dog water bowl.”
Stuart White, with the Mission Hills Business Improvement District, said he supported the density bonuses and was unconcerned about parking. “We want to bring in the pedestrians and the bicyclists,” he said.
Barry Hager, chairman of the board of Mission Hills Heritage, said his preservation group has provided 20 pages of comments about the proposed update. “Our primary concern is preserving the community character,” he said.
Hager acknowledged that “there will be additional density, but the question is where to put it.” He said his group largely supports the update plan, but had some concerns about the incentive zoning based on public amenities. He said Mission Hills Heritage was willing to accept the 50-foot height limit in the commercial district along Washington Street.
Some residents made passionate pleas to focus more on good urban design that would fit into the Mission Hills image. One man said he was not concerned so much about density but about mobility. He pointed to the utility boxes on the sidewalks outside of Vons and wondered who in their right mind would want them there. A young man who identified himself as a designer said he wanted Mission Hills to be a walkable community, like cities in Europe that provide amenities to pedestrians, thereby encouraging more people to walk. He applauded the “Lewis Street village” area, as an example of where Mission Hills is getting it done right.
Bill Anderson urged planners to pay attention to “the quality of urban design.” He said the 50-foot height limit in the commercial district bothered him because it could create a wall of buildings that are all the same height, thus creating a boring visual.
Some residents had questions about the proposal’s plan to possibly add seven more historic districts in Mission Hills as well as expand the one that already exists. Deborah Petra said she googled “historic districts” and learned that cities across the U.S. that embraced such designations saw property values increase at a higher rate than non-designated neighborhoods.
Gehl was one of the few speakers who opposed adding more historic districts, saying that they restrict redevelopment of neighborhoods.
Pangilinan, the city planner, said there is no timeline for exploring the historic district options because the money needed to do the research is not in the current city budget.
The public comment period on the Uptown Community Plan update ends on Dec. 1, and the Uptown Planners have until Dec. 16 to add their last words of wisdom. The final draft is expected to be released in January.
To read the proposed update to the Uptown Community Plan, visit bit.ly/20MQlfC.
—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and Mission Valley 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.