By Ken Williams | Editor
Some members frustrated by ‘last second’ Community Plan update changes
Funny thing happened on the road to drafting the final version of the Uptown Community Plan update after more than six years of work: In December, the San Diego City Council approved the ambitious Climate Action Plan, which among other things encourages density along key transportation corridors to help decrease the area’s carbon footprint.
Immediately, city planners began making changes to the June 2015 public draft of the update to reflect the new CAP mandate to find solutions to reduce greenhouse gases. And those changes got their first public viewing on Feb. 2 in front of a standing-room-only audience at the Uptown Planners meeting at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest, causing the crowd to murmur among themselves.
The changes would encourage higher density along major transportation corridors in Uptown, which city planners have designated as Park Boulevard, Washington Street, University Avenue, and Fourth, Fifth and Sixth streets.The Uptown Community Plan — which guides development in Park West, Bankers Hill, Hillcrest, Mission Hills, Medical District, Middletown and the western half of University Heights — is being updated by the city for the first time since 1988. The updated plan will have a major impact on these neighborhoods for the next 25 years.
The revisions provoked emotional responses from some board members, including Roy Dahl, whose hands were shaking when he wasn’t pounding his fists on the portable table to emphasize his points.
“This is a terrible plan change,” Dahl said, calling it “last minute.” He noted the stakeholders have worked many years on the update and held numerous workshops and community meetings to hear from residents, calling that exhaustive effort to be largely in vain now that city planners switched gears since December.
“I feel like I’m in the twilight zone,” Dahl said, meaning that it was unclear to him what the current situation is.
A couple of other Uptown Planners board members repeated Dahl’s reference to the twilight zone.
Mat Wahlstrom said he wasn’t happy with the higher-density plans, and noted that a number of Hillcrest land owners and developers were in attendance. Some members of a new group calling itself the Uptown Gateway Council identified themselves during the meeting, including Sherm Harmer and Jake Schwartz, both representing the Pernicano family that owns valuable property along Sixth Avenue that has been a vacant eyesore for 30 years. Harmer has appeared before a number of community groups during the past six months, apparently trying to drum up interest in the land so the family can get their $12 million asking price.
“The Pernicanos want to sell — and at the highest price,” Wahlstrom said in a thunderous voice. “It’s Economics 101.” He implied that the Uptown Gateway Council was not interested in the community’s well-being or in complying with their wishes, just focused on building skyward to maximize their profits.
“What these people want is the farm and the sky and everything in between,” he said.
Fellow board member Tom Mullaney, known as an anti-growth activist who faithfully trots out his homemade props to illustrate his arguments against higher density, raised a few eyebrows when he stated that he supported transit-oriented development (TOD) as well as the Climate Action Plan (CAP). “What’s wrong is the degree” of higher density, he said. “It predicts a 55 percent increase in population” in the Uptown planning district.
The January update shows that Uptown’s household population would go from 36,750 currently to 55,700 at build-out. The number of housing units would go from 23,160 to 32,700 at build-out.
Board member Matthew Winter observed that the new figures show that planners are “barely changing density from the 1988 plan.”
Other board members liked what they saw in the latest draft.
Board secretary Michael Brennan, one of the voices of the millennial generation on the panel, said the revision was a “huge step to the goals of the Climate Action Plan” and that the update should match up with the CAP goals. He said half of the residents of Uptown should live along the transit corridors in new developments created to encourage people not to rely on their cars but to walk, bike or use public transportation. “We need to put more money into transportation,” he said.
Brennan noted that a trolley line would eventually extend from Downtown along Park Boulevard to El Cajon Boulevard and eastward to San Diego State University. He praised city planners for offering a balanced plan with priorities on TOD.
“Height is a really big discussion,” Brennan said. Many Hillcrest residents are adamant about keeping the 60-foot height restriction on buildings, which is impractical for development along transit routes. “Height should be where density is; the east side of Hillcrest, for example, along Park Boulevard,” he said.
Board member Chris Ward agreed that planners should put higher-density development where it needs to go: near transit corridors.
Kyle Heiskala, another millennial on the board, reminded everyone that the Uptown Planners endorsed the CAP and that the update should reflect that.
Board chair J. Demetrois Mellos III, who rarely shares his opinion and routinely abstains from voting, opened up at the meeting and expressed his concerns about traffic. “I don’t want San Diego to become L.A.,” he said. “Keep density low until staff finds a solution to the traffic situation.”
Before the board weighed in with their comments, audience members were allowed to speak about the Land-Use Element of the Uptown Community Plan update. The audience appeared to be divided between those who were against growth and those who were for increased density.
Steven Russell of the San Diego Housing Authority urged planners to support density to bring affordable housing to an area of the city where only luxury apartments and condominiums are currently being built.
Leo Wilson of Bankers Hill said he didn’t want Uptown to become University City South and urged the planners to look at other high-tech cities for inspiration.
Architect Ricardo Rabines made a passionate plea for redevelopment projects that encourage walkability and sustainability.
Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of the 1,200-member Hillcrest Business Association, said his members want the area to become the next Little Italy, a walkable neighborhood with great restaurants and shops. “The HBA is supportive of plans to raise the height limit,” he said.
Tami Daiber, chief operations officer at Carleton Management and president of the HBA, said higher density is needed to bring housing and more people, who would support local businesses.
But Ann Garwood and Nancy Moors, the Bankers Hill couple who founded the HillQuest urban guide, argued that increasing the density and raising the height limit would change the neighborhood for the worse.
“Our neighborhood is being attacked by outsiders,” Moors said, citing the Gateway group by name. “They want 18- to 20-story buildings on Sixth Avenue from Robinson to Pennsylvania.” She cited all the “mom and pop” businesses and restaurants that would be displaced by such a massive project.
Kathleen Ferrier, with Circulate San Diego, encouraged higher density along Park Boulevard to match up with what has been tentatively approved by the North Park Planning Group. The west side of Park Boulevard is governed by Uptown Planners, while the east side is within the jurisdiction of North Park planners. Ferrier touted the success of the La Boheme housing complex in “downtown” North Park as an example of how higher density development boosts the local businesses.
The meeting was adjourned after 3 hours and 38 minutes, and planners never did discuss the Urban Design Element of the update.
Uptown Planners have called a special meeting at 6 p.m. Feb. 16 at Balboa Park Club, located at 2144 Pan American Road West, to potentially discuss the Urban Design Element, proposed zoning changes, and the draft Environmental Impact Report.
—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and Mission Valley News and can be reached at email@example.com or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at KenSanDiego, Instagram account at KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.