Turning back time

Posted: February 26th, 2016 | Communities, Feature, From the Cover, News, Top Story | 3 Comments

By Ken Williams | Editor

Uptown Planners reject January revisions to community plan update, support old version

The Uptown Planners have gone “back to the future” by turning down the January revisions to the Uptown Community Plan update and directing city planners to return to the June 2015 version.

The volunteer group voted 11-2, with one abstention, on Feb. 16 to reject the latest revisions to the Land Use Element, which encouraged higher density along Uptown’s major transit corridors: Park Boulevard, Washington Street, University Avenue, and Fourth, Fifth and Sixth avenues. Six bus lines provide service to those areas.

Uptown Planners did however, urge city planners to focus plans for higher density only along Park Boulevard, where SANDAG’s long-range plans call for a trolley to eventually replace the 215 Rapid Bus that runs from Downtown along Park Boulevard to El Cajon Boulevard and eastward to San Diego State University.


Almost 100 people attended the Feb. 16 meeting of Uptown Planners in the Santa Fe Room at Balboa Park Club. (Photo by Ken Williams)

Roy Dahl, a member of the Uptown Planners, reminded the large crowd gathered in the spacious Santa Fe Room at the Balboa Park Club that the North Park Planning Group had already approved increased density along the east side of Park Boulevard, which is in North Park. He suggested that Uptown Planners might as well go along with density along that major transit corridor. That area already has several residential towers, most near the intersection with University Avenue, along with high-density buildings such as The Egyptian.

Uptown Planners member Chris Ward — who is running for City Council District 3 to represent many of the Uptown and Downtown communities — said the update process over the past six years is finally close to being finished. Although he said he was disappointed with the January revisions, Ward was one of the two votes in opposition to the motion to return to the June 2015 version. Vice chair Thomas Fox cast the other “no” vote, while chair J. Demetrois Mellos III abstained, which he typically does.

Marlon Pangilinan, the city planner assigned to update the Uptown Community Plan, started the special meeting by repeating his PowerPoint presentation showing how the January revisions would impact individual communities within Uptown. For the most part, the audience remained silent as he showed slides involving Mission Hills, Middletown, Park West, Bankers Hill, the Medical District and University Heights. But when he got to the slides showing the impact on Hillcrest, particularly along Fourth, Fifth and Sixth avenues, the crowd got vocal and someone yelled out “Bullshit!” Pangilinan acknowledged the concerns of those audience members, but asked them to adhere to a civil dialogue.

During the public comments, audience members were divided among residents who oppose the changes and those who support the city’s goals. San Diego had endorsed the “city of villages” concept of development, creating neighborhoods where residents can live, work, play, walk or take public transportation, without having to solely depend upon using a car. And in December, the City Council approved the Climate Action Plan (CAP) to reduce San Diego’s carbon footprint in the immediate future.

A handful of community leaders and activists — including Barry A. Hager of Mission Hills Heritage, Luke Terpstra of Hillcrest Town Council, and Bankers Hill couple Nancy Moors and Ann Garwood of — spoke against plans to allow more density in the core of Hillcrest.

Garwood accused a new group called The Uptown Gateway Council, which calls itself “the association of commercial property owners in Hillcrest,” of pushing for 200-feet height limits in an area bounded by Washington Street to the north, Pennsylvania Avenue to the south, Seventh Avenue to the east and Fourth Avenue to the west. Indeed, the Gateway group sent a document dated Dec. 1, 2015 to city planner Pangilinan that said, in part, “Allow projects that ‘significantly’ improve and enhance the public realm to achieve densities of one unit per 200 square feet and heights over 200 feet.”

Back in 2014, Uptown Planners instituted a temporary 50-foot height limit for Hillcrest. Buildings west of state Route 163 can go up to 65 feet, however, but this requires a discretionary review by the Uptown Planners and city staff, plus public input. Buildings east of the 163 to the west side of Park Boulevard can go up to 100 feet, but require a “super discretionary” review by stakeholders.

For years, height limits and density have been sore subjects for many Hillcrest residents, but frustrating to owners of property ripe for redevelopment. These include representatives of The Uptown Gateway Council, who also attended the special meeting. They included Sherman Harmer, who represents the Pernicano family and the Pernicano’s Restaurant property that has been vacant for 30 years and is an eyesore along Sixth Avenue just south of University Avenue.

Harmer told Uptown Planners to “look down the road to the future” while they are working on the update. He said the community needed to have a vision about the next 25 years and a “can-do spirit.” He said the Sixth and Fifth avenue corridors should be a “statement” property to create a “sense of arrival” when drivers exit state Route 163 onto Sixth Avenue. “It’s an important gateway to Hillcrest,” Harmer said.

Like several other speakers, Harmer said he envisions the core of Hillcrest becoming the next Little Italy neighborhood in San Diego. Others rejected that idea.

Susan Fosselman, a resident of University Heights, said she didn’t believe the Little Italy format would work for Hillcrest. She was concerned that greater density would only bring more luxury condominiums like in Bankers Hill, not affordable housing that is so badly needed.

“How can people pooh-pooh Little Italy? It’s a vibrant community,” architect Ian Epley said.

An attorney from Mission Hills, whose name was unclear, said he has lived in big cities around the world and came back to settle in the Uptown area because he didn’t want to live in the suburbs.

“I cannot afford to live Downtown,” he said.

He warned planners that regardless of their decision, the 20,000 people forecasted to move to the Uptown area by the time of build-out would be coming, no matter what.

Morgan Gelman, who owns the prominent building on the southwest corner of University and Sixth avenues that once housed City Deli, told the Uptown Planners that they should be looking for “synergy” to revive Hillcrest’s core. He called for a balanced plan that “preserves the residential flavor” but “prepares for the future.”

“Make the entire Uptown a vibrant community,” Gelman said. “Density is not a dirty word.”

Another Mission Hills resident, whose name was difficult to hear in the large hall which exists below the airport’s landing pattern, said he supports more density because it’s smart growth.

“We have an opportunity to bring life to the streets,” he said. “It will bring a greater sense of community to the area.”

Marcela Escobar-Eck, a former planner who is now with Atlantis Group Land Use Consultants, spoke in favor of density. She also authored the letter on behalf of The Uptown Gateway Council that was sent to Pangilinan. She pointed out that greater density was allowed in the 1988 Uptown Community Plan, which is being updated and targeted to be completed by year’s end.

Escobar-Eck agreed with several millennial residents who said that the younger generation is different from their elders: They want to live in urban areas and prefer alternative modes of transportation.

“The younger generation is not big on cars,” she said, pointing to the popularity of car-sharing and bicycling.

The former planner said, “density doesn’t have to come with height,” a point emphasized by several other speakers.

Michael Brennan, one of the voices of the millennial generation on Uptown Planners, said that “density should follow transit.” He said he supported the city’s CAP but also favored the June 2015 documents.

Gary Bonner, another member, pointed out that the Uptown Planners were quibbling over “an increase of 510 units and 810 people,” based on his math.

“The devil’s in the details,” he said. “We are back to square one.”

Figures provided by city planners spell out minor differences. The January update shows that at build-out, Uptown’s population would go from 36,750 to 55,700, and the number of housing units would go from 23,160 to 32,700.

The June 2015 update shows that at build-out, there would be 55,430 residents and 32,540 housing units.

The existing projections, using the 1988 Community Plan that is still in place, project that at build-out Uptown would have 58,870 residents and 34,600 housing units.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to understand that either update is calling for less, not more.

To read the June 2015 update draft, visit

In related news, the annual elections for the Uptown Planners will begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, at Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest.

Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and Mission Valley News and can be reached at or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at KenSanDiego, Instagram account at KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.


  1. Andrew Towne says:

    I find it interesting that Hillcrest is now supposed to take advice from representatives of Pernicano’s on how to be “vibrant.”

    Wasn’t Pernicano’s abandoned and allowed to become a decrepit eyesore in central Hillcrest for 30 years?

    Hillcrest won an award a few years ago as one of the ten best neighborhoods in the United States. It was praised for its ideal blend of density, walkability, amenities, sustainability, green space, transit, etc.

    It is not Hillcrest that needs to change, it is other parts of San Diego that need to change and become more like Hillcrest.

    But guess where most of the density and population increase for Uptown is going to be dumped if planners have their way?

    That’s right. Hillcrest.

    Bankers Hill has already been approved for numerous high rises that haven’t been built yet (I know because I was on Uptown Planners when they were approved.) Other parts of Uptown like Mission Hills are not going to see much of a density increase.

    High rise housing is not affordable housing. Just look at Manhattan and Hong Kong.

    Those concerned about climate change should concentrate on the sprawling suburbs of San Diego, not Hillcrest.

    Enough of these red herrings. Greed and gentrification are not “smart growth.”

  2. Sharon Gehl says:

    This isn’t about raising densities, the City is proposing lowering densities to keep millennials from moving to Uptown. As Mr. Williams pointed out, both the June 2015 and January 2016 proposed Land Use maps would reduce the number of housing units that the City would allow to be built in Hillcrest and other areas of Uptown in the future.
    Why would the City want keep people from living within walking distance of jobs, stores and bus stops? Because the anti-growth groups got control of the Uptown Planners.
    What’s the solution? Vote for pro-growth candidates at the March 1st Uptown Planners election this Tuesday. Voting is from 6 to 6:30 pm at the Joyce Beers Community Center, Hub Shopping Center (Located at 3900 Vermont Street between the Aladdin Restaurant and Panera Bread)

  3. […] densities and building heights in west Hillcrest. For more background, please see this Uptown News summary of the meeting. As part of their excellent coverage of this issue, they also published a piece written by a […]

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