New update: density, building heights and historical districts

Posted: April 8th, 2016 | Featured, News | No Comments

By Ken Williams | Editor

City planners briefed local residents on the March 2016 version of the Uptown Community Plan update, with Planning Director Jeff Murphy assuring everyone that “90 percent of growth will be in commercial zones.”

Density has become a four-letter word to some local residents, particularly in Mission Hills and Hillcrest, who fear their neighborhoods will turn into clones of Bankers Hill and Downtown. Other residents, as well as some influential property owners and developers, advocate for density along transit corridors as a way of providing affordable housing.

The City Council’s December approval of the groundbreaking Climate Action Plan also impacts the update process, putting planners between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, they must enact the goals of building density projects along public transit routes outlined in the Climate Action Plan as well as appease the concerns of residents.

The update of the Uptown Community Plan — which began in 2009 to amend the 1988 plan — will guide development for the next 20 years in Bankers Hill, Park West, Hillcrest, the Medical District, Middletown, Five Points, Mission Hills and the portion of University Heights west of Park Boulevard.

The public workshop on March 24 in Casa Del Prado’s Majorca Room in Balboa Park was limited to four topics:

  1. Conversion of Planned District Ordinances (PDOs) to citywide zoning.
  1. Citywide zone amendments to adopt urban design-related development standards.
  1. Community Plan Implementation Overlay Zone (CPIOZ) for building height.
  1. Proposed potential Historic District Overlay Zone (HDOZ).

The first two topics didn’t generate a lot of conversation among workshop participants.

Senior city planner Marlon Pangilinan said the conversion of the PDOs to citywide zoning is based on the Mid-City PDO of 1988, which has essentially become the standard for much of the city.

Pangilinan said a staff review of the June 2015 update draft — the version preferred by the Uptown Planners advisory group — included a CPIOZ and covered single family, multi-family and mixed use. Further analysis determined the most proposed CPIOZ regulations were already covered in citywide zoning.

In the March 2016 version of the update, the CPIOZ was included only to address building height in higher-density commercial and residential corridors.

City planners again showed a slide of the proposed land-use map, which is different from the one that the Uptown Planners supports. Because of San Diego’s embrace of the Climate Action Plan and its 2004 adoption of the City of Villages concept to encourage urban micro-clusters of mixed-use development near transit and commercial hubs, planners want to reduce carbon emissions by creating neighborhoods that encourage residents to walk, bicycle or use public transportation instead of cars.

What this means for Uptown is that density will be encouraged along transit corridors, defined as Park Boulevard, Washington Street, University Avenue, and Fourth, Fifth and Sixth streets.

Ben Nicholls, executive director of the 1,200-member Hillcrest Business Association, hailed the proposed changed.

“The HBA supports this plan and the changes related to height and density,” Nicholls said. “These are more to the liking of the business community and matches well with the Climate Action Plan.”

Any discussion on building heights always generates debate, and this workshop lived up to the billing.

The latest update version allows 150-feet-tall buildings in Bankers Hill and Park West, south of Upas Street. This is in keeping with existing heights.

Uptown Planners — who set a temporary moratorium on 60-feet-tall height limits in western side of Hillcrest that will expire with the City Council’s approval of the new update (likely in January 2017) — has conceded that density should be focused on the eastern side of Hillcrest, mostly on or near Park Boulevard, making it coordinate with the density proposed by the North Park Planning Committee along the east side of boulevard.

SANDAG, meanwhile, has plans to build a trolley line from Downtown, along Park Boulevard and El Cajon Boulevard, all the way out to San Diego State University. This dovetails with the city’s goals to allow density along such high-profile transit routes.

The new proposed update calls for 120-feet-tall buildings in central Hillcrest and 100-feet-tall buildings along University Avenue between state Route 163 and Park Boulevard. These would be considered Type B developments and would require a more strenuous discretionary public review.

Type A developments would require only ministerial reviews and puts 50-feet limits in Mission Hills and 65-feet limits in other parts of Hillcrest and Bankers Hill.

Award-winning architect Jonathan Segal, also a developer who most recently built the Mr. Robinson Building at Park Boulevard and Robinson Avenue, told city planners that he was disappointed that “the professionals weren’t involved” in the update process. He drew applause from the audience with his passionate point that the people who design buildings were never brought into the process as one of the key stakeholders in the plan.

Segal scoffed that density equaled more traffic and blamed that perception on a lack of vision. “We’re on the cusp of self-driving cars,” he said. “We already have a generation using Uber. This will change traffic demands.”

The millennial generation is totally against commuting to work or play, Segal and others have pointed out.

Several developers criticized the urban design elements that require specific setbacks on taller buildings, which create a step-back every number of floors as a way to allow sunshine to reach smaller buildings.

Jacob Schwartz, president of Urban Coastal Development, said the economics don’t always work for developers under these plans and gave a long list of examples how they limit design and other esthetics.

The discussion on a possible historic district interim protection raised a few eyebrows, since city planners said there wasn’t money in the coffers to pay for expensive reviews of potentially historical properties. A superficial review by planners identified a number of potential sites that could be included in overlay zone, including Allen Terrace and Avalon Heights. Kelley Stanco, a senior planner who works on historic issues, said buildings built 45 years ago or more would be subjected to review by city officials.

Some worried that the interim designation had no expiration date. Stanco said only the City Council could remove a property from that category, which seems to satisfy those concerned about historical preservation.

“I think it is a step in the right direction,” said Howard Blackson, a member of the North Park Planning Committee who attended the workshop.

—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.

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