By Ken Williams | Editor
Community groups give thumbs down to city’s land-use draft
Uptown Planners and various community groups have spoken in unison: No “density bonus” in the proposed Uptown Community Plan update. But will city planners listen?
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.
A discussion about “incentive zoning” and “density bonus” drew heated comments at a special meeting of the Uptown Planners advisory group on July 21 in the Great Room at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Bankers Hill.
Senior city planner Marlon Pangilinan gave a presentation on the draft of the land-use element of the plan, and a majority of both the audience and the Uptown Planners gave him an earful of comments critical of the proposed “incentive zoning” that would allow taller buildings and increased density in some areas, including Bankers Hill and eastern Hillcrest, in exchange for public amenities such as plazas and parks.
In 2004, city planners embraced the City of Villages concept to encourage urban micro-clusters of mixed-use development near transit and commercial hubs. The goal is to reduce the environmental effects of development by creating neighborhoods that encourage residents to walk, bicycle or use public transportation instead of cars.
A few years ago, the Hillcrest Business Association — an influential group that represents the business community in Hillcrest — conducted a series of meetings that fostered a dialogue about what Hillcrest should look like in the future. Ben Nicholls, executive director of the HBA, explains that group’s position:
“I can say a couple of things. First, though the HBA hasn’t taken a formal position on the plan update, people I talk to in the business community are very supportive of the proposed ‘density bonus’ system in the plan. Like many neighborhood folks, many business people won’t come to a community meeting, but their opinion is just as important,” he said.
“The ‘density bonus’ system is something that the HBA asked for as part of its recommendations for the plan. The community dialogue we held back in 2011-12, ‘Hillcrest 2.0,’ specifically requested this kind of innovative and reasonable incentive program. Many things that came out of the Hillcrest 2.0 effort have been included in the plan and we’re excited about that. We will advocate to have those things preserved in the plan,” Nicholls said.
The HBA was not represented at the July 21 special meeting, nor did any other business group attend.
Bankers Hill resident James Frost, an architect and planner who attended the meeting, pointed out “significant deficits in infrastructure and in almost every public service” that cannot support higher density in Uptown. “These problems should be fixed before we consider higher density,” he said.
Rick Wilson of Hillcrest worried about losing historical structures in his community and said development “should be kept in scale with the community.”
Ian Epley, an architect from Hillcrest, was one of a handful of people at the meeting who supported the “density bonus” proposal. He also opposed creating historical districts, saying there is “nothing worth saving or promoting.” He applauded plans to create a higher density area in Hillcrest from east of state Route 163 to Park Boulevard. Epley has made similar arguments at community planning meetings across the city, according to various news reports.
Sharon Gale of Mission Hills, mentioning that climate change is a reality, expressed support for “sustainable development to put people where they work and play.”
Members of the Uptown Planners largely echoed the concerns of the audience, although members Michael Brennan and Dana Hook generally supported the land-use draft. Brennan is secretary of the advisory group and a landscape architect, and Hook has a degree in civil engineering and is considered an expert in urban-mobility solutions.
Brennan said he supports “density bonus” as a solution to affordable housing and said he represented a different demographic than many folks in the audience: younger people who want to live, work and play in urban communities instead of the suburbs.
Hook said the “density bonus” should be an option for planners to offer incentives to developers so they will build parks and infrastructure, which are sorely lacking in Uptown and wanted by the residents.
“We have to be able to move people in our own community … not be a drive-through for people cutting through our neighborhoods,” she said.
But most of the Uptown Planners members opposed higher density, including Mat Wahlstrom of Hillcrest, owner of Roberts Electric Services. He worried that the land-use draft only proposed a small historical district for Hillcrest, roughly from First Avenue and Washington Street down to Robinson Avenue. He also criticized the higher density proposed for east Hillcrest.
“My fear is that everything east of the 163 is bulldoze-able,” Wahlstrom said. “Adding 19,000 people [in the next 25 years] is insane!”
Chris Ward, a member of Uptown Planners who is also running for the District 3 seat on City Council, appeared torn by the complex issues.
“I have a big problem with the demographics,” he said. “Going from 36,000 to 56,000 people in the future, while only adding 3,000 units, doesn’t make sense to me. Where are those 20,000 people going to live? We are not accounting for where people are going to live.”
Ward is right. The numbers don’t add up. The draft seems to suggest that 20,000 people would fit into 3,000 units, but that would mean 6.7 people per unit.
Bob Daniel’s motion to not support the “density bonus” passed 9-3, with chair J. Demetrios Mellos III abstaining. Thus the Uptown Planners join the Hillcrest Town Council, Bankers Hill Community Group, Western Slopes Community Association, Mission Hills Heritage, Metro CDC and the Five Points Business Association in opposing increased density.
Tom Mullaney, who as head of the Friends of San Diego organization has spoken against the “density bonus” at various community groups in recent months, repeated his opposition at the meeting as a member of the Uptown Planners. His motion passed unanimously, with Mellos abstaining, to request city planners to calculate a build-out population without the “density bonus” and notify the community of the results.
Uptown News asked follow-up questions by email to chair Mellos and members Hook and Wahlstrom. Mellos forwarded the questions to city planner Pangilinan, who had already been queried. Hook said that she was not a paid elected official, and didn’t think she was in a position to answer questions.
Wahlstrom promptly responded to Uptown News with his thoughts about whether he believed the city planners would respect the wishes of the Uptown Planners and other community groups to eliminate the “density bonus.”
“Difficult to say,” Wahlstrom replied. “I would like to believe that the clear rejection of any ‘density bonuses’ would be honored, but you can’t always count on the city to do the right thing.”
Pangilinan did not reply to questions posed by Uptown News about whether city planners would adjust their update draft to reflect the concerns of community groups.
—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.