Editorial: HBA: Yes to National Main Street Program, no to historic district

Posted: November 6th, 2015 | Opinion, Opinion & News | 4 Comments

By Benjamin Nicholls

The comment period for the draft Uptown, North Park and Golden Hill Community Plans is drawing to a close. There’s still a small window for the public to weigh in before these new plans head into the Planning Commission and City Council for ratification.

Community plans are city documents that guide new development in their respective neighborhoods for the next 20 to 30 years. These plans set the neighborhood intentions for new buildings, zoning, parks and many other things. There are many neighborhood plans that have stalled for years, so it’s great that these are now moving forward. 

As the executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association, my concern is for the business community of Hillcrest, which is a part of Uptown Community Plan. For the most part, the Uptown Community Plan provides an excellent framework that addresses the many issues in the Uptown community, including housing, parking, transportation, open spaces and design.

The city Planning Department has also included within the framework a proposal to create a historic district similar to the Gaslamp district, which encompasses the entire heart and business district of Hillcrest. This proposed district would put any new development in the heart of downtown Hillcrest in peril by creating a special review process outside of the typical development review process. This could greatly impact the cost of any new development. While there may be buildings in the core of the Hillcrest business district that might have historic value, to make a determination without any prior review that all buildings in this area have historic value is a bit of a stretch.

It has been demonstrated that creating protective districts in the core of Hillcrest stagnates growth. Hillcrest currently has a mandatory 65-feet height ordinance that was supposed to be temporary but has now been in effect for almost 10 years. As a result, we’ve seen very few new developments in the neighborhood. Under this new historic district proposal, the former Pernicano’s restaurant (which has been in the news lately for the seller’s great ideas to develop a boutique hotel) would be locked up in the development review process for an indefinite period of time. This creates a financial risk to the developer that may have a devastating effect on the development of this blighted property.

As I speak with business community leaders, I am reminded that this would be the third time a developer has proposed a boutique hotel in Hillcrest and the third time these kind of restrictions contributed to halting it. Hillcrest can no longer afford to let these great and necessary improvements slip through our fingers. A historic district in the heart of Hillcrest will create negative unintended consequences.

With the assistance and input of many members of the Hillcrest business community, HBA examined the proposed Uptown Community Plan and made a suggestion that would support our small-business community while preserving the actual historic buildings in Hillcrest. We are calling for the creation of a National Main Street Program (NMSP) in Hillcrest.

The NMSP is a nationally recognized economic development and historic preservation tool that has been widely successful in other areas of the state and locally as well. The National Main Street Program views historic buildings as an asset to a business district and recruits businesses that benefit from being in characterful historic spaces. Coronado, North Park and Ocean Beach all have successful (and in some cases award-winning) Main Street programs.

The Planning Department and City Council know that we need a plan for Uptown that encourages new smart growth and supports the business community. Let’s make sure that the new plan for Hillcrest includes the right tools for the job such as the creation of a Main Street Program in favor of a historic district.

—Benjamin Nicholls is the executive director of Hillcrest Business Association.


  1. Nancy Moors says:

    Last week I attended the special meeting convened by the Uptown Planners to discuss the update of the Uptown Community Plan.

    The executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association was the first to speak about the Historic District proposed for Hillcrest. Unfortunately, he made his comments and immediately left the meeting unable (or unwilling) to listen to others who were there to comment.

    His remarks reminded me of his recent opinion piece in Uptown News.

    Ben says…“This proposed district would put any new development in the heart of downtown Hillcrest in peril by creating a special review process.”

    In reality…Historic Districts provide more certainty to both residents and developers about the historic value of properties.

    In a Historic District, property has already been separated into “contributing” and “non-contributing” categories. The contributing properties must follow preservation guidelines. The non-contributing properties have very few restrictions.

    Historic Districts are good for the owners, for developers, and for the community!

  2. Gregory May says:

    NO to historic districts for Hillcrest or any other neighborhoods shows that your loyalty is NOT to our beloved local communities, and their rich and diverse history. It shows your lack of roots in San Diego, and your love for business and money. It also shows a deep lack of imagination and creativity in working with existing styles of historic & unique architectures. There are so many possibilities working with the old buildings! Working with the preserved and protected buildings is not a problem when you have talented architects that have no problem with the design challenges. BUT, you have made up your mind to trash them with no consideration, driven by “business”—a world where 100 year old houses are demolished for paid parking lots. THAT is your vision?! It’s cold & soulless. Historic buildings give our communities spirit and a sense of identity. And obviously as your editorial highlights, Historic districts are VERY necessary because they protect them from people in the community that want to strip it all a way for a buck. Now more than ever these Historic Districts are VERY needed. Thank you for point this out.

  3. bill says:

    Could not disagree with you more. All sorts of historic districts flourish with imagination and innovation. Take a look at the Gaslamp, have they been stifled in bringing in boutique hotels and successful businesses? No. Not protecting the past and only being interested in business interests is hollow and shortsighted. Does anyone really travel to the new cookie cutter developments to walk among the buildings and admire the views and the community, hardly. People travel to see the historic sights and soak up the ambiance of the community. Please stop lobbying the those with deep pockets.

  4. […] Ben says: “This proposed district would put any new development in the heart of downtown Hillcrest in peril by creating a special review process.” […]

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