Expendable gems?

by Katherine Hon | PastMatters

University Heights residences could be at risk in North Park Community Plan update

The community plans for many areas of San Diego, including Greater North Park, are being updated. At a recent meeting, the city project manager for the North Park Community Plan update cheerfully assured North Park Historical Society representatives that in 20 years, we won’t recognize North Park.

If the current version of the update is fully implemented, she will be right. But to those who treasure the historic soul of Greater North Park, that thought is horrifying. So before we rush headlong in pursuit of all that is shiny, new, dense and high, let’s take a walk and look at what the city has earmarked for replacement by higher density development in the March 2016 version of the update. This column focuses on University Heights.

The historic subdivision of University Heights was mapped in 1888 and extends from the current location of state Route 163 to Boundary Street between University Avenue and the slopes above Mission Valley. The eastern half of this large subdivision from Park Boulevard to Interstate 805 is included in the city’s Greater North Park Community Planning Area. Some of the oldest homes in Greater North Park are in University Heights, including two Victorian cottages built circa 1905 on Howard Avenue east of Georgia Street, and 10 Victorian/transitional/early Craftsman homes built before 1912 on Florida Street north of Polk Avenue.

This Craftsman home on Polk Avenue is in the pedestrian-oriented “enhancement program” area that would allow up to 73 dwellings-per-unit development. (Courtesy of North Park Historical Society)

This Craftsman home on Polk Avenue is in the pedestrian-oriented “enhancement program” area that would allow up to 73 dwellings-per-unit development.
(Courtesy of North Park Historical Society)

Like the neighborhoods south of University Avenue, most original homes in University Heights were built before 1940, and many are approaching or have passed their 90th birthday. Nearly all residences between Lincoln and Howard avenues from Florida Street east to I-805 could be profoundly affected by the city’s proposed “Pedestrian-Oriented Infill Development Enhancement Program” (formerly called a “density bonus” area) in the update. The zoning in this part of University Heights is being rezoned to residential-medium high, or up to 44 dwelling units per acre (du/ac) from the current density of 35 du/ac. But worse yet, the “enhancement program” would allow developers to propose up to 73 du/ac.

The two-story, 28-unit complex at 4420 Cleveland Ave. exemplifies a 44 du/ac development. In contrast, the six-story, 37-unit DECA complex at 3740 Park Blvd. exemplifies a 73 du/ac development. Such a development placed in the small-scale residential heart of University Heights would overwhelm the existing residences, even the much-maligned but typically only two-story Huffman-type apartment buildings. The “enhancement program” in this area would allow for such intense development that “ensuring compatibility with the traditional character buildings,” which is part of the Vision in Section 4 of the update, would not be possible.

The “enhancement program” is not the only way the update would put the integrity of historic neighborhoods at risk. Much of University Heights from University Avenue north to Adams Avenue and from Park Boulevard east to Boundary Street has been mapped by the city as “Multi-Character,” which is described in Section 4 of the update as where “North Park’s original character is no longer dominant” and where the neighborhoods “have experienced diverse changes in building scale, style, form and materials that are in contrast with the community’s neighborhood origins.” The subtle message here is that there is not much to lose by replacing existing residences with dense multi-family buildings.

It may be easy to color whole blocks on a map as having lost their original character, but an on-the-ground survey reveals a different story. A group of concerned University Heights residents conducted a detailed walking survey of the “enhancement program” area from Lincoln Avenue to Howard Avenue between Florida and Texas streets. Among their findings: both Lincoln Avenue and Polk Avenue from Park Boulevard to Texas Street retain 100 percent of their traditional architectural character, and Howard Avenue from Park Boulevard to Texas Street retains 95 percent of its traditional architectural character. Florida Street in this area, with 23 apartment buildings infiltrating after 1960, still has 37 pre-1960 single family homes and four pre-1960 multi-family units, retaining a 64 percent traditional architectural character. So how accurate is the “Multi-Character” label? Are post-1960 units really “dominant”?

Park Boulevard between El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue has been designated as a “Transit-Oriented Development Enhancement Program Area,” which would allow up to 145 du/ac proposals; however, even this major street has unique historic resources. These include Grace Lutheran Church, four bungalow courts built in the 1920s between Lincoln and Polk avenues, the Sprouts Farmers Market building near Howard Avenue, the yoga/Pilates building at 4201 Park Blvd., and the centerpiece of the shopping center at Park and El Cajon boulevards, which was once a Piggly Wiggly grocery store.

In analyzing the impacts of the update, it is possible to conclude that the proposed zoning is not much different from zoning in the existing community plan in a “plan-to-plan” comparison, since relatively high densities are already allowed. But a walk through the neighborhood to conduct a “ground-to-plan” comparison reveals that a shocking number of unique historic structures could be lost by development encouraged inside and outside of the transit corridors in the update.

While encouraging high-density development in the transit corridors of El Cajon Boulevard and Park Boulevard makes sense, targeting generally intact and human-scale residential neighborhoods for dense infill through the “Pedestrian-Oriented Infill Development Enhancement Program” in University Heights does not. The contrast between historic single-family homes and “projects that were developed from the 1960s through the 1980s that were not sensitive to Greater North Park’s character and its traditional architectural and design treatments,” as stated in Section 2.8 of the update, cannot be improved by replacing existing compatible-scale six-plus-unit complexes with structures that will be more modern, massive, and at least twice as high. Furthermore, there is no definitive language in the update to prevent the description of targeted structures from being applied to historic bungalow courts, which typically provide six-plus units but were built in compatible styles and during the same time frame as historic single-family homes.

The North Park Historical Society is opposed to zoning and policies that will result in widespread loss of irreplaceable historic resources, and has joined others in asking the city to delete the pedestrian-oriented “enhancement program” from the NPCPU.

—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at or 619-294-8990. Her opinions are her own, and San Diego Uptown News encourages a diversity of opinions on its pages.

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