By Elizabeth Robinson
San Diego Uptown News published a guest editorial by Mat Wahlstrom, titled “A tidal wave is about to hit Hillcrest” [Volume 8, Issue 3 or bit.ly/1nL64Nq], in which the Uptown Planners board member protests current densities while insinuating that only “absentee landowners” in a coalition called The Uptown Gateway Council have any interest in seeing that Uptown is not drastically downzoned.
The real tidal wave hitting Uptown is climate change and unaffordable housing. It’s vacant businesses and deteriorating infrastructure; not new development.
Stakeholders in Uptown want to see a rational community plan update with density that complies with the Housing Element, state and regional plans, and the city’s recently adopted Climate Action Plan and increases housing affordability and the quality of life in their neighborhoods. Not another drugstore.
We are experiencing a rare moment in our community when city government, small-business owners, commercial property owners, environmental groups, developers and residents are in agreement: We need more housing on our transit corridors.
In its opening remark, the guest editorial says “the San Diego Planning Department wants to increase building height limits in Hillcrest by 100 percent and building density by 66 percent.” That is inaccurate. The Hillcrest core, for example, is currently zoned to allow up to 109 dwelling units per acre (du/ac). The current draft plan released in January maintains the same density. That is not an increase. Side by side density maps from the Feb. 2 Uptown Planners meeting are available on the city’s website. Look for yourself.
And then there is the issue of height. The current base zone, CN-1A, allows a height limit of 200 feet. The Interim Height Ordinance lowered the limit to 65 feet in the Hillcrest core and will sunset, or end, upon the implementation of the community plan update. However, if the new plan maintains the 65-foot limit, this would still be a significant downzone and the Hillcrest core would lose precious housing opportunities and push the city’s climate goals out of reach.
The guest editorial argues that increasing infill development will also increase sprawl because residents will get displaced from their communities and be forced to live elsewhere. That is nonsense. Basic economics tells us that increasing demand while decreasing supply drives prices up. We are seeing that in home prices and rental rates across our city every day. The notion that you can prevent the addition of housing units to the market and somehow make Uptown a more affordable place to live is a false one.
This month, a report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office, a nonpartisan advisory office for California’s lawmakers, makes clear that places in California where more development occurs saw a slower growth in rents for poor households. Rent control and affordable housing cannot by themselves solve the affordability problem since these programs do not benefit the middle class. To the point that the new condos being built in Bankers Hill are high-end, even these additions to the housing stock improve affordability long term. The report explains that new housing gets less expensive as it ages and becomes significantly more affordable in the decades that follow.
There are bigger concerns surrounding the community plan update that help determine the suitable density and height in Uptown. The Uptown Planners voted last year to support San Diego’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), which was adopted by City Council in December 2015. The CAP identifies strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with mandatory targets set for 2020 and 2035. One of those strategies called “Bicycling, Walking, Transit & Land Use” says, “Achieve better walkability and transit-supportive densities by locating a majority of all new residential development within Transit Priority Areas.” What is a TPA? A TPA is an area within a half-mile of a major transit stop, and Hillcrest is identified as one of the largest by SANDAG since it is currently serviced by six bus lines.
Additionally, SANDAG identified “Pennsylvania Avenue, Robinson Avenue, Park Boulevard, Washington Street” as an Urban Center in their smart growth map, which requires an average of 40-74-plus du/ac and 50-plus employees per acre in these areas. If the Uptown Planners move forward with their goal to downzone the Hillcrest core to 44 du/ac, the required density averages and employment goals will not be met.
The only way to help reach the CAP mandates is to do our part in Uptown and allow more housing in the parts of our community that have the most transit, walking and biking opportunities: the Hillcrest core. Let’s embrace a responsible community plan that allows for an increase in the supply of housing where our city and state require it while revitalizing the community and combating the real tidal wave that is coming: unaffordable housing and climate change. Don’t downzone Uptown.
—Elizabeth Robinson is asset manager for The Greenwald Company in San Diego. Bennet Greenwald is the owner of 3715-3795 Sixth Ave. and is one of the members of The Uptown Gateway Council.