Guest editorial: A rebuttal to Mat Wahlstrom

Posted: February 26th, 2016 | Communities, Hillcrest, Opinion, Opinion & News | 6 Comments

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], 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.


  1. Tom Mullaney says:

    Ms. Robinson promotes high densities and tall buildings– way in excess of what’s appropriate for the narrow streets of Hillcrest.

    Community activists are generally not opposed to improved mass transportation, or to added density on transit corridors. They are opposed to excessive densities — appearing under the guise of environmentalism.

    Many studies show that 20-40 dwelling units per acre is enough density to meet compact development goals for mass transit, biking and walking. One SANDAG guideline, 40-74 du, is a bit higher.

    In any case, the June 2015 maps from city planners, with a proposed density for western Hillcrest of 44 du/ac, would allow enough density to meet city goals for transportation and Climate Action.

  2. Robert says:

    “Ms. Robinson promotes high densities and tall buildings– way in excess of what’s appropriate for the narrow streets of Hillcrest. ”

    Because those windy streets in Paris with 4-5 story apartment buildings next to them are just downright hideous, aren’t they?

    Egads, it’s positively vile!

    BTW, “studies show” without a link doesn’t help your argument.

  3. Andrew Towne says:

    High-rise housing is not affordable housing. It is expensive luxury housing.

    As for climate change, the sprawling suburbs of San Diego are where that problem should be addressed. Those suburbs and outer neighborhoods need to become more like Hillcrest. It is not Hillcrest that needs to change.

    Hillcrest won an award a few years ago from the American Planners Association as one of the ten best neighborhoods in the United States. It was praised for its ideal combination of density, green space, walkability, amenities, sustainability, transit, etc.

  4. Sharon Gehl says:

    Elizabeth Robinson is right, we need to fight climate change and provide more housing in San Diego.
    Rather than lowering densities to keep people from moving to Uptown, the City should increase it so that more people can live close enough to walk to jobs in the medical complex, walk to stores, walk to restaurants, and walk to bus stops; rather than having to drive everywhere.
    More housing in Uptown would mean housing would be more affordable to buy or rent for everyone. And more housing near jobs means less cars on the road.

  5. Bob Martynec says:

    Well at least the author is honest. She admits they want to tear down affordable housing so they can build high-end condos. But no need to worry, they think those condos will decay fast enough so they will be affordable in a couple of decades. So if you’re one of the unlucky ones who loses your current affordable housing, you will probably be able to move back to the area in 30 or 40 years. Providing their crystal balls are right.

  6. I could spend a lot of time exposing the obvious misdirections in Ms. Robinson’s rebuttal:

    Her arguing about density using maps based on proposed densities rather than maps showing existing conditions.

    Or her ignoring that the Interim Height Ordinance was the result of the community soundly rejecting the 100- and 200-foot heights allowed in the old plan, and the continued desire of almost every community group to maintain its limits.

    Or her repeated assertion that the massive development Gateway proposes will automatically result in affordable housing, despite evidence elsewhere to the contrary, unanswered questions from the press, and Gateway’s own letter to the city that argued against “restrictions such as affordable housing requirements or open space requirements which would reduce land value.”

    Instead I’d rather bring attention to her use of climate action to promote the pro-developer agenda.

    As I mentioned in my guest editorial, the lobbyist behind the Gateway group is the same as behind One Paseo, Marcela Escobar-Eck.

    Ms. Escobar-Eck was also the City of San Diego’s Director of Development Services when the Sunroad developer was allowed to cut back on parking since it is near transit—which is what is proposed for Hillcrest. And since Hillcrest already meets the ten accepted principles of smart growth, except for a deficit of green space and parks, there has yet to be an explanation of how development in Hillcrest doesn’t already fit the Climate Action Plan.

    Ms. Escobar-Eck is also, along with the developer who wrote up Gateway’s “financial feasibility” study, Gary London, on the board of Circulate San Diego. Circulate San Diego has a history of its associates taking public positions in conflict of interest and has endorsed one of their employees, Maya Rosas, for election to the board of Uptown Planners next Tuesday. Ms. Rosas is also an employee of the Gateway’s paid lobbyist, the Atlantis Group. I would be remiss not to mention that Ms. Robinson is also running for the board.

    When you consider that Circulate San Diego was also instrumental in crafting the Climate Action Plan—and endorsing One Paseo—and that the former Deputy Director of Circulate San Diego, Elyse Lowe, is the current Deputy Director of Project Submittal and Management for the City of San Diego, the real purpose of the Climate Action Plan becomes suspect.

    All of which begs the question: Who is the city listening to—the community, or a developers’ special interest group?

    Note: this same response but with hyperlinks to citations is posted online here,

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