By Mat Wahlstrom
The San Diego Planning Department wants to increase building height limits in Hillcrest by 100 percent and building density by 66 percent.
Meanwhile, a group of absentee landowners called the Hillcrest Gateway Council has hired Atlantis Group, the lobbyist behind One Paseo, to push the Planning Department further, to increase allowed height by 400 percent and density by 500 percent.
Right now, all the neighborhoods of Uptown are in the process of updating the Community Plan to replace the one approved in 1988. For the next two decades, this document will control every aspect of what can and cannot be done with land use, mobility, urban design, public safety, recreation, conservation, noise, and historic preservation. It is intended to protect residents and business owners from arbitrary decisions on these topics. It also protects property owners and developers by providing a definite framework for them to plan and build new projects.
Hillcrest already allows some of the highest building heights and densities in San Diego — over twice the limits of the beach communities and La Jolla.
Currently, we have height limits of 50 feet allowed automatically and 65 feet allowed by review. The city is proposing 65 feet automatic and 100 feet by review. Likewise, upper density in Hillcrest is 30 to 44 dwelling units per acre. The city intends to make it 45 to 73 dwelling units. Note that density is a strict range: If it is set at 45 to 73, then no one can build anything below 45 dwelling units per acre.
The city wants these increases because it forecasts a 55 percent increase in population for all of Uptown — but it is only interested in making room in Hillcrest. Zoning in Bankers Hill and Middletown is being kept basically the same, and both Mission Hills and University Heights are actually being downzoned. [Editor’s note: The section of University Heights west of Park Boulevard is in the Uptown Community Plan, while the east side is in the North Park Community Plan.]
Yet there is no independent source to back up the city’s projection of 20,000 more people in 20 years; and the city isn’t planning for more police or schools or any services other than what Hillcrest has right now. And since during the past 30 years Uptown added less than 2,000 people, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that something else is happening to influence the city’s politically appointed top planners.
What is happening is a global boom in real estate as the investment of choice for the wealthy, feeding the city’s greed for potential property taxes above all else.
Which brings us back to the Hillcrest Gateway Council. Instead of participating in the public debate on the Community Plan update, the Pernicano family and some nearby property owners hired a lobbyist to make up a name, and on the last day of six months of public comment, turned in an 18-page packet attacking the city’s already massive increases for density and height as “not economically feasible.”
Instead of the city’s proposed 100-foot building height limits, the Gateway group wants 200 feet and higher. And instead of density of 45 to 73, they’re insisting on 218 to 241 dwelling units per acre, or one person per 10-foot-by-20-foot condo —and smaller. Remembering that density is a strict range, this zoning would make it impossible to build anything less than 218 residences per acre.
There is simply no reason for this, except to bulldoze existing buildings and turn the streets of Hillcrest into canyons of condo high-rises for outside investors.
In cities around the world, desirable neighborhoods are being replaced with glass towers, pushing long-time residents miles from the communities where they live and work. Ironically, it is these neighborhoods’ livability that makes them targets for the excessive development that is destroying them. And doubly ironic, it is pushing the sprawl that thwarts advocates of smart growth and those who want to address climate change.
People of good will can disagree and still seek mutual accommodation. Unfortunately, it is precisely this sense of fairness that the Gateway group seeks to exploit. By going behind the community’s back and making ridiculous demands, they’re trying to hijack the debate then guilt opponents into “meeting them half way.”
The time to get involved is now. The city will soon be releasing a draft Environmental Impact Report and final Community Plan, giving everyone one last chance to make a difference — for an entire generation.
Which is why I’m announcing the formation of Rescue Hillcrest, a group of residents, business owners, and stakeholders dedicated to protecting the quality of life in Hillcrest. Anyone wanting to know more can go to rescuehillcrest.com.
But even if you aren’t interested in this group, join in the discussion: Go to the meeting of Uptown Planners at 6 p.m. Feb. 2 at the Joyce Beers Community Center in the HUB shopping center; write to City Councilmember Todd Gloria at firstname.lastname@example.org and the Planning Department at MPangilinan@sandiego.gov; keep reading this paper and other land-use news, and talk with your neighbors. Say no to upzoning Hillcrest.
This next year will decide the next 20.
—Mat Wahlstrom is a representative for Hillcrest on the board of Uptown Planners.