Guest editorial: A tidal wave is about to hit Hillcrest

Posted: January 29th, 2016 | Opinion, Opinion & News | 6 Comments

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

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 and the Planning Department at; 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.


  1. Matthew says:

    This opinion piece misses so many marks. What’s pushing people out to the suburban fringe, destroying our natural habitats and contributing to climate change are the restrictive zoning policies proposed by Mr. Wahlstrom and his cohort of anti-development advocates. What prices out community members is the basic economic principal of supply and demand: not enough homes = higher prices. Strangely (and sadly) these facts are manipulated by Mr. Wahlstrom in order to preserve their fanciful ideas about what Hillcrest needs to do to be regain it’s status as a livable community. If they have their way all of Uptown would be saran wrapped to keep their property values high and future generations out. We have seen what these policies have done to Hillcrest today, where very little growth and a whole lot of obstructionism over the past ten years has destroyed a once vibrant community. By all means, continue to create a discriminatory economic covenant against your children and grandchildren. We’re all sipping beer in North Park anyways…

  2. Justin G. says:

    So it appears that Mr. Wahlstrom is who everyone should blame for Hillcrest’s sad downward spiral over the last 15 years. It’s because of his thinking and mentality that Hillcrest has become the most stagnant and least exciting neighborhood in all of Uptown. All one needs to do is check out what’s happening in nearby North Park, University Heights and Normal Heights to know that I speak the truth. And now that El Cajon Blvd. (aka The ECB) is starting to take off, Hillcrest will be even more insignificant than it is now in the coming years.

    What I can’t understand is how business owners would allow Mr. Wahlstrom to prevent new developments from happening in the center of Hillcrest. Shouldn’t the failure of the free shuttle program tell you that few people are going to Hillcrest to shop or dine anymore? What the neighborhood needs are more residents to keep the commercial district alive. As it is, Hillcrest looks depressing with all of its vacant spaces and dated businesses like Crest Cafe (How about a new paint job and updated interior?). It’s no wonder the craft beer scene has stayed away from the area.

    In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye on Hillcrest from afar since there is no reason to go there. My prediction is that the neighborhood will sink further because of the delusional neighborhood planners who still think it’s a place where everyone wants to live, when it isn’t.

    Lastly, does anyone want to guess which Hillcrest restaurant or business will close next? I’m already hearing rumors.

  3. Carol Emerick says:

    Uptown Planners is a group of civic minded community residents who care. A majority of Uptown Planners are asking that densities over and above what have been negotiated over the last 8 years, more or less, be respected.
    Infrastructure is not in place to service the increased densities the Planning Department wants to impose on our community. There are no large reserves of water guaranteed to be available for a 55 percent increase in population. Hillcrest roadways can’t accommodate thousands of additional vehicles. There are already too many cars and bicycles. Currently, Hillcrest is experiencing gridlock on Robinson, University Ave. , Washington, 1st, 5th and 6th Avenues.
    What about the people who have rented a home in Hillcrest for 20-30 years who are now being forced out by speculators who buy a property, increase rents by 500 percent or level the home so it can be replaced with a multi-unit luxury building? What about the people who cook and serve your meals in the restaurants? Where will they live???
    We love the vibrant, walkable neighborhood that has evolved in Hillcrest in the four decades we have lived here. We approve of increased densities that will accommodate young families young professionals working in the area and old, retired people with small incomes. We approve increased densities done in an incremental, thoughtful way along with the infrastructure necessary to accommodate a wide range of people and vehicles.
    When the infrastructure is in place to accommodate 55 percent more people, of all income levels and ages, then, by all means, build.

  4. Matthew says:

    Ms. Carol Emerick, you seem to be confused. Uptown is reducing it’s housing potential significantly in the new updated plan. Nothing is being increased at all, in totality. Vast swaths of the community are being DOWNZONED in order to accommodate the NIMBY demands of homeowners who are either misguided on basic economic principals (supply/demand) or are selfishly seeking to boost their own property values. Ms. Emerick, those people whom you are concerned about (cooks, servers, renters, seniors, etc.) are being pushed out of not only Hillcrest but all of the urban core because of the restrictive housing policies put in place by community planning groups like UP. More home construction and less regulation would lower rents and increase affordability. Supply. Demand. Simple. And Hillcrest has the bones for growth. And it’s the UP that have been denying necessary improvements (bike lanes, transit, new recreational facilities). The sad truth is that there will never be enough “infrastructure” in the eyes of NIMBY’s. We can’t widen roads or build parking garages on every block. No, the only outcome they seek is to discriminately keep others out – which ends up destroying the very communities they want to protect (assuming that was even their genuine goal in the first place – I’m sure their property values say much more…).

  5. Justin G. says:

    Carol: You seem to have it all wrong here. Uptown Planners is a group who only care about THEMSELVES. They are business owners and retirees who’s only agenda to keep Hillcrest stagnant and it seems to be working. The result is a tired looking neighborhood with a great location.

    And please spare me with the gridlock on 5th, 6th, Robinson, etc. When? Could it be during rush hour, which happens in every large city in the world? San Diego is no different.

    And as a resident of Hillcrest for 40 years, I can only imagine how much you reminisce about Mission Valley being nothing cow pastures. Time to join the 21st century and accept change or be left in the dust. Then again, all you have to do is look out your door to see that Hillcrest is being left in the dust as we speak.

  6. Andrew Towne says:

    Hey, you North Park people:

    Mind your own business.

    We in Hillcrest don’t care what you think.

    Hillcrest — unlike North Park — is a beautiful neighborhood, and we plan to keep it that way.

    If you want smart growth and more development, go demand it in the sprawling suburbs of San Diego.

    Hillcrest is already dense enough.

    In fact, it’s the very model of the sustainable community you say you want: High density development near public transit, walkable, plenty of amenities, and plenty of green space.

    I don’t think you guys care about Hillcrest or any place else.

    I think you are in the development industry.

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