By Tom Mullaney
Is the Uptown Community Plan important? Yes, if you live, work, play, walk, ride or drive in the Uptown communities. This plan is intended to guide growth and development, including buildings, transportation, parks, libraries and more.
When the last plan was updated 28 years ago in 1988, “smart growth” and “compact infill” were new concepts. The plan was a first-cut; it increased densities in many areas, but didn’t fully consider limitations of street width, historic areas, building-height transitions and traffic bottlenecks. Height limits were unnecessarily high.
By 2007, two controversial projects had emerged, one in Mission Hills, and the other at Third and University avenues in Hillcrest. Public protests and legal action resulted in one project being scaled back, and the other stopped. It became apparent to many residents that the 1988 Uptown Community Plan and zoning were encouraging projects that were out-of-scale with the neighborhoods. The city initiated an update to the Community Plan in 2009, scheduled for completion in 2011.
The update proceeded at several levels. The city-sponsored workshops, the Uptown Planners held meetings, and neighborhood groups got involved.
Uptown is divided into six distinct neighborhoods, which creates a strong sense of belonging. The six neighborhoods groups conducted block-by-block reviews. They created land-use plans that were customized, taking into account street widths, effects on existing buildings, and transportation. The recommendations were created from the ground up, and were more finely-tuned than the 1988 plan.
After multiple discussions about density and height, the volunteer board members of Uptown Planners generally endorsed the neighborhood plans. Work was coordinated with the Planning Department at every step. The two-year schedule stretched into seven years, placing an enormous burden on participants. Finally, by June 2016, the options had been reduced to two main plans. The “Community Plan Update” was the city staff’s plan. The “Density Redistribution Alternative” was the residents’ plan. Both proposals contained the same potential for new housing. The residents’ plan called for somewhat lower density in nine selected areas, combined with higher density near the Park Boulevard transit corridor. Both options supported transit and the city’s Climate Action Plan goals.
Both plans also were “high growth” plans, allowing 9,500 more housing units and 19,000 more residents. This is 50 percent more residents, a huge increase! Commercial space was also planned for large increases.
In October, the residents’ groups were preparing to make the case for their preferred plan to the City Council. The city staff, presumably, would present their plan. Then District 3 Councilmember Todd Gloria dropped a bomb. At a committee meeting on Oct. 19, he declared his support — not for either of the two plans — but for a new alternative! He was supporting a Planning Commission recommendation to keep the land-use maps from the 1988 plan, and combine these with the text from the city’s draft plan. He also supported the removal of a zoning overlay, which would leave no height limit in large areas. The residents’ groups felt betrayed; would seven years of work be thrown away?
To the residents’ groups, the Frankenstein plan made no sense. The various parts of the Community Plan are legally required to be consistent. You can’t put the head from one onto the body of another without extensive additional work to make the parts to fit.
Why did Mr. Gloria support the hybrid plan? Because the Planning Department had calculated the buildout for that plan at 1,900 more housing units than the two proposed plans. He wants affordable housing, and believes that higher allowable density and tall height limits will lead to that goal.
What’s not apparent is the hypothetical nature of the staff’s figures. At various times the buildout has been calculated at 50 percent of the allowable density, at 75 percent and 100 percent. It’s a wild guess! Also, the proposed plans contain large expanses of commercial zoning. These give developers wide flexibility in building housing units, commercial space, or mixed-use. Under the two main plans, more than 50 percent more residents could be accommodated!
On Nov. 14, the City Council will meet to choose a new Community Plan.
- Redistribution alternative, preferred by residents’ groups.
- City’s alternative, the residents’ second choice.
- Hybrid plan using 1988 maps, with removal of height limits. Frankenstein’s monster would keep the community in turmoil for years.
Residents are urged to get involved. See the contact information below.
—Tom Mullaney is the founder of Uptown United, a community advocacy group, and a member of Uptown Planners. Learn more at uptownunitedsd.org.