How tall?

Hillcrest building heights dominate community’s discussion of the Uptown Community Plan Update

By Dave Schwab | SDUN Reporter
And Hutton Marshall, SDUN Editor

Residents watch the Uptown Planners discuss appropriate building heights in the Uptown neighborhoods (Courtesy

(l-r) HTC Chair Luke Terpstra and Ann Garwood of discuss building heights in Hillcrest at the Jan. 14 HTC meeting (Photo by Hutton Marshall)


As the City of San Diego continues its multi-year process of updating the community plans of Uptown, North Park, and Golden Hill, part of the progression is to receive input from the planning groups of the respective communities. The planning boards, in turn, rely on input from the community and local organizations to form their recommendations. In Uptown, the Hillcrest Town Council (HTC) and the Uptown Planners Community Planning Group (Uptown Planners) have continued to bear down on the issue of building heights, which has become a focal point of contention surrounding Uptown’s plan update. The two groups show that much of the community still battles with the question: Should the community opt for more — or less — flexibility in building height in the years to come?

At its January meeting, Uptown Planners chose to delay finalizing their stance on that question until February, but HTC voted in strong favor of lower height limits at its Jan. 14 meeting.

After considerable debate, Hillcrest residents at January’s town council meeting voted down an amended motion that would have allowed heights to be considered an additional 15 feet above the current 50 and 65-foot levels. The audience vote was nine in favor of, 16 opposed to considering greater building heights.

Residents in the HTC area then voted overwhelmingly in favor of a motion made by the City Council and its steering committee. That motion was to allow a 50-foot ministerial (by right without challenge) and 65-foot discretionary (community review) height limit in Hillcrest commercial areas. The motion called for building heights to be less on Fourth Avenue between Robinson Avenue and Upas Street, where limits would be reduced to 32-foot ministerial and 50 feet with discretionary review. The vote was 21 in favor, three opposed and five abstentions.

Uptown Planners

Residents watch the Uptown Planners discuss appropriate building heights in the Uptown neighborhoods (Courtesy

HTC Chair Luke Terpstra said he opposed the amendment to allow the possibility of a greater 15-foot limit because “we want to keep it basic, don’t want to confuse it with discretionary levels. The City doesn’t operate that way. Uptown Planners doesn’t operate that way.”

Several others spoke at the meeting at length about their opposition to higher height limits.

“We’ve seen a lot of fights over too-tall buildings over the years and I don’t think we want to do that for the next 20 years,” said Tom Mullaney, president of Friends of San Diego. “We’re fighting for reasonable heights. I think 50- and 65-foot limits are pretty standard, and don’t see any benefit to going taller.”

A couple of Hillcrest residents disagreed with Mullaney, noting Little Italy has allowed higher and more flexible building height limits, arguing that Little Italy’s height flexibility contributed to its greater economic growth compared to Hillcrest.

The week prior, the public voiced their input in the same room at a special meeting of the Uptown Planners, where they held their first formal discussion on building height. Local residents gave their highly varied takes on whether building heights in diverse Uptown neighborhoods, which includes Hillcrest, ought to be kept the same to preserve community identity and integrity, or be changed to allow more flexibility in accommodating future growth.

Uptown Planners Chair Leo Wilson noted building heights were the proverbial “elephant in the room” in the ongoing community plan update.

“Anyone who’s been in Uptown knows the height ordinance has been much in discussion,” he said.

Public testimony given was varied, with some residents expressing fear that allowing greater building height could lead to degradation of existing neighborhood character.

Other residents and business owners spoke to the need for leaving “leg room” in future planning, pointing out that future architectural needs are unpredictable, and could be subject to change in the future, which might include a need for greater building heights.

Speaking for more lenient building height requirements, Robert Bettinger who lives in a Park Boulevard high-rise said, “We have infilling in a community that’s growing and we need to have some fluctuation above 65 feet.”

“One size building does not fit all,” commented another Hillcrest small-business owner.

Another group with considerable clout in the Hillcrest neighborhoods is the Hillcrest Business Association, headed by Board President Jonathan Hale and Executive Director Sonya Stauffer. Representing the area’s business community, which has historically favored higher heights, the HBA issued a letter to the area’s senior City Planner Marlon Pangilinan stating its comprehensive campaign, “Hillcrest 2.0,” which calls for relatively taller buildings, but takes into consideration factors such as adjacent street size and amenities provided by the building’s developer.

The Uptown Community Planning Area is bounded on the north by the steep hillsides of Mission Valley, on the east by Park Boulevard and Balboa Park and on the west and south by Old Town San Diego and Interstate 5. Communities represented include the Bankers Hill, Hillcrest, Mission Hills, Middletown, the Medical Complex, Park West and University Heights neighborhoods.

Currently, the Interim Height Ordinance (IHO) limits building heights in Hillcrest and Mission Hills to 65 and 50 feet, respectively, along with similar heights in surrounding neighborhoods. Prior to the IHO, the 1998 Uptown Community Plan allowed building heights up to 200 feet on some streets, and under these guidelines a 12-story hotel was proposed for 301 University Avenue in 2008. The project was out of scale for the relatively narrow street, so residents protested, and the City Council enacted the IHO for the period required to complete Uptown’s Community Plan.

Now the updated Community Plan is targeted for completion in late 2015. Meanwhile the IHO has been extended repeatedly. Many residents and community leaders advocate for making it permanent, or even further reducing its height limit.

Areas like the Medical Complex and high-rises on Park Boulevard are planning “orphans,” as they far exceed the 50 to 65-foot height limits elsewhere within the Uptown Community Planning Area.

The group opted not to take a final vote on the controversial height limits question until its next regular meeting on Feb. 4 at 6 p.m. at Joyce Beers Community Center at Hillcrest’s Uptown Shopping Center.


  1. Luke Terpstra says:

    Yup! I’d say that’s about the way it happened. Thanks for letting it be known that the discussion was pretty well exhausted with all sides having a say before we voted. Good reporting Dave and Hutton.

  2. Eric Brown says:

    The fight of height seems to be the proxy battle with the city over appropriate funding for infrastructure resources to allow Hillcrest to grow well.

    Until then, the business environment in Hillcrest will struggle to find the patrons it needs to economically boom.

  3. George McGinnis says:

    With greater height comes greater parking issues. I would actually double that height limit to an additional 30 feet on condition that 50% of that height must be used for a public parking garage. Let the neighborhood grow, but responsibly.

  4. George McGinnis says:

    CORRECTION: I meant to say 50 % of that height increase be used for public parking.

  5. Gerard says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Eric Brown’s comment about businesses in Hillcrest continuing to struggle. While in Hillcrest last Saturday for dinner, my partner and I walked along 5th Ave. and could not help but notice how many empty restaurants we walked by. I guess the only way for the neighborhood to bounce back is for it to hit rock bottom first, which is the direction Hillcrest is headed. So until the Hillcrest Town Council has the vision to create a more walkable, bikeable and vibrant community, I’ll spend my spare time eating and shopping in North Park and Little Italy. Good luck to you, Hillcrest, you’ll need it.

  6. In a city of 1.3 million, the second largest city in California and the 8th largest city in the United States, I find the fact that some residents want to live in a “village” to be quaint and romantic at best, and at worst elitist and damaging to the Uptown community.

    So what is it that the anti-height, anti-growth advocates want? What is the Outcome and what is their vision for Hillcrest and Uptown into 2050?

    “Character” is a word thrown around a lot. Although, advocates have been unwilling, or unable to define “character”, let alone make the connection between building height and character. There are plenty of ugly, one, two, and three story buildings in Uptown. One only needs to walk around Uptown to realize that building height, clearly, has little impact on preserving “character”. Architecture and Urban design guidelines, on the other hand, would have a significant impact of character, yet no one from the anti-height, anti-growth group has addressed those issues.

    Then there is the fear mongering. Words like “massive development”, that Hillcrest should be “scraped and re-developed”, the fear of 150-200 feet tall buildings, and that Uptown will become like Downtown. Nobody, absolutely nobody, is advocating for any of these. To assert otherwise, is to see boogymen behind every corner, and is an attempt to scare the public.

    As for those buildings that have been developed since the IHO has been in place, the new Von’s Mission Hills received an Onion award. Not too many people like it. Sadly, 301 University is now another drugstore chain. Just want Hillcrest needed to maintain “community character”!

    The Uptown news article cites that 25 people voted on the Hillcrest Town Council resolution. 25 who, we are told, represent the voice of the Hillcrest community. It is the same HTC-25 who have taken regressive stances against smart growth, against sustainable development, against bicycles, who are pro-parking, pro-automobile, and who’s members have opined that climate change isn’t something Hillcrest really needs to deal with. The HTC has become the “Tea Party” of community organizations in Hillcrest. I doubt that most residents in Uptown, a community known for it’s progressive politics, would agree much with the HTC-25.

    The fact is that Uptown will continue to grow. If we don’t come up with a responsible plan to manage that growth in a way that is socially, environmentally, and economical sustainable, we will have failed ourselves and future generations. There are established, good urban design principles that can help guarantee that Uptown becomes a people oriented, walkable, beautiful, productive neighborhood. Sadly, those principles have become the victim of petty politics-as-usual among Uptown community activists. I hope the Planning Department and City Council can rise above that and see a better future for Uptown.

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