Hillcrest building heights dominate community’s discussion of the Uptown Community Plan Update
By Dave Schwab | SDUN Reporter
And Hutton Marshall, SDUN Editor
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.
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.