Letters & Editorials January 17 – 30, 2014

Posted: January 17th, 2014 | Letters to the Editor, Opinion, Opinion & News | 2 Comments

Building heights should reflect the community character of Uptown

A debate is underway about Uptown building heights for our future. This debate will affect development for decades to come, via the new Uptown Community Plan. On one side are advocates for higher development in Uptown, especially on Washington, University, and Fourth, Fifth and Sixth avenues. On the other side — our side — are community residents supporting retaining Uptown as a livable community with thoughtfully determined heights.

Our Uptown neighborhoods were first developed over 100 years ago, and retain an older ‘village’ feeling. Many of our residential and commercial streets are filled with interesting, vintage architecture, beloved landmarks and the ‘quirky’ places that define our community. Our neighborhoods are vibrant and livable. In fact, the American Planning Association named Hillcrest as one of the “Top Ten Great Neighborhoods” in America in 2007, along with San Francisco’s North Beach. And compared to Downtown and some areas, our residential and commercial areas are overwhelmingly lower-scale. That allows plenty of sunlight, ocean breezes and the “big sky,” which provides colorful sunsets.

These characteristics provide the sense of place that defines our Uptown neighborhoods. It is this community character that draws most residents to live here, both as homeowners and as renters. While not every structure is worth saving, the basic fabric of our community is worthy of protection. New development should complement and blend with our home community and not detract from it.

Therefore, building height limits should reflect and protect the character of our neighborhoods, while allowing reasonable new development to enhance our community. That means 30-foot buildings and in some cases 35 to 65-foot buildings. The majority of residents also want new building heights to reflect the lower-scale character of Uptown so our community does not transform into another Downtown. Residents also want adequate infrastructure, pedestrian and bike facilities, green space and adequate parking, and to retain as many quality older homes and buildings as possible.

However, some building advocates want to push the height limits skyward, in the hopes of encouraging massive new development in Uptown. Their arguments are misplaced. For example, one building advocate has asserted that there is almost nothing worth saving in Hillcrest and the entire area should be scrapped and re-developed. Some claim that the Uptown neighborhoods are “stagnant” and crumbling, that only an injection of new development can save us from decline, and that building height limits are standing in the way. They have claimed that the Interim Height Ordinance (IHO), which put in place temporary building height limits of 50 and 65 feet in areas where 150 or 200 feet were allowed, has killed development in Uptown.

Most Uptown residents would strongly disagree with the premise that we need to “start over” or that our neighborhoods are in decline. The recent recession, not the IHO, slowed development across Uptown and all of San Diego. Nevertheless, well-received projects have been built within the IHO area, including 3940 Fifth Ave. (Snooze and D bar restaurants) and the Mission Hills Vons project. A lot of building can be constructed within 50 or 65 feet.

The argument has also been made that taller buildings are necessary to provide more affordable housing for middle-class residents. This argument flies in the face of reality. Basic economics dictate that taller residential buildings, which are more expensive to build due to the structural requirements to support such height, house mostly luxury units and cannot “pencil out” for affordable housing. (A few residential towers built in the early 1970s for retirees were built with large subsidies that are no longer available.) Affordable housing in Uptown is housing that complements our current building heights.

Building heights are a big part of the character of any community. There is no way to insert tall projects next to lower scale buildings without forever altering community character, as well as blocking sunlight for surrounding areas. A wave of excessively tall buildings would forever change our Uptown neighborhoods and destroy the character we cherish. Reasonable height limits will not stand in the way of development; they will protect our community and enhance the standard of living for us and future generations.

Join us in protecting the character of Uptown by supporting reasonable height limits in Uptown.

—Barry Hager, board member and co-founder, Mission Hills Heritage
—Luke Terpstra, Chairman, Hillcrest Town Council


Change vs. No Change

The Vibra Hospital and the Village Hillcrest Shopping Complex on Fifth Ave. (Photo by Sharon Gehl)

The Vibra Hospital and the Village Hillcrest Shopping Complex on Fifth Ave. (Photo by Sharon Gehl)

Should Uptown change or not change in the future? That’s the debate the Uptown Planners, a local advisory board to the City of San Diego, has been having for the last few years as members consider how to update the City’s Uptown Community Plan. So far, those who want no change in Uptown have been winning the debate. That’s why the City of San Diego is proposing reducing density and therefore reducing the amount of new jobs and housing near the Hillcrest hospital complex, shopping areas in Hillcrest, University Heights, and Mission Hills, and near public transit routes. This proposal is contrary to the City’s Master Plan that calls for a “City of Villages” strategy to encourage growth near village centers and public transit as a way to create more vibrant communities, and reduce environmental damage from automobile traffic and urban sprawl.

The changes we’ve seen in Uptown since the current community plan took effect in 1989 have made the community better. Projects like the Vibra Hospital and Village Hillcrest Shopping Complex on Fifth Ave. have added jobs, stores, restaurants, and much needed public parking in the core of Hillcrest. We’ve also added housing near our village centers and public transit. There is no reason to stop making changes that have worked.

Surprisingly, the current plan regulations, despite all of the changes we’ve seen, have not produced much growth in population, when compared to the City of San Diego as a whole. According to SANDAG statistics, City population grew at an average annual rate of .9 percent from 1990 to 2012, while Uptown grew only .3 percent annually; from 35,167 in 1990 to 37,855 in 2012. That doesn’t mean that people don’t want to live here, just that the housing supply hasn’t kept up with growing demand. The increase in the cost of renting and buying in Uptown shows that people do want to live here.

Because current city regulations for Uptown have resulted in little actual growth, proposals to reduce the amount of new housing and jobs near our village centers would likely lower the future annual growth rate closer to zero. We actually need to increase the amount of new housing near jobs, public transit, and stores for the sake of the environment and to lower the cost of housing. More people living close enough to walk or bike to stores, restaurants and work, would mean less traffic and therefore less greenhouse gases.

Those who are in favor of changes that accommodate normal growth and shifts in population need to get involved in the debate over the future of Uptown. The City hasn’t heard enough from the approximately 2,000 businesses who want more customers nearby, or from the owners of the more than 1,000 properties that may be reduced in value. Others who haven’t been heard from at all are environmentalists, builders, and those who want to live here now or in the future, but will be kept out if the supply of housing isn’t allowed to increase.

If you’re in favor of continuing change that would make Uptown better, tell our City Council member, Todd Gloria and city planning staff, Then join the debate at the Uptown Planners meetings the first Tuesday of most months, at 6 pm.

—Sharon Gehl, Mission Hills resident


Dear California,

I don’t know if I’ve ever told you, but you rock.

I’m so grateful you didn’t cave to peer pressure and send Southern California that ridiculously, bitter cold weather that the rest of the country succumbed to, including Florida, the state that tends to go rogue in every election.

I’m glad you had the sense and the coolness (pardon the pun) to rise above it, and thank you very much for the mild temps we’ve been having. It’s been most agreeable, and just one of the reasons those of us who live here love you.

The sunny, clear skies are a nice touch, by the way, and a great way to start a year. It makes up for nights when we’ve dipped into the 40s, not that I’m complaining, mind you. I like how you give us just enough brisk weather to make us want to turn on our gas fireplaces and pretend we live in a wintry climate.

Heck, most of us consider 60 degrees another way of saying “just above freezing.”  But we like it all the same, because it’s the one time of year we can don our sweaters and bring out the warm apparel — scarves, Ugg boots and shorts. Thankfully, you never make it so cold we get frostbite. Much appreciated.

Yes, from the moment I arrived here from the east coast 20 years ago, I knew I was going to like you. I didn’t complain once about the water drought or the flooding and mudslides brought on by the rare torrential rain. No, I was just happy not to have thunderstorms anymore. Ditto for blizzards.

Thanks to your savvy know-how, rarely does San Diego get inclement conditions. I mean, when you live here, who has to listen to the weather report, anyway? Not I, my fair-weather friend, for I can tell you what’s in store for tomorrow without checking anything: sunshine and one gorgeous day after another.

So, California, I like you. I really like you. I know I could do worse. Like Florida. They’ve got humidity and alligators. Need I say more?

And we’ve got temperate weather. Thanks again for that.  Of course, the downside is I have to keep my legs shaven all year round. But honestly, I’m not complaining. A small price to pay for not having to shovel snow and scrape ice off my car.

So why are we still talking? Let’s go catch some more rays.

Surf’s up, baby!

—Monica Medina


  1. Jeff says:

    “This argument flies in the face of reality. Basic economics dictate that taller residential buildings, which are more expensive to build due to the structural requirements to support such height, house mostly luxury units and cannot “pencil out” for affordable housing.”

    Affordable housing for the middle class is strictly dependent on the supply of housing. The above argument assumes the middle class has to live in the high rises. Instead downward pricing pressure from additional supply will allow middle class to remain in uptown.

  2. In Response to “Building Heights Should Reflect the Community Character in Uptown”

    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 Mr. Hager and Mr. Terpstra 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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