Letters to the editor – July 17

Posted: July 17th, 2015 | Featured, Letters to the Editor, Opinion | No Comments

About the Living Lab article

Thank you for Catherine Spearnak’s recent article [see “‘It’s a ticket out,’” Vol. 7, Issue 14] on Ocean Discovery Institute! It’s really great to see such positive coverage for a nonprofit organization that is making a real difference in our community.

As an Ocean Discovery alumnus and proud City Heights resident, however, I find the headline “‘It’s a ticket out’” to be misleading. Ocean Discovery does not provide “a ticket out” of our community, rather an opportunity to achieve our true potential and gain the tools necessary to join the efforts to improve it.

Take my story, for example: I have worked with Ocean Discovery in many different capacities, from student, to employee in the organization’s college preparation program, to working on the Living Lab Campaign Steering Committee. I started as a freshman at Hoover High School and went through the intensive scientific research program on the Sea of Cortez mentioned in the article for two of four high school summers. While I was accepted to many universities throughout California, I decided to stay local and attend San Diego State University, where I earned degrees in environmental studies and political science.

Today, as a first generation college graduate, I work for City Council President Pro Tem Marti Emerald representing the very neighborhood I grew up in — City Heights. At every step of my career path I have been able to work in my home community of City Heights, and don’t plan on leaving it any time soon.

And I know my story is not unique. Many Ocean Discovery students graduate from the program with hopes of coming back to our community and giving back. In fact many of us do, including my sister Sonya (interviewed in the article) who volunteers her Saturdays in our local canyons.

Overall, it was a fantastic article, I’m appreciative of the great press for Ocean Discovery. But as a City Heights native who takes pride in my community, I wanted to clarify this one important point.

Rudy Vargas, City Heights

North Park’s issues

I’m disappointed I missed the meeting. I enjoyed your article in Uptown News [see “North Park debates walking vs. parking,” Volume 7, Issue 14].

I owned Apertivo Italian Tapas and Wine Bar in North Park for eight years and have lived here for 20 years. I ride a bicycle a lot and walk everywhere. I put less than 5,000 miles a year on my car.

I was wondering if anyone at the meeting mentioned the problem on El Cajon Boulevard for pedestrians. [editor: they did]

In just the last few months the city has erected “no pedestrian crossing” signs at every street between Texas and Florida, prohibiting foot traffic. So if anyone wants to cross near Mississippi north or south, it requires you to walk eight blocks out of your way or the equivalent of more than half a mile.

Meanwhile, cars are allowed through our neighborhood at 45 miles an hour and they don’t stop for any of the businesses, let alone people on foot.

I think the priorities have been aimed at cars over people.



Ken Cassinelli, North Park

I just want to thank you for such a positive article you wrote about our forum.

It is always nice to have POSITIVE stories on our area.

You know you are welcome anytime. We are one of the sponsors of the North Park Town Hall meetings also.

Again THANKS for your community support.

—Edwin Lohr, president of

Praise for new political column

I enjoyed reading Andy Cohen’s column Congressional Watch in San Diego Uptown News [see “Congressional Watch,” Volume 7, Issue 13]. It was very informative. I hope it will be a regular feature in future issues

—Richard Weinroth, Uptown 


About Ben Nicholls’ letter to the editor

Ben Nicholls, I don’t know where to start re: your opinion piece welcoming more density to Hillcrest [see the letter to the editor titled ‘What’ wrong with Hillcrest?’ Volume 7, Issue 14].

1) The density you covet has been in the community plan since the ‘80s, but the neighborhood remains over-parked with increasing traffic issues. More people aren’t needed … but a better public transit plan bringing people to and from the shopping/dining hub would definitely be helpful. Anyone working on that?

2) In the past decade, Hillcrest has watched condo developments rise (Atlas, Cairo, Egyptian, Deca, Monde), but unlike other communities, Hillcrest still has NO city services for its residents (like a senior center, ball field, swimming pool or a neighborhood park). Why then, should it take more density? The city should put tall buildings and density where they have already have some of these amenities, not in Hillcrest.

3) You need a history lesson, too, Ben. The American Planning Association (APA) award was given to Hillcrest in 2007, not 2010. [] In addition, that was the first year the organization had given ANY neighborhood this honor. Ten communities across the nation were chosen with only two in California. Hillcrest and the historic, low-density, village-like neighborhood of North Beach in San Francisco where they honor their history. [] “Part of North Beach’s appeal stems from restrictions on building heights.”

4) Is the HBA helping to preserve Hillcrest’s history?

You ask, “What’s wrong with Hillcrest?”… Unlike you, Ben, I don’t believe the problem is a lack of density. Perhaps it stems from property owners who continue to hunger for higher rents, or maybe the HBA just needs better leadership which would focus on the health of local businesses instead of planning Hillcrest Hoedowns, High Heel Races and Pride Parties?

– Ann Garwood, via

Who is this Benjamin Nicholls fella?

If he’s being paid by the Hillcrest Business Association, shouldn’t he be promoting what’s GOOD about Hillcrest instead of what is wrong with it? The neighborhood is a wonderful place to live.

That’s why Hillcresters pay so much to live there.

Have you asked the residents if they want more density? Many have invested life savings to call Hillcrest home. Perhaps they don’t want their sunshine blocked by another tall building. Would you?

Regarding Benjamin’s statement: “New residents won’t require on-street parking because they’ll be walking to dinner” …

That seems a bit naive to me. How about all of their new residents’ friends and family who now know someone who lives in fabulous Hillcrest? You know they’re coming, too. Where do they park? More density means less street parking for everyone — residents and businesses.

– Old Uptowner, via

Re: ‘What’s wrong with Hillcrest?’

Hillcrest has always been a hip urban place to live and play. Decades ago, it was the place with the coffee houses, the wine bars, and the cool bookstore — for a while one even boasted a grand piano. Hardworking creative entrepreneurs helped to make Hillcrest the vibrant spot it was, while the rest of urban San Diego languished.

But then an exciting thing happened. The millennials decided to return to the urban core neighborhoods. All sorts of people have come back. In Mission Valley, this has created a crowded urban nightmare. North Park, on the other hand, has undergone a renaissance. Mostly it’s the same old place it always was — great Craftsman homes and a quaint Business District. But now, instead of that Business District being filled with scary vacant buildings and thrift stores, it is teeming with exciting shops, restaurants and retail venues. By and large there isn’t that much “new” development.” What is new, is the revitalized business district.

North Park has caught up and maybe even surpassed Hillcrest as the ultimate San Diego urban destination. North Park’s Main Street Business Program has been a huge success. The Main Street Program is a program that respects the existing building, the existing community character. It does not try to change the place into something different, nor does it treat the place as a housing site for customers.

The funny thing about new housing is that it doesn’t mean affordable housing. It means more expensive housing. Take a look around. Unfortunately, a revitalized business district also means more expensive housing too. Don’t be fooled. I am a landlord who rents out apartments. My apartments in North Park that used to rent for less than those in Hillcrest, now rent for more.

If the Hillcrest Business Association wants to revitalize Hillcrest even more, I suggest it look to North Park. What Hillcrest needs, if it needs something, is to continue to enhance its existing exciting businesses with an appropriate complement of restaurants, retail outlets, etc. It needs to work with landlords who leave buildings derelict and those who charge exorbitant rents and scare prospective businesses into other communities. It needs to work with the homeless population that scares customers away. It doesn’t need to build more residences so as to get more customers. This would show more respect for the type of community that most Hillcrest residents want to live in and the type of community that Hillcrest is. We are more than just the HBA’s customers, we are a community first, and customers second.

Perhaps if the Hillcrest Business Association embraced the right changes, focused on making Hillcrest a better place rather than cheerleading for new development, then maybe the residents already in Hillcrest would find more of a reason to stay in Hillcrest and support it’s own business community.

– Tim Gahagan, Hillcrest, via

As always, the magic answer to San Diego’s problems is more growth. That is the mantra we hear over and over from businesses, developers and politicians. If we have growth, our infrastructure will get fixed. If we have growth, we’ll have less expensive housing. If we have growth, businesses will prosper.

Well,, let’s look at them one by one:

San Diego’s infrastructure is in poor condition because the city’s political leaders chose to spend money on sports teams and lavish pensions for unionized government employees instead of doing what they were supposed to do: fix roads, water pipes, sewer pipes, sidewalks, etc.

Cynically, they now tell us that we need more development to pay for those basics, never mind that San Diego’s high real estate values and high costs already generate plenty of income in the form of property and sales taxes.

People complain that Hillcrest looks like a dump. Well, it would look a lot better if our streets were repaved, our sidewalks fixed, and ugly signage and sidewalk structures were removed.

It would look better if people didn’t litter, the homeless were not dumped here by downtown, and taggers didn’t fill the area with graffiti. These are problems that have nothing to do with development.

As to the claim that more residential development would result in less expensive housing, exactly the opposite is true. Not one of the new buildings built in the last 10 years in Hillcrest is affordable for middle income people. High-rises in general are more expensive because of elevators and underground parking.

And it must be pointed out that developers don’t exactly have a good track record when it comes to recent construction in Hillcrest. Ugly, oversized eyesores have been built on Park Boulevard and University, and at Sixth and Upas.

It is true that businesses would do a lot better if we had more residential growth. That cannot be denied. But lack of foot traffic isn’t the only problem facing businesses. Parking is another problem. I believe businesses should contribute money to pay for the parking lots they need. As far as I know, the money has only come from people who pay for parking. A lot of that money has been misspent or has simply been salted away by the city.

So it’s up to city leaders and businesses to take some responsibility instead of punishing drivers. Ideally, we wouldn’t even have meters. Instead, there would be a 90-minute limit from 8 to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday as in Normal Heights.

I do want businesses to thrive in Hillcrest. They can best do that by supporting reasonable development. I believe the community would have supported a seven- or eight-story building at Third and University. Instead, we were presented with a 20-story building totally out of scale with the neighborhood.

Businesses and developers need to keep in mind that the main reason Hillcrest appeals to people is that it is one of the few historic neighborhoods with attractive, mature landscaping and a wide range of historic residential architecture. That is what makes this neighborhood so pleasant to walk in.

Reasonable compromise and recognizing that various interest groups from businesses and developers to residents and public transit/bicycling activists cannot have everything they want — I believe those are the keys to a good and prosperous future for Hillcrest.

– Andrew Towne, via

Really Ben … first you need a history lesson. The American Planning Association (APA) awarded Hillcrest a Top Ten Neighborhood award in 2007 (not 2010). The first time the APA awarded this honor.

As a side note … the award was for decades of work done prior to Ben Nicholls’ arrival in Hillcrest as the executive director of the HBA.

Isn’t it the HBA executive director’s job to work towards a healthy mix of businesses, hand in hand with property owners/landlords. He’s been directed to make this a priority of the HBA. At least he was in 2009.

Instead he complains that there’s a need for more density in Hillcrest in order to support the overwhelming number of restaurants. Perhaps the real secret to other neighborhoods successes is that they have a healthier mix of businesses that encourage people to visit the neighborhood for more than just dining.

The bottom line is that if a restaurant doesn’t have good food, they’ll not survive no matter how many people live in Hillcrest.

A case in point is the Sixth and University building. City Deli was there for nearly 30 years … I’d say that was a pretty good run … next up was Harvey Milk Diner with lackluster food and poor management. A complete failure.

Successful restaurants like Crest Cafe, Bread and Cie, and the Chris Shaw empire of dining establishments continue to flourish (and grow).

Hillcrest may be able to take some increase in density however if you serve tasteless food, if the streets are littered, if signs are painted with graffiti and homeless are on the streets and in doorways then Hillcrest businesses are going to have a difficult time being successful.

The APA honored San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood in the same year as Hillcrest.

Here’s what they said about North Beach … “What truly makes North Beach unique are the people who live there. If they are left behind by the market, so, too, is the character that a century of effort has kept in place.”

Here’s an excerpt from the American Planning Association award to Hillcrest … “During the 1970s and 1980s, after more than a decade of serious economic decline, Hillcrest underwent demographic changes and became the center of the city’s gay and lesbian community. The new residents were instrumental to Hillcrest’s economic recovery, as was Joyce Beers, widely known as the neighborhood’s ‘beloved daughter.’ A champion for public transit and neighborhood revitalization, she helped bring together different community interests to focus on common goals.”

We really need another Joyce Beers philosophy of bringing people together … not the divide and conquer mentality that we see today.

Stop planning your next street party and go back to the real work of Hillcrest.

– Nancy Moors, past president, Hillcrest Business Association, via

It seems that the decline of Hillcrest directly correlates with the tenure of Ben Nicholls as executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association. Since he took the position, we have seen the rise of homelessness, empty storefronts, crumbling streets and sidewalks.
Hillcrest used to be the cool urban neighborhood that everyone wanted to live in and visit. Hillcrest is now the capital of panhandling, nail salons and smoke shops. These things do not make a community desirable.

Ben Nicholls’ complete focus has been on cramming as many ridiculous street festivals as he can into a year. Apparently all of those street festivals make a pretty good profit, so how come none of that money has been put back into any type of beautification of Hillcrest? Ben have you ever been to North Park, Little Italy or South Park? These have become wonderful places to live, work and shop and it wasn’t because of more residential density.

These neighborhoods’ successes are because of their business associations hard work and realization that preserving history is important.

So instead of blaming Hillcrest’s decline on the lack of residential development, why don’t you get to work cleaning up the community and coming up with solutions to the homeless situation.

—Hillcrest resident and business owner, via

Re: What’s wrong with Hillcrest.

There was an antique and second-hand store on the corner of 5th and University. Not a thrift shop, mind you … this store had interesting stuff. It was interesting enough that it could easily take an hour to browse. There’s a restaurant there now. A good restaurant.

There was a book store on Fourth near Robinson. It had a grand piano in it. They put on concerts in the bookstore. String quartets, piano soloists, German oompa bands. Things like that. It was an interesting place. There’s a restaurant there now. A good restaurant.

There was a store at Third and University. They sold new clothes, greeting cards, bric-a-brac, and books. It had a distinctly gay flavor. They even had a small back room behind a curtain where they sold and rented erotic videos. It was a fascinating place. There’s a restaurant there now. A good restaurant.

On Fifth near University there was a piano store. They had at least 30 pianos in it. People would wander in and just start playing the pianos. They always pretended they were interested in buying a piano, but I think they just wanted to play a bit and maybe show off a little for their date. There’s a restaurant there now. A good restaurant.

Hillcrest used to be an interesting place. Going to dinner in Hillcrest was more of an outing. An outing people could ONLY have by going to Hillcrest. Now it’s just restaurant after restaurant. They’re good restaurants, but there are good restaurants all over San Diego. What Hillcrest needs is a business organization that will help to make Hillcrest an interesting place to go. Maybe a Main Street type of program. The Hillcrest Business Association doesn’t seem to be getting it done.

– Bob Martynec, via

Wow. I appreciate the passion. Both the passion and desire of Ben Nicholls to write a letter about what he sees that could be improved in Hillcrest, and those who responded to his letter.

I did not gather that his suggestions were relating to increased density. He mentioned reasonable development several times. Makes sense to me.

I also can not concur with those who think Ben Nicholls is responsible for increased homelessness, failed restaurants, crumbling streets and sidewalks. Anyone who believes that does not have the credibility to offer anything I can follow. Instead the NIMBY attitude of some old-timers sounds a lot like “get off my yard!”

I do agree that more Main Street programs would useful. The Pride flag project is a great example of what the HBA can do well. The homeless outreach with Alpha Project looks like it is starting to work. The problem with all of these programs is that they require funds to make them happen. And Ben seems to be working with the HBA to raise the funds to make a difference.

From where I sit it looks like something needs to change in Hillcrest. And shouting down those who are offering suggestions, is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

– Hillcrest business owner and landlord, via

All of the comments above are right on.

Hillcrest has plenty of density, always has, and has had a ton of development in the last 10 years. Ben, you are wrong on that one and so much else.

The traffic is at gridlock now several times a day. More people will be using transit and biking hopefully, but the transit is far behind, and parking is still an issue because it is very difficult to live in San Diego without a car even if you commute by transit or bike.

Recently I read that the women who heads the parking district said that we can achieve much additional parking with diagonal parking. This is very dangerous for cyclists.

We can’t eat out every night to support so many restaurants. We need more interesting retail, and stores that the community needs.

And we need to keep every historic asset we have. Ben, if someone wants a totally new space for another new restaurant, they can find that anywhere, and we should not be tearing down Hillcrest to keep them here. Our character is our biggest asset.

And then there is the homeless. It is sad and disgusting and infuriating. In the last major city election cycle, for the first time, Todd Gloria and other representatives were actually talking about this. But it seems like it has done nothing but get worse.

Lack of development is a falsehood and not the problem. It is homeless, transit, parking and too many restaurants and not enough diversity in businesses.

– Deirdre Lee, via

Hey, Old Uptowner … you ask “Who is this Benjamin Nicholls fella?”

He is the fourth director of the Hillcrest Business Association following Joyce Beers, Christine Kehoe and Warren Simon. Nicholls was hired by the HBA board and began overseeing the business group in 2009.

In October 2013, Nicholls left the HBA to work for McFarlane Promotion, the company contracted by the HBA to market Hillcrest events. [] After a few months, Nicholls replacement was fired (or quit), and Nicholls was rehired by the HBA to be its interim director.

The HBA board of directors [], led by local businessman Johnathan Hale, searched for the next person to lead the organization before deciding that Nicholls was best for the job …but it’s not all been rosy since his return. [] []

– Ann Garwood, via

I agree with Benjamin Nicholls, and half agree with the commenters above. Before the density, you FIRST have to make Hillcrest a place people want to be. Unfortunately, Hillcrest’s public realm can’t compete with Little Italy or Downtown.

Let’s face it, University Avenue throughout Hillcrest is a car-dominated, treeless, awful place for people to be and hang out. All the restaurants and density in the world won’t change that.

Start with traffic calming, bike lanes, street trees, public art and streets that make the pedestrian the priority. Make Hillcrest a place people actually want to be, first. Then it will thrive. #Placemaking

– Walter Chambers, via

Current residents wouldn’t need to drive if biking was a safer option. Those who do walk are tried of the bicycles illegally riding on the sidewalk.

But Nicholls lobbied against traffic-calming bike lanes in Hillcrest. If he is serious about attaching himself to the “walkability” movement he needs to be serious about getting bikes off of the sidewalk and into proper lanes.

– Jesus Smith, via

Hillcrest’s urban street grid, central location and proximity to Balboa Park make it among the most ideally situated neighborhoods in the city. Yet the neighborhood is slowly dying because it seems to be stuck in an auto-centric, 1980s way of thinking. I applaud Ben Nicholls’ letter and agree that Hillcrest needs to focus on making itself more attractive to residents if it is to return to its glory days.

Millennials are moving to the city in droves, but they’re largely bypassing Hillcrest as a place to live. Why? Young people today want bike lanes (a network, not just block-by-block), walkable streets, parklets — things that will encourage them to linger. The local business community has resisted some of these things because of parking fears, but they’re missing the forest for the trees. We’re all out of pavement here, so there can never be more available surface parking than there is right now. That fight can never be won.

Ben Nicholls is spot on when he says the way to sustain business here is to focus on building the residential population of the neighborhood. Yes, such development brings more density — but the business infrastructure exists to allow these residents to walk to almost everything they’d need, which means no net parking loss.

New development would also bring with it underground parking, returning the surface level to pedestrians.

Now that’s a neighborhood I’d want to call home.

– Richard Green, via

Ben hired lobbyists to prevent safe bike lanes and safe pedestrian infrastructure. He has no credibility. His reasoning for being anti-people is so there are ways for people to drive to bars and get drunk there … then drive back.

– Benny, via 

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