By Ken Williams | Editor
Like the Big Bad Wolf from the fairy tales, the Uptown Planners huffed and puffed and tried to blow the house down.
Some members of the Uptown Planners got all heated — and even confused — as they reviewed plans for a mixed-use development proposed to be built on 1 acre located at the southwest corner of Robinson and Seventh avenues. The project, proposed by the developer giant Greystar, is known as Hillcrest 111.
After hearing a presentation from the developer, listening to public comments and debating the project’s merits, the Uptown Planners took a series of conflicting votes on Feb. 7. The volunteer group, elected by local residents to serve on the city’s official advisory group to the Planning Department on development matters pertaining to the Uptown communities, was meeting for the first time in 2017. More on that later. But first, here’s some background on the project.
About the property
The site is currently owned by Pacific Bell Telephone Company, which does business as AT&T California. The property is being used as a parking lot for AT&T trucks and personal vehicles used by employees working out of the monolithic AT&T complex on the north side of Robinson. The project would require the parking lot’s demolition.
AT&T is selling the bulk of the land to Greystar, but will retain ownership of 16,800 square feet on the south side of the property with plans to build a detached parking garage with 86 oversized parking stalls spread out over three subterranean levels and one level above ground. The garage would be accessed from Seventh as well as the alley, which runs between Robinson and Pennsylvania, on the west side of the property.
Greystar is a multifamily real estate business based in Charleston, South Carolina, and has more than 10,000 employees nationwide. In Southern California, Greystar has offices in Solana Beach and Irvine, and was represented at the meeting by its local development director, Jim Ivory.
About Hillcrest 111
Greystar proposes building 111 residential units, including nine apartments for very-low-income families, and 4,880 square feet of commercial retail space along Robinson and Seventh.
The retail space would not include a restaurant, but is expected to attract the kind of businesses that would cater to the apartment residents, said Marcela Escobar-Eck, principal with the local land-use planning agency Atlantic Group that is working with Greystar. She listed potential tenants as offices, salons, retail shops and a small coffeehouse.
The 100,824-square-foot building would have seven floors and rise 90 feet — about the same height as the AT&T complex on the north side of Robinson.
Below the Hillcrest 111 building, Greystar would construct three levels of underground parking with 183 spaces — 15 more than required — for residents and retail businesses. There also would be stalls for 50 bicycles and 11 motorcycles or scooters, in a bid to entice residents to use alternative modes of transportation.
Approved by subcommittee
The Design Review Subcommittee of the Uptown Planners voted 6-0 last month to approve the Hillcrest 111 project, listing two conditions for its approval:
- Recommend the applicant avoid white stucco for the exterior walls and consider a higher quality material for white surfaces. The developer confirmed at the Feb. 7 meeting that they had change the stark white color to an antique white color, and added a contrasting color to the middle portion of the building facing Seventh.
- Recommend the south elevation of the project feature greater architectural interest through the use of varied finishes and/or materials similar to the west (alley) elevation. The developer said it took that advice.
The Feb. 7 meeting
Hillcrest 111 is the first large project out of the gate since the City Council approved Uptown’s Community Plan Update (CPU) late last year. This project, however, came forward under the rules of the old CPU.
Greystar has applied for a Process 2 Neighborhood Development Permit, one of the Planning Department’s easier application processes, simply requiring action by the Uptown Planners and then a decision by the Planning Department staff. Any appeal of a staff decision would be heard only by the Planning Commission, which would make the final ruling.
Working in conjunction with Atlantis Group, Greystar is utilizing the city’s Affordable Housing Density Bonus and will be required to provide the apartments for lower-income families for 55 years. By using the bonus, the developer is entitled to two deviations and asked to:
- Exceed the 65-foot height limit, which also would be subject to approval by the Federal Aviation Administration due to its proximity to the airport.
- Reduce setbacks along the alley on the west side of the project.
Under the old CPU, the Interim Height Ordinance (IHO) limits building heights to 65 feet. The IHO, though, was eliminated when the new CPU went into effect on Feb. 6.
The building’s proposed 90-foot height drew the ire of Mat Walstrom and Tom Mullaney, two members who typically oppose projects proposing greater density and height.
Other members were concerned about the building’s stepbacks and setbacks; a perceived lack of solar, even though the developer said solar would be used to warm up the building’s water system; or wanted more parking spaces in the AT&T garage, which didn’t make much sense due to safety issues.
Walstrom and Mullaney proposed a motion to delay a vote until the developer got all the issues cleared. That motion passed 8-5 with the chair, Leo Wilson, abstaining as usual. But city staff said that motion was essentially meaningless, since the developer was already addressing staff’s concerns, so the Uptown Planners voted to undo the motion.
Then the Uptown Planners voted 7-6-1 in favor of a motion to encourage the developer to incorporate a 15-foot setback of the building’s upper floors that face Robinson and seek more solar options and more parking spots.
Next came a series of failed votes to recommend lowering the building’s height. Attempts to lower the height to 72 feet and 80 feet failed both times by 8-5-1 votes.
Someone in the audience laughingly suggested voting for a height of 150 feet. The joke helped break up the tension in the room.
The flurry of motions, votes and re-votes left the audience as confused as the Uptown Planners appear to be. Escobar-Eck, from the Atlantis Group, spoke up and said the votes were “as clear as mud.”
A day later, on Feb. 8, Escobar-Eck emailed San Diego Uptown News an updated response:
“We received a unanimous recommendation of approval from the Design Review Subcommittee with two conditions. Our team worked hard in the subsequent two weeks to incorporate the subcommittee recommendations into the design we presented at the Uptown Planners,” she wrote.
“We are disappointed that after working through the process with the Design Review Subcommittee, we ended up with a recommendation from the full board that was confusing and extremely difficult to implement. We were surprised to hear a couple of board members say they would sacrifice the affordable housing in exchange for eliminating a minor incentive that the project needs to use to be able to incorporate the affordable housing when the city is struggling with a major housing crisis,” Escobar-Eck said.
“We feel that we have designed a great project that will be a significant enhancement for the neighborhood and very much want to be part of the historic Hillcrest neighborhood.”
Since the Hillcrest 111 project is seeking a Process 2 permit, it now only faces a discretionary staff-level decision. Once staff members feel that all their concerns have been addressed, then they will make the decision on whether to grant the permit. That decision could be appealed.
Sara is the editor of San Diego Uptown News.