By Tom Mullaney
Near the start of 2017, the Uptown community became aware of a new project proposed for Hillcrest, at the southwest corner of Seventh Avenue and Robinson Street. The project sparked opposition as soon as the design was disclosed.
As originally conceived, the “Hillcrest 111” building would stand 92 feet tall, in a neighborhood with mostly one- and two-story buildings. This would result in the new building towering over its neighbors, especially the homes on Seventh Avenue.
Additionally, the design showed this tall height pushed up close to Robinson Avenue, with a narrow sidewalk and no setback. With the AT&T building on the opposite side of the street, the new building would create a “tunnel effect,” which is not regarded as good urban design.
At hearings of Uptown Planners, many objections were made. The applicant agreed to some small changes, but did nothing to correct the narrow sidewalk on Robinson Avenue, or reduce construction impacts on the neighborhood.
After city officials approved the project, a decision had to be made. Would the citizens accept a massive, out-of-scale project which would be harmful to the neighborhood, or take further action?
Uptown United chose to take action. We filed an appeal with the San Diego Planning Commission and San Diego City Council. Our own District 3 Councilmember Chris Ward was in a key position to lead the council by insisting on needed design changes, but instead provided no support for concerned residents and business owners. The Planning Commission and City Council both sided with the developer.
Our last remaining option was to file a lawsuit, which we did in June 2018. The lawsuit was based on the failure of city officials to follow the laws which regulate development.
After the lawsuit was filed, the developer, Greystar, agreed to some of the design changes which were demanded. The agreed items were:
- A widening of the sidewalk from 7.5 feet to 17.5 feet, which will allow better pedestrian movement. It will also reduce the “tunnel effect” on Robinson Avenue, which is quite narrow near Seventh Avenue.
- A reduction in height from 92 feet to 80 feet. This will reduce the sun-blocking impact on nearby homes, and reduce the massive appearance of a tall, wide building.
- The developer will provide off-street parking for construction workers, so that nearby residents and businesses will not lose street parking during the two-year construction period.
- The walkway between the apartments and the new AT&T parking structure will remain open to the public during the day. This will allow pedestrians to move more easily between residential and commercial areas.
All these changes were achieved without a reduction in the number of housing units or retail stores. This is the major lesson: Once the developers paid serious attention to objections, they were able to satisfy both objectives — a better design which would help them be a “good neighbor,” and a viable project with 111 new units, plus 4,800 square feet of commercial space.
The Hillcrest 111 project is part of the bigger picture of growth and development. The project became part of the false narrative that “Not in My Backyard” (NIMBY) individuals are trying to stop new development, and keep people out.
How ridiculous! Not a single anti-development group has been identified in the city of San Diego. Instead, there are organizations like Uptown United who seek responsible growth, with development projects that make their neighborhoods better. The relevant issues are good design from the developers, and improved infrastructure from the city.
New projects can be good neighbors if they are well planned and well designed. Why should we accept less?
—Tom Mullaney is the executive director of Uptown United, a citizen’s advocacy group founded in July 2016, initially to work on the Uptown Community Plan. The group includes residents and business owners who are concerned about inappropriate development and harmful impacts within the Uptown community.