By Ken Williams | Editor
The Uptown Planners seem to be borrowing a line from the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, whose catchphrase was “I don’t get no respect.”
Members of the citizen-elected volunteer board, which advises city planners on matters related to growth and development in the Uptown district, expressed anger at their April 4 monthly meeting that the Planning Department is not paying attention to their recommendations.
And the immediate collateral damage for that resentment is the Hillcrest 111 project.
The public frustration expressed by the Uptown Planners is mostly related to the Uptown Community Plan Update (CPU), which the City Council approved on Nov. 14, 2016 and which recently went into effect.
For seven years, the volunteer board held countless meetings with stakeholders and the community to craft the proposed CPU. But last year, the City Council approved an ambitious Climate Action Plan, making it necessary that the CPU reflect the goals of that plan.
After the Uptown Planners forwarded their proposed CPU, an important policy document that will guide growth and development for the next two decades, significant changes were made last fall to encourage more density and discourage long-distance commutes. The Planning Commission overruled a number of their recommendations, deciding instead to mix and match between the 1988 CPU and the draft proposal. Among other things, the Planning Commission recommended keeping the existing land-use maps and axing the Interim Height Ordinance that had temporarily restricted the construction of buildings over 65 feet in height.
The City Council then approved the hybrid version of the CPU, angering the majority of board members who control the Uptown Planners and community stakeholders, such as Mission Hills Heritage and Save Our Heritage Organisation. Those two stakeholders have been raising money to cover their legal expenses as they sue the city over the CPU that was approved.
Hillcrest 111 project
San Diego Uptown News readers learned about the Hillcrest 111 project in an article titled “The next big thing in Hillcrest?” that was published in February. The article can be read at bit.ly/2kPyfMg.
At the Feb. 4 meeting, the Uptown Planners reviewed the mixed-use project planned by developer giant Greystar on 1 acre located at the southwest corner of Robinson and Seventh avenues in Hillcrest. The land is currently being used as a parking lot by AT&T, which occupies a monolithic complex on the north side of Robinson Avenue. As part of the deal, Greystar will build a private garage — providing oversized parking for 86 AT&T trucks, vans and personal vehicles — on the south side of the Hillcrest 111 building. The seven-story, 90-foot tower will offer 111 residential units, including nine apartments for very-low-income families, plus retail space on the ground floor facing Robinson and Seventh avenues.
Greystar 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.
Uptown Planners voted Feb. 4 to recommend:
- Denial of the project unless the following changes are included: a 10-foot setback on the tower side facing Robinson Avenue; solar panels on the roof; and the developer re-evaluate agreement with AT&T to include public parking in the garage. This motion passed 8-4-2.
- That the project should comply with existing zoning for upper floor step-backs on Robinson Avenue. This motion passed 7-6-1.
The project is now under review by city planners.
The April 4 meeting
The hot button issue at the April 4 meeting of Uptown Planners centered around a potential appeal to the hearing officer overseeing the Hillcrest 111 project.
Board member Tom Mullaney — an outspoken opponent of density and a supporter of height restrictions — made a motion for the Uptown Planners to authorize an appeal of the Hillcrest 111 project if the hearing officer approves the Process 2 permit without the modifications that the board recommended.
Jim Ivory, representing Greystar, asked the board not to appeal the project if it is approved. An appeal would go to the Planning Commission, ironically the very body that overruled the Uptown Planners over the CPU and caused the hurt feelings.
Board chair Leo Wilson quipped: “It’s like Little Red Riding Hood appealing to the Big Bad Wolf.”
Ivory reminded the board that AT&T, for security reasons, would not allow public parking in its private garage.
“We’re going through the process,” Ivory said. “There is more than one person [not just a hearing officer] involved in reviewing this project.” He listed traffic engineers, water and sewage officials, and other city departments that must review development plans.
Mullaney argued that it is unfair to the Uptown community that the project only faces a discretionary staff-level review. He said he has heard that some nearby residents plan to appeal the decision if it is approved.
The board chair opened the floor for public comment, warning that the Uptown Planners were not renegotiating the project but were only discussing the merits of an appeal.
Bankers Hill resident Ann Garwood owns a condominium on Seventh Avenue, down the street from the proposed development. She opposed the project, worrying that the lack of a setback on the upper floors facing Robinson Avenue could create a messy problem.
“What if a resident spits off the balcony?” she argued. “Somebody on the street could get hurt. What if a potted plant fell off?”
Garwood’s wife, Nancy Moors, informed the board that $15,000 has been raised so far for the lawsuit against the city over the CPU.
Several speakers argued that setbacks are important on tall buildings, but Ivory said it was not economically feasible on this project in order to fit in the nine affordable units.
Greystar, working in conjunction with Atlantis Group, took advantage of the city’s Affordable Housing Density Bonus. By providing the apartments for lower-income families, the developer is entitled to two zoning deviations and asked to exceed the 65-foot height limit and to reduce setbacks along the alley on the project’s west side.
Architect Ian Epley, a former member of Uptown Planners, said the developer has every right to build and that the debate had nothing to do with the height or size of the building. “Is it out of scale to the neighborhood?” he asked, referring to a homemade graphic made by Mullaney that purported to compare the Hillcrest 111 building’s height in comparison to the AT&T building — inexplicably not showing the unsightly tower of satellite dishes — and the residential properties along Seventh Avenue.
“You can’t use this as a baseline to the houses on Seventh,” Epley told Mullaney. “This is a neighborhood in transition.”
Indeed, Hillcrest 111 is the first piece of a long-term vision of the massive Uptown Gateway District project that proposes to transform the area roughly between Fourth and Seventh avenues and Washington Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
The temper tantrum
After the audience comment period was closed, the board unloaded.
Cindy Thorsen, Mat Wahlstrom and Tim Gahagan, in particular, attacked the process. “I want to make sure we’re heard,” Gahagan said, summing up the feelings of the board majority.
Soheil Nakshab, who often finds himself voting with the minority, told Ivory: “I feel sorry for you … you are feeling the wrath over the CPU.”
Board secretary Michael Brennan echoed Nakshab’s comments, telling Ivory that he feels “the anger of the community over the CPU is coming at you.”
Brennan noted that the Feb. 4 votes were far from unanimous, reflecting the divisions within the board.
Roy Dahl pointed out that the developer followed the rules and was awarded the affordable-housing bonuses. “We all know the outcome. Why appeal?”
Bill Ellig asked Ivory if the developer was going to fulfill the board’s recommendations.
“We can’t bring any more public parking,” Ivory said. “We’re already ‘overparking’ in our garage. We have 190 parking spots, lots more than city policy requires.”
Ivory said the setbacks and stepbacks are “almost impossible to provide” and that the developer is “most likely” to embrace solar but had to review the city’s new policies.
“We followed the process. We’re following the letter of the law,” he said. “There is no effort here to pull a fast one.”
The chair then called for a vote on the motion to approve a potential appeal to the hearing officer . It passed 9-5 with Jennifer Pesqueira abstaining along with the chair, Leo Wilson. Board member Maya Rosas had recused herself during the discussion, since she is involved in the Hillcrest Gateway District project. The aye votes were cast by Jay Newington, Tim Gahagan, Mat Wahlstrom, Bob Daniel, Gary Bonner, Bill Ellig, Amie Hayes, Cindy Thorsen and Tom Mullaney. The nay votes were cast by Roy Dahl, Dana Hook, Michael Brennan, Ken Tablang and Soheil Nakshab.
In other news
- At the meeting, Uptown Planners unanimously re-elected Leo Wilson as chair, Michael Brennan as secretary and Roy Dahl as treasurer, and elected Tom Mullaney as vice chair after he volunteered to do the job.
- They also unanimously voted to recommend approval of the Process 3 application of 2810 India St. SDP (“Stay SDP”) project to replace a rental car parking lot at Olive and India streets with a three-story hotel that will have subterranean parking. Dominique Houriet, lead designer with [oo-d-a] studio in San Diego, briefed the board on plans to provide “24 vacation accommodations for the community.” Wilson applauded the hotel project, saying the site is the “gateway to India Street” and “gets rid of an eyesore.” One neighbor complained about losing some sightlines due to the 30-foot height, but another neighbor said he was happy with the drawings.
Sara is the editor of San Diego Uptown News.