By Hutton Marshall
City planners solicit input on plan update’s land-use portion
Every few decades, the Uptown Community Plan is rewritten to guide how the area will grow and develop over the next generation. On July 21, city planners will hold a public meeting to discuss perhaps the most consequential portion of the document: land use.
Uptown — comprised of Bankers Hill, Hillcrest, Mission Hills and half of University Heights — is difficult to sum up succinctly because of its diversity. From the quaint historic neighborhoods of Mission Hills to the bustling home of the LGBT community in Hillcrest bumping up against the high rises of Bankers Hill, how Uptown’s land is used varies sharply by square mile.
The draft’s land-use portion addresses each neighborhood, as well as overarching planning strategies for the Uptown community. All community plans in San Diego are supposed to adhere to a few city planning tenets contained in the city’s General Plan, the master planning document for San Diego.
One of the most-talked-about planning strategies that community plans are supposed (but not mandated) to incorporate is the City of Villages strategy adopted in 2004. This encourages urban micro-clusters of mixed-use development near transit and commercial hubs. The idea is to reduce the environmental footprint of city development by creating more walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods. Uptown’s land-use draft states that it incorporates this into the strategy as well.
After a drawn-out battle centered in Hillcrest over density and building-height increases, the draft proposes such increases in less controversial portions of the community, such as the already sky-scraping Bankers Hill and the underdeveloped region between North Park and Hillcrest around the intersection of University Avenue and Park Boulevard. Densities and height limits in single-family neighborhoods would remain unchanged in the name of preserving “community character,” intangible qualities of a neighborhood giving it unique charm.
The plan points out, however, that Uptown’s last community plan update in 1988 had some ambitious density increases in mind, which have yet to be completely realized.
“The 1988 Community Plan proposed some of the highest development intensities in the city outside of Downtown within commercial corridors that today still have many low-scale older buildings,” the plan states. “However, the rate of new development since 1988 has been modest and uneven so that a grander vision of unified, prominent buildings along major corridors has oftentimes resulted in a mosaic of awkward scale transitions (a key issue of this plan).”
The plan also incorporates what many see as a compromise between residents and developers, the Incentive Zoning Program. This gives developers the freedom to propose projects that exceed the area’s building height limit, while leaving the project’s approval to the discretion of city planners and community planning groups. Ideally, this creates an incentive for developers to include public-benefitting amenities, such as park space or parking, that will make the project more alluring to the community. This program, fully fleshed out in the plan update’s urban design section, is only applicable in certain areas.
These community plan updates are applicable at least 20 years into the future. Uptown’s plan was last updated 27 years ago. Once Uptown’s plan is implemented, city planners estimated that the community’s population will increase from 36,061 to 56,025.
Chris Ward, a 2016 City Council candidate for the District 3 (which encompasses Uptown), commented through email on the importance of finding a balance between increasing density and preserving single-family neighborhoods.
“It is important that we structure planned density to areas that appropriately accommodate the growth, while meeting the city’s General Plan goals and future population pressures,” said Ward, who also sits on the Uptown Planners board. “This also helps to, for the foreseeable future, protect the existing character of some single-family and lower density neighborhoods as well as our precious network of open space canyon areas.
“We balance these to achieve a number of goals: providing a variety of housing types for all age, income, and social groups; enhancing active commercial districts including pedestrian-oriented designs which benefit from a sustainable level of residential development and transportation options; directing multi-family developments to not detract from the surrounding neighborhoods but rather provide better transitions in scale between future and existing patterns; and preserving natural hillsides, canyons, and structures with potential historical significance — all characteristics which make Uptown a place that residents, business owners and visitors want to be.”
In Hillcrest, the epicenter of Uptown, the primary goals of the land-use draft are to increase commercial activity “especially those that generate pedestrian-oriented activity into the evening” (i.e. restaurants and bars), increase open space with the use of mini-parks (most notably at the University Avenue and Normal Street “Pride Plaza” intersection), and ramp up development and density around the stretch of Park Boulevard near University Avenue that bridges Hillcrest to North Park.
The latter goal includes playing up the historic Egyptian Quarter on Park Boulevard south of University Avenue, a once-thriving thematic commercial district that now shows the beginnings of a revival, with businesses like Heat Bar & Kitchen livening up the thoroughfare to attract customers. A site in front of Heat was the initial trial run for the aforementioned mini-parks or “parklets” in Hillcrest.
Rich Grousset, a member-at-large for the Hillcrest Town Council (HTC), said the residents group is pleased to see their recommendations — many of which were for low building heights — taken into account. Still, he said, concerns remain about density increases in or around the neighborhood.
“Related to density in general, some [HTC members] believe the city should update Hillcrest’s infrastructure to meet current demand before the community accepts increased density,” Grousset said. “And as far as density bonuses, some community members believe that the bonus system will result in increased uncertainty for the neighborhood and developers, as each project would require a negotiation about the type and scale of amenities that would merit a bonus.”
In Bankers Hill, perhaps hoping to replicate Downtown pedestrian hotbeds such as Little Italy, the draft calls for increased development and pedestrian enhancements along the more populated portions of the area. One residents group in the neighborhood has long lamented the high speeds and scarce crossing points on Sixth Avenue, a high-volume link between Hillcrest and Downtown.
University Heights is split at Texas Street between two planning areas, Uptown and North Park. Residents of University Heights, most vocally the University Heights Community Association, have advocated for the city to redraw the Uptown planning area’s borders to fully encompass University Heights as part of this plan update. A smaller group of residents have even called for Uptown’s borders to extend all the way down Adams Avenue to its intersection with the Interstate 805. This proposed draft, or at least the land-use portion of it, makes no mention of the issue.
Anthony Bernal, also a candidate for the District 3 City Council seat and a longtime aide to termed-out Councilmember Todd Gloria, said he is glad the plan is nearing completion, but withheld praise of specific aspects of the plan until the community input process.
“I’m thrilled to see a draft community plan update for Uptown. Having worked alongside Councilmember Gloria for the past six years, I know that the Uptown neighborhoods have been calling for more public space, diversified housing, and vibrant business and shopping districts while maintaining the community’s overall character,” Bernal said through email. “I’m eager to receive further input from residents during the public review process, particularly with regard to urban design elements, and doing what I can thereafter to help find the right balance between the community and the building industry for implementation. Nevertheless, this is a tremendous first step for Uptown.”
Those unable to attend the July 21 meeting can give feedback directly to the city’s lead planner on the update, Marlon Pangilinan, by contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Contact Hutton Marshall at email@example.com.