By Omar Rawi
Next week, the San Diego City Council will consider the appeal of the Planning Commission’s unanimous approval of the Sixth Avenue and Olive Street (“6th & Olive”) project. The proposed project will add 204 new homes to Bankers Hill, including 18 that are designated affordable for low-income residents. The planned project shares a site with St. Paul’s Cathedral and will provide office and meeting space, as well as 70 onsite parking spaces, to support the cathedral’s vital ministry to the community.
San Diego is in the midst of a severe housing crisis, and Bankers Hill is an ideal location for additional housing. It’s adjacent to employment centers, walkable, bike-friendly and served by multiple high-frequency bus lines. City leaders are insisting that new projects along public transportation corridors maximize the number of housing units on their sites and include income-restricted affordable units onsite rather than paying “in-lieu” fees. The 6th & Olive project meets these goals.
Local businesses will benefit tremendously from the new customers that the project will bring to the neighborhood. They’ll also benefit from the increase in street parking that the new building will provide. With the provision of ample off-street parking for both cathedral attendees and future residents, the project will free up 50 street spaces now frequently occupied by cathedral visitors and staff.
Despite all of its benefits, the project has been met with opposition from some members of the community who believe the residential building is too tall.
A great deal of thought and care went into the design and site planning of the 6th & Olive project, with an emphasis on how to make its height work in the context of its surroundings. Unlike its shorter, but broader, counterparts along Fifth and Sixth avenues, 6th & Olive is tall and slim. The east-west orientation of its broad side minimizes the area of its shadow on Balboa Park. The building also steps down along Sixth Avenue, which will preserve a feeling of openness around the cathedral while also maximizing view corridors to and from Balboa Park.
Most importantly, by building vertically instead of sprawling horizontally over the site it shares with St. Paul’s Cathedral, it leaves space for a 10,000-square-foot courtyard that will be accessible to the public on a daily basis. This park-like setting will also provide a special community gathering space for celebrations such as Pride and December Nights.
Opponents have claimed the building poses an air safety hazard. This is completely without evidence. Both the Federal Aviation Administration and the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority have examined the project and determined it will not pose a hazard to air navigation safety. An independent aviation expert evaluated the claims put forth by the community planning group and found them to be false and technically unsupported.
Some members of the community have also expressed concern that the project’s approval would lead to many more tall buildings in Bankers Hill, particularly along Sixth Avenue facing Balboa Park. However, an examination of the development history and potential of the several blocks north and south of 6th & Olive makes it clear that the height profile from Laurel to Quince streets is set for at least the next several decades. This is because nearly every property has a historic structure, a new building, or a recently entitled project. Moreover, very few new projects have even attempted to take advantage of the removal of the height limit in the Uptown Community Plan Update. The construction of tall buildings is very costly; given the choice, most developers would choose to build a shorter, broader building. In the case of the 6th & Olive project, it was the constraint of sharing a site with the iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral that motivated the design of a taller, slim building instead.
Finally, opponents claim the 6th & Olive project will cast an outsized shadow onto Balboa Park. In reality, the shadow cast by the proposed building will be longer but far narrower than those of its neighbors. The portion of the shadow that is longer than the broad shadows of its neighbors will be cast over a parking lot and a canyon — not over the grassy recreational area as has been suggested.
Arguments that the project would be better for Bankers Hill if the height were reduced fail to acknowledge the larger context and care that went into the design. Those making the case for a shorter building do not give enough weight to the project’s exceptional architecture, the beauty and functionality of the courtyard, or the economics that will provide for onsite affordable housing. A reduction in height would be at the expense of the courtyard or the onsite affordable units — likely both. Those tradeoffs are not in the best interest of St. Paul’s, Bankers Hill or the city of San Diego.
Greystar and St. Paul’s commitment to the community has guided us to a project that does its part to address the housing crisis and supports the cathedral’s ministry and service to the community. We are grateful to have earned the strong support of so many of our neighbors and civic leaders.
—Omar Rawi is a senior director for Greystar and project manager for the 6th & Olive project.