By Leo Wilson
On Jan. 28, the San Diego City Council will decide whether to approve a proposed 225-foot-high building in Bankers Hill across from Balboa Park. If approved, the Sixth Avenue and Olive Street (“6th & Olive”) project will be approximately 70 feet higher than any existing or previously approved structure in Bankers Hill. If built, it would cast a huge shadow over a large grassy area of Balboa Park during the afternoon. Uptown Planners, the recognized community planning group for Uptown, has recommended the 6th & Olive project be reduced to no more than 170 feet tall, so that it better fits in with the height and scale of the adjacent Bankers Hill community.
Bankers Hill is frequently referred to as a successful example of smart growth. Sixth Avenue in Bankers Hill features an eclectic mix of old and new buildings; historic buildings stand side by side with modern buildings that often are in the 150-foot height range. On the east side of Sixth Avenue is the West Mesa of Balboa Park, where thousands of San Diegans congregate each week to enjoy the park and engage in recreational activities. Families often picnic on the West Mesa to enjoy the sunshine and play games; these grassy areas serve as park space for residents from several nearby urban communities.
Bankers Hill welcomes new development and has been supportive of the placement of tall buildings along Fifth and Sixth avenues. For example, in 2011 there was wide community support for the original project approved for the 6th & Olive site, which was 158 feet tall. When the San Diego City Council approved the Uptown Community Plan update in November 2016, City Councilmember Todd Gloria praised the fact that Bankers Hill was willing to accept new growth and development, as well as work cooperatively with developers to plan new projects.
However, there are two issues that must be addressed when considering the appropriate height of proposed buildings on Fifth or Sixth avenues in Bankers Hill: the potential shadowing of Balboa Park, and the existence of a small plane flight path overhead.
The Uptown Community Plan, prior to its update in November 2016, contained a 150-foot height limit along Fifth and Sixth avenues in Bankers Hill. Along Sixth Avenue, whenever tall buildings have been proposed, they are encouraged to be designed with setbacks that move them away from Sixth Avenue to minimize the shadowing of Balboa Park — often the “tower” portion of a project is placed on the project’s west side along Fifth Avenue.
Another limitation on the height of taller buildings is the small plane flight path (CFR FAR 77 Horizontal Surface) that exists above Bankers Hill. It begins at approximately 170 feet above the proposed 6th & Olive project, and was a factor in the Uptown Planners’ motion that the “project not exceed 170-feet in height.”
The 6th & Olive project is the first proposed in Bankers Hill that would intrude into this small plane flight path. It is not uncommon for residents of existing tall buildings in Bankers Hill to wave to pilots as they fly by above them and subsequently make their turn west to land at San Diego International Airport.
It should be noted that Uptown Planners is supportive of the proposed density of the 6th & Olive project, and requested that the project incorporate “as much affordable housing as possible.”
Sadly, the current project will result in the demotion of the existing Park Chateau Apartments, an older building with 16 affordable housing units. Despite utilizing a low-income housing bonus to obtain a massive increase in height, the new project will only include 18 affordable units. This results in only a net gain of two affordable units from what previously existed.
The reduction of the height for the 6th & Olive project that Uptown Planners recommends will not result in a lower unit count, as the units displaced can be relocated to other parts of the building. This may also result in the replacement of luxury units with more affordable units, as was pointed out in a letter Uptown Planners submitted to the City Council.
“The top four stories of the 6th & Olive project contract just 22 luxury housing units; the top floor will have a sky lounge, pool and just four units. The next three floors down only have a total of 18 units. These 22 units could be relocated into a 170-foot building, as Uptown Planners recommends.
The added height of the 6th & Olive project benefits 22 luxury view units; but at the same time negatively impacts through shading park space utilized by thousands of people; including school children and working-class families from adjacent communities. The Uptown Planners motion supports providing as much affordable housing as possible; reducing the size of the luxury units and locating them lower in the building would help achieve this result.”
Uptown Planners hopes the City Council will support the modifications it has recommended to the 6th & Olive project on Jan. 28, which will protect Balboa Park from unnecessary shadowing, and may provide for a more affordable housing mix in the project.
—Leo Wilson is the chair of Uptown Planners.