Uptown Planners election this Tuesday

Uptown Planners election this Tuesday

The density and height limit debates have been going on in Uptown for eight years now, and they’ve come to a head with the long-delayed update to the 1988 Uptown Community Plan. The Plan will determine zoning for decades to come throughout Hillcrest, Bankers Hill, Mission Hills and University Heights. The current Plan proposed by the city reduces densities throughout much of Uptown versus the 1988 Plan. The main exception is the commercial core of Hillcrest, where densities would remain the same:

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Uptown Planners narrowly rejected this proposal at a recent special meeting, and instead re-affirmed their own proposal, which would greatly reduce densities and building heights in west Hillcrest. For more background, please see this Uptown News summary of the meeting. As part of their excellent coverage of this issue, they also published a piece written by a representative of west Hillcrest’s commercial property owners, who have been advised to sell their properties if Uptown Planners’ recommended downzoning (109 dwelling units/acre to 44) and height reductions (150-200 feet to 50/65) for their properties are approved. (Imagine investing millions in a commercial property to then have its value halved by the local planning committee.) As a result, these properties would likely remain parking lots and one-story retail instead of vibrant mixed-use developments and a potential boutique hotel.

The city’s Climate Action Plan legally requires the city to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing walking, biking and public transit use in urban neighborhoods like Uptown. Its proposal for west Hillcrest simply continues the zoning needed for transit-oriented development in the area. Mixed-use commercial and residential developments won’t pencil out at current land values unless we continue existing heights and densities in the area.

Many middle class San Diegans can’t afford to live in an increasingly expensive Uptown due to the lack of new housing in the neighborhood. To keep Uptown diverse and vibrant, I believe we need to accommodate residents of all ages and incomes. One way to do this is to support this slate of candidates up for the seven open board seats at next Tuesday’s Uptown Planners meeting:


These candidates support preserving Uptown’s historic residential areas while working with the city to meet its Climate Action Plan goals on transit corridors.

As the flyer points out, Uptown’s issues aren’t limited to just density. They include walkability, infrastructure for people on foot and bikes, and various quality of life issues. Both Joshua Clark and Maya Rosas have been endorsed by BikeSD for their support of safer streets. I know both of them personally, having met Maya through her complete streets advocacy work for Circulate SD, and Joshua for his bike lane planning work on the Pershing Bikeway in North Park. Another candidate on the above slate, Judy Tentor, volunteers her time for the San Diego Bike Coalition.

Given the importance of Uptown’s Community Plan, please consider voting on Tuesday at 6PM at the Joyce Beers Center at The Hub in Hillcrest. Thanks for taking the time to think about what Uptown’s future holds for current homeowners *and* renters/future residents who face affordability challenges. Next I’ll go into my usual long-winded detail on the issues involved, so feel free to bail out now.

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I appreciate that every Uptown Planners board member and candidate is willing to volunteer their time for a four year term. Obviously they care about their neighborhoods to be this engaged – if only more San Diegans were! But as someone who’s long been interested in urban planning, complete streets and progressive issues such as affordable housing, I just disagree with what some of the candidates’ priorities.

The flyer for the anti-density slate of candidates states that “parking and traffic” are their top priorities. But most of these candidates already own homes in Uptown, so they’re not affected by the region’s housing unaffordability crisis. In fact, they’ve enjoyed large home appreciation gains in part by making it harder to build new housing.

Uptown Planning Chair Jim Mellos probably summed up this viewpoint best when he said that as a third-generation Mission Hills resident, I disagree with people who moved here recently” who want more housing in Uptown.
To me, this implies only established residents get to decide who lives in Uptown, because their traffic concerns trump housing for others. Mellos also said we need to “keep density low until staff finds a solution to the traffic situation” – while offering no solution. Uptown homeowners deserve to have a strong voice, but certainly not the final say over neighborhood zoning when it conflicts with the city’s Climate Action Plan and state affordable housing laws. In fact, the CAP precludes community group downzoning in Transit Priority zones like Hillcrest.

Other anti-density candidates say they support “smart growth with infrastructure”, yet don’t specify what that infrastructure is. This really means widening roads and building more parking garages. Yet these measures only worsen congestion through induced demand and more parking capacity, while making streets more unsafe for pedestrians and bicyclists. While these approaches might be justified in a suburban world with no air pollution or climate change challenges, these are terrible planning ideas for real-world, urban Uptown. And with younger Americans driving less, using ride share, and alternative transit modes, why would we apply 1960’s-era planning to Uptown for decades to come?

I’m also concerned about community character and don’t think we should increase density on residential streets, except allowing granny flats and bungalow court-style housing. But our commercial streets can surely allow more density – look at east University Ave. in Hillcrest, a largely car-oriented set of one-story strip malls.

For brevity’s sake I’m skipping the “new housing will always be too expensive” argument the anti-density folks have been using, and just linking to this article that explains why that’s simply not true. Here’s the related roundtable discussion that explores the affordability problem in more detail, including a number of approaches to it. Preventing all new housing is not one of the solutions.

Increased density also corresponds to higher bike mode shares, and one of the most important issues for me has been the lack of safe pedestrian and bike infrastructure in Uptown. Unfortunately Uptown Planners has a mixed record on safe streets. They rejected the SANDAG Uptown Bike Corridor, then after it was removed from University Avenue, supported the concept of a bike corridor there someday. While serving as Uptown Planners board chair, Leo Wilson (who’s running again for the board on the anti-density slate) filed a CEQA lawsuit against the city to remove the buffered bike lane from 5th Avenue . The current chair of Uptown Planners, Jim Mellos, is the attorney on the lawsuit. State law now directs that road diets can no longer be rejected under CEQA, yet the lawsuit lives on. Wilson also opposed any road diets on 4th/5th/6th avenues. Another candidate for Uptown Planners, Tim Gahagan, recently voted for the Uptown Parking District to reject multi-modal projects like the Uptown Bikeway if they cause any loss of parking. This directly contradicts the city’s legal obligations to increase bike mode share under its Climate Action Plan.

When the North Park Planning Committee voted recently to increase density along its rapid bus line, Uptown density opponents noted that west Hillcrest didn’t have a rapid bus line and therefore shouldn’t accept any more density. One suggestion was to move the density proposed for west Hillcrest to Park Boulevard, even as they downzoned the parcel at El Cajon and Park Boulevard:

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In reality, there are actually multiple bus lines that travel through Hillcrest, many of which will be upgraded to semi-rapid status over the next several years. A streetcar is also planned for 6th Avenue. But when Uptown Planners rejected SANDAG’s multi-million dollar investment in the Uptown Bikeway because it removed some street parking, wouldn’t any decision maker question the wisdom of investing future transit funds there? The slate of candidates shown above will work with SANDAG and the city to ensure Uptown residents have a variety of safe, convenient transit options to choose from.

Finally, an argument I often hear is, “San Diego has always been an expensive place to live”, and therefore we should just accept the current unaffordability crisis. While that may be true at the coast, much of Uptown was actually much more affordable 20-30 years ago when the anti-density slate of candidates bought their homes. It’s possible they can’t comprehend the challenges faced by renters and first-time buyers, many of whom face much higher transportation and education costs than previous generations.

Let’s move beyond the priorities of traffic, parking and home value appreciation, to the more important challenges of climate change and housing affordability. We can do this by supporting Uptown Planners candidates who will work to implement San Diego’s Climate Action Plan and transit-oriented development in our neighborhoods.

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