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It always pays to read the fine print. San Diego city planners learned this lesson the hard way last month, when they belatedly discovered that their two-year-old proposal to rezone the commercial center of Pacific Beach, in order to restore its small-town character consistent with the neighborhood’s community plan, contained a clause that would actually do more harm than good.

One of the areas to be rezoned was the 12-block stretch of Garnet Avenue, between Mission Boulevard and the west and Morrell Street on the east. The community plan’s dream of a sort of “Main Street U.S.A.” along this part of Garnet had never quite materialized because of unrestricted commercial development and bumper-to-bumper traffic, caused in large part by a lack of off-street parking.

The strip’s proposed rezoning from commercial (C) to community commercial (CC), says principal city planner Greg Konar, “seemed logical” because it would limit new commercial use to businesses that cater to residents rather than tourists (markets, drugstores, hardware stores and the like). In addition, the rezoning would require each new business to provide at least one off-street parking space for every 800 square-feet of retail area. “The existing C zone allows any kind of business and imposes no off-street parking requirements,” Konar says. “And that prevents us from achieving the goals set forth in the community plan.”

It took nearly a year for the proposed rezoning of Garnet Avenue to gain preliminary approval from the San Diego City Council and the state Coastal Commission. It took another year before the plan was officially presented to the community at a public hearing on March 24 of this year. And only then came the discovery that planners had apparently not scrutinized the existing definition of “community commercial,” because they overlooked a clause that imposes a cap of 5000 square feet on any new business in a CC zone.

What types of businesses normally exceed that limit? Markets, drugstores, and hardware stores — precisely the sorts of retailers city planners wanted to encourage. Furthermore, of the 261 existing businesses along Garnet Avenue, approximately 20 exceed the 5000 square-foot limit. Virtually all of these businesses cater to residents rather than tourists; among them are Boney’s Market, Tommy’s TV, Home Federal Savings and Loan, and Golden State Fabrics. Under the proposed CC rezoning, they would be “grandfathered” in and allowed to continue operations, but only under “nonconforming” status. This means that if they ever need to be remodeled or rebuilt, they would be subject to the 5000 square-foot limit as well. Understandably, nonconforming status often leads to credit problems, says a spokesman for City Councilman Bruce Henderson, whose district includes Pacific Beach. “If you can’t rebuild, you can’t borrow as much money against your property – and that generally means your credit line goes down by at least $100,000.”

Planner Greg Konar admits to being surprised about the clause that, in effect, “would discourage those same kind of uses we want to encourage. Apparently nobody noticed the 5000 square-foot restriction before,” Konar says, “or at least, no one thought it would be critical.”

But critical it was; and while the proposed CC zoning will still be presented to the city council on June 13 for a final vote, it will be without the planning department’s recommendation. “It’s still a viable alternative,” Konar says, “but if it’s not what the community wants, we’re simply going to have to come up with something else.”

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