Hillcrest skyline (view south toward downtown)
  • Hillcrest skyline (view south toward downtown)
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The Hillcrest Business Improvement District has added community planning to its list of responsibilities.

Ben Nicholls

Ben Nicholls

In June 2016, Ben Nicholls, executive director for the Hillcrest Business Association, the nonprofit that manages the local business improvement district, celebrated his role in circumventing Uptown’s planning group and convincing city planners to draft a community plan that doubles the height limits of buildings in areas of Hillcrest, maintains density increases, and deletes a long-standing plan to create a historic district in the heart of Hillcrest.

“I completed a plan that was begun in 2011 to engage with the Uptown plan process that sidestepped the Uptown Planners and proposed a business friendly agenda for the plan,” wrote Nicholls in his June 2016 annual performance review to the association’s board of directors.

Sidestepping the local planning group, says Nicholls, was essential, considering Hillcrest’s inadequate representation on the Uptown Planners, the community planning group that reviews projects for Hillcrest, University Heights, Mission Hills, Banker’s Hill, and Middletown.

“The Uptown Planners, while well intentioned, hasn’t represented Hillcrest well at any time I’ve been involved in Hillcrest,” writes Nicholls in a June 17 email. “Only two years ago, the Uptown Planners had no Hillcrest representation, residential or commercial, at all. The [Hillcrest Business Association] then made the decision to forward our comments and ideas directly to city staff rather than through a group that had no Hillcrest representatives. While the Uptown Planners have a more representative roster at this point, even today I don’t believe that our members’ input would get a fair hearing.”

What makes the move unusual is community-wide planning issues are not typically in the purview of a business improvement district.

Business owners in improvement districts such as Hillcrest’s pay an annual assessment. Proceeds are then directed to a nonprofit corporation that manages the district and disburses the funds for projects that improve the area with the goal of making it better for business. For added revenue, the nonprofit throws special events and administers farmers’ markets.

But the nonprofit associations must adhere to strict guidelines regarding how they use the assessments. The enabling ordinance that governs the Hillcrest Business Association “strictly limits” the districts to the following activities: “advertising and promotion of the area; cleanup and landscaping of public right-of-way; newsletter to [business improvement district] members; holiday decorations and business development in the district.”

So, where does lobbying city planners and working to sidestep local planning groups fit into that?

Nicholls says it doesn’t have to. His salary is paid for by events and fundraising, not with assessments. That leaves him free to lobby whomever he and his board want. In addition, Nicholls says he is only following what his board has asked of his predecessors.“Every board president that has overseen the [Hillcrest Business Association] during my tenure has advocated that we be part of the [community] plan update. I follow this direction.“

The board asked him to intervene in planning issues as a result of what he calls a desire by many Hillcrest residents to “stifle business.”

Nicholls says capping height limits, failing to increase density, and designating much of the business district historic, all items initially written into the draft community plan, smothers future growth.

To stymy their anti-business platform, Nicholls teamed up with the Uptown Gateway Council. The group, as reported by the Reader, included some of Hillcrest’s largest property owners and was represented by land-use lobbyist Marcela Escobar Eck.

In early June, members of the Uptown Planners were shocked to learn that city planners had fallen in line with the Uptown Gateway Council and the Hillcrest Business Association.

Hillcrest resident, business owner, and planning group member Mat Wahlstrom has battled Nicholls for years, accusing him of turning the association into a rogue organization that caters to developers and influential property owners, not the local business people.

“[Nicholls’s] efforts on behalf of absentee landowners and outside developers don’t provide even an indirect benefit to the assessed local businesses. Adding to that, the Hillcrest Business Association, which is funded by tax dollars and as a 501(c)6 is supposed to act only on behalf of all of its members equally, has been working with these outside developers as their agent.”

Michael Wright owned City Deli, formerly located at the corner of University and Sixth avenues, in the heart of the business district. During his years as a business owner and Hillcrest resident, Wright served on numerous boards since the ’80s, including the Hillcrest Business Association. Wright is unhappy with the new enhanced scope of services that Nicholls and the business association have adopted.

“Plain and simple, this is not the business association’s mission,” Wright said in a June phone interview. “They should be working directly with neighborhood businesses, promoting them. They also need to ensure that alleys are clean, trash and graffiti is removed, making it more inviting for residents and visitors. It’s not glamorous work but it’s what the business association is there for and what these local businesses need. The association seems to be avoiding those things. Nicholls has been saying things that have not been supported by the HBA board, and there’s nobody to rein him in at this point.”

Nicholls sees it differently. “The Hillcrest Business Association should absolutely be involved in community planning. It doesn’t matter how many street fairs we hold or promotions we run, if the neighborhood plan is going to stifle business, Hillcrest will continue to stagnate as it has since height limits were forced on the community.”

Nicholls believes new commercial and residential development is key to Hillcrest’s future. And with new developments, he says, come new and improved infrastructure, a new focus on transit, and less need for parking.

“In 2010 we began a process to engage our members to gather their input on what they wanted to see for the plan. It was called Hillcrest 2.0 and involved comments from over 200 business people at five different forums. Our meetings had vastly more input than the Uptown Planners meetings or the city workshops. Our members advocated for Little Italy–style development. My members want the kind of improvements that we’ve seen in that dynamic neighborhood. I have taken this mandate and advocated for it.”

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MichaelValentine July 20, 2016 @ 8:29 p.m.

Mr. Nicholls seems to be working for outside developers more so then the local businesses.


nostalgic July 21, 2016 @ 8:26 a.m.

This is only the first of many. The City of San Diego has recently modified the rules for forming Maintenance Assessment Districts to be less restrictive. Mr. Nichols was at the City Council meeting to support the change. These districts are run by "owner's associations" with no real definition of what that is, but the fees are collected by the San Diego County Tax Collector's office as part of a property tax bill.


LovesHillcrest July 21, 2016 @ 8:45 a.m.

It's quite sad that the Hillcrest Business Association isn't supporting the long-standing small businesses along the east side of Sixth Avenue between Robinson and Pennsylvania. Instead, its director has sold them out to a developer (the Greenwald Group represented by Elizabeth Robinson) who wants to build 120, 150 or 200-foot buildings where the heights are now 0-25 feet. Bigger, taller, better -- right? Wrong.

What about those of us who care about residents losing sunshine and their quality of life? Do we really need more density in the heart of Hillcrest? No.

Where will more traffic park their cars? Hillcrest is a mess now. The HBA could work on the problem, instead of making it worse.

Why does the HBA want to alienate the community of residents who surround it? Perhaps this tactic by Ben Nicholls and the HBA is why businesses in Hillcrest needs a boost.

Hillcrest needs less traffic and more love. It's too bad that HBA director Ben Nicholls continues to be destructive to the quality of life for those of us who call Hillcrest home.


SDinsider July 21, 2016 @ 10:41 a.m.

For years Uptown Planners has blocked growth and development that did not fit in their myopic vision of the area. It is about time that they have been struck with a blow. Lets look at areas where redevelopment worked: #1 Mission, This development was fought and became the catalyst of the change in the Mission Hills Business District, Atlas was fought and this brought in new life to that area in Hillcrest, The NorthParker once a junk shop now has amazing venues for all to enjoy, Mr Robinson was subject to controversy it was once a dirty auto shop on a historic block now that area of Park Blvd is thriving. 6th Avenue as it is, does not utilize space well with single and double story buildings that do not have parking and almost no residential. The whole community gripes about Pernicanos yet they wont allow the owner to develop the property as they would like costing the sale of the vacant property to fall through. Change is upon us and you can embrace it or eat a bowl of sour grapes.


Geranium July 23, 2016 @ 8:02 a.m.

I need to point out your comment regarding Pernicanos makes no sense. Are you suggesting all landowners should have the right to develop their property as they wish? What that means is no zoning laws at all, is that what you are advocating? The owner of the Pernicanos site has been able to develop at any point over the last many decades, but they needed to adhere to the law. The issue is simply that the current owner wants to change the law to make the land more valuable, then sell it. Its about money for them, not community.


HillcrestFan July 21, 2016 @ 4:05 p.m.

WHAT A FREAKING SHOCKER! Ben, Hillcrest's biggest egomaniac, has been truly without care or compassion for the people who actually live in Hillcrest for years! This is an attempt at gentrification - push diversity, sense of community, affordable housing, and Top 10 best places to live status OUT - so he can appease business, greedy landowners and developers and NONE of them live here!
To blame poor attendance of Hillcrest events on anything but the same vendors and venue, poor event planning and advertisement, and plain laziness is ridiculous. So, the solution is build ridiculous, unwanted high rises in against community wishes so he can have a better street fair? Really Ben? But, that is what is important to Ben and his ego. How about we PUT THIS ON THE BALLOT and let the RESIDENTS DECIDE? Or is democracy beneath Ben and his ilk. It is money, power, and their way. Business is not staying here because landowners jack up the rent, then whine when businesses don't stay.
So the solution is to remove the great atmosphere of Hillcrest and slow it down, make it safer to grossly tall buildings with increased population, less parking, no sustainable infrastructure, and higher property values that will only allow for the wealthy. And, to then blame residents because they wish to have improvements and growth that makes sense and works to maintain some of the charm of Hillcrest. ALL GREED! And, it is no surprise this is all backdoor dealings. That is how Ben and his ilk work.....don't listen or work with the current residents, but rather insult them, ignore them, and keep them out of these discussions that will impact them in the future.
PUT THIS TO A VOTE AND LET THE PEOPLE DECIDE, not one man's ego and love of power.


Geranium July 21, 2016 @ 5:36 p.m.

Is Ben Nicholls suggesting the City chose to listen to him and his business association instead of the official, elected entity, Uptown Planners, that exists to be the official method for the community to address building and development in Uptown to the City? Wow. Maybe the city should just dissolve it and let developers and big land owners meet privately with city officials to tell them what they want. But that is essentially what Ben Nicholls is saying. There was a 7 year process that involved many many many residents, business owners and interested parties that was part of Uptown Planners. And the plan provided lots of opportunity for development. The problem is that a very few people own the bulk of the commercial property in Hillcrest and they are hoping for a huge payday at the expense of the community. So they have been working every angle they can to undo the will of the community. If they were to sell their property for the value it has with the current zoning it would sell quickly and lots of new buildings would start to be designed. What started Little Italy's resurgence wasn't giving big developers the ability to tear down entire blocks and build massive buildings, it was the creativity of the small infill projects. But those can't happen in Hillcrest because of the land being locked up by developers wanting to increase the zoning, not for the community but for their own profit. I have sat through many Uptown Planners meetings and I don't hear folks say no development. I hear them say humanly scaled development that works with the existing neighborhood.

And if Ben really cared about making Hillcrest dynamic he would support it finally getting the designation as a historic district. A historic district doesn't mean that development stops, it means that its forced to enhance the existing character of a neighborhood. Historic districts tend to be vibrant commercial communities. But they also make it hard for greedy developers to make a lot of money and leave town.

Ben clearly isn't doing this out of respect for the community, I can assume it's to lead to some new opportunity for himself, maybe working as lobbyist for developers, if he isn't already.


Zonker July 21, 2016 @ 8:18 p.m.

OMG! Mr Nichols is using "Hilcrest 2.0" as justificaton for his actions. I atteneded those workshops and the consensus couldn't have been clearer: The majority of residents AND business owners wanted 2-3 story development throughout Hillcrest so as to enhance the character of the neighborhood. Over the years, the HBA has pulled out Hillcrest 2.0 and each time the results are changed to suit the desires of a few wealthy land owners and developers. A few years ago, at an Uptown Planners meeting, when caught in the fabrication, the president of the HBA was almost reduced to tears. There were too many people present who knew the truth and they took him to task for altering the results of Hillcrest 2.0. It was hard to watch. I think Mr Nichols needs to find a different way to explain his rabid devotion to a few developers. I just wonder why Hillcrest business owners put up with a representative who advocates against their wishes and at the same time is alienating the residents who make up the bulk of their customers?


nostalgic July 22, 2016 @ 1:36 p.m.

Other communities, get ready! Efforts to bypass elected planning boards with rules, like bylaws and the Brown act, are coming your way.


HonestGovernment July 22, 2016 @ 6:51 p.m.

The self-appointed bully of Hillcrest has a national doppelganger:

That would be the current national disgrace, Trump, whose ludicrous sense of importance and self-worth are as laughable as his resume, whose vulgar bullying persona is defined by jibes, taunts and cruelties, who marries more talented women and whose coarseness and megalomania increase with each inevitable divorce, and who publicly says ugly things about any woman he feels slights him (though not in blogs, as the local guy does). Not to mention bad business deals and losing money in real estate. The parallels are uncanny.

Fear and loathing are what keep them going. Oh, yeah: another parallel: once self-identifying as a Republican (Democrat) and then, as is useful, sucking up to every Democrat (Republican) available.


laplayaheritage July 23, 2016 @ 2:27 p.m.

Many successful local developers in San Diego live within gated communities, and within the City of San Diego in the Agricultural-Residential AR Zones. These same developers that have protections for their private McMasions estates through Agricultural Zoning, try to upzone and densify regular other San Diego Residential (R) neighborhoods to create wealth, away from where they live.

In order to allow for low density residential subdivisions, with rural characters, and active recreation like golf; our Municipal Code includes Agricultural-Residential (AR) Zones. Including Zone AR-1-1 for minimum 10 acre lots, and Zone AR-1-2 for minimum 1 acre lots. Low density neighborhoods keep their value, as they limit development and require open space. See the AR-zoned green areas including Fairbanks Ranch, The Grande Del Mar at Del Mar Mesa, and Black Mountain Ranch.

http://www.sandiego.gov/development-services/zoning/pdf/maps/grid35.pdf http://www.sandiego.gov/development-services/zoning/pdf/maps/grid39.pdf http://www.sandiego.gov/development-services/zoning/pdf/maps/grid40.pdf


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