Watchers of land-use politics in San Diego were surprised when late last year two names usually on opposite sides of controversial building projects suddenly showed up in TV interviews espousing the same passionately held position on a major renewal project in Hillcrest. It took California’s Department of Motor Vehicles to make momentary brothers-in-arms out of adversaries Mat Wahlstrom and Benjamin Nicholls.
Few among those who keep tabs on local “smart-growth” versus “creative-density” battles have forgotten an eruption of murmurs that rumbled across a packed Joyce Beers Community Center in early 2016. That was when Wahlstrom, his fellow directors on the Uptown Planners Board, and a hundred or so constituents got a good look at a new plan from the City of San Diego aimed at helping to combat climate change. It was the night Wahlstrom stood up to give a singular voice to a community’s collective anger about the Climate Action Plan’s power to subsume a years-long effort to ensure an updated master plan would keep housing growth near a modest four percent level of increase.
Seeing developers as the real motivators and the true beneficiaries of the Climate Action Plan’s power to usurp Uptown Planners’ efforts to keep growth modest, Wahlstrom famously said to those gathered that night at the Beers Community Center adjacent to The Hub shopping center on Richmond, a block north of University Avenue, “What these people want is the farm and the sky and everything in between.”
Wherever Mat Wahlstrom believes big real estate developers are lurking behind any plan that would impact Hillcrest, Uptown, Banker’s Hill, Mission Hills, or any of the locales under the influence of Hillcrest Business Association — the city-contracted operator of a powerful business improvement district — he suspects the machinations of Ben Nicholls, the business group’s executive director, must be in play.
Around the time of that raucus, 2016 meeting, Wahlstrom took on a group of developers who’d recently united under the moniker, Hillcrest Gateway Council. In a guest column at Uptown News, he called the group, whose loudest cheerleader he says is Benjamin Nicholls, nothing more than a cabal of “absentee landowners” led by the Pernicano Family. The Pernicanos’ shuttered steakhouse and parking lot located on Sixth between Robinson and University Avenues in Hillcrest and has for three decades defiantly blighted its immediate surroundings.
“The Gateway group seeks to exploit,” wrote Wahlstrom. He was particularly incensed by the demise of a longstanding historic-neighborhood status that had for decades protected several blocks in the heart of Hillcrest emanating outwardly from Fifth and University Avenues with building-height restrictions that formerly put a 65-foot maximum on all structures. At the time of his guest column, Wahlstrom and likeminded community members were aghast at the possibility that the limit could be raised as high as 200 feet.
“By going behind the community’s back and making ridiculous demands, they’re trying to hijack the debate then guilt opponents into ‘meeting them half way,’” he wrote. “There is simply no reason for this, except to bulldoze existing buildings and turn the streets of Hillcrest into canyons of condo high-rises for outside investors.”
Wahlstrom has frequently painted Nicholls as the front man for greedy “outside developers” who he says would build anything anywhere that might make a buck. Wahlstrom has found allies among those in the local business community who’ve become fatigued by Hillcrest Business Association and its growing portfolio of projects, campaigns, and other endeavors — not to mention its power to assess fees on behalf of the city.
A common enemy
At issue by late 2018 were 2.5 acres, that will for the first time in more than half a century become, at least momentarily, a blank canvas.
The existing Hillcrest motor vehicles office floats in a sea of asphalt on an almost triangular lot a block north of University Avenue bordered by Cleveland Avenue, Normal Street, and Lincoln Avenue. There are currently 158 parking spaces surrounding what is one of San Diego’s most uninspired examples of 1960s public-sector architecture.
As the rarity of agreement between Nicholls and Wahlstrom illustrates, the new building design that would have replaced the 56-year-old one was equally bereft of admirers.
“It really creates this ‘fortress DMV,’ which we are really hostile to,” Nicholls told 10 News.
Particularly vexing to Wahlstrom, Nicholls, and others in the local community is a plan to encircle the outer perimeter of the facility with seven-foot tall wrought-iron fence.
“That fence has got to go,” Nicholls says. “They’re complaining about homeless people and waste and so on, and the solution is to just push the problem out onto the neighborhood sidewalk? I don’t think so.”
Wahlstrom says the design is a blueprint for a “dead zone” and an obstacle in the heart of Hillcrest’s soon-to-be new focal point: the Normal Street Promenade.
That’s how neighbors who’d been eager to see a fresh new design from the Department of Motor Vehicles for its revamped branch office in Hillcrest felt when they saw the state agency’s plans. Comments ranged from “tired-looking,” and “walled-off,” to “in conflict with the rest of the neighborhood.”
Nicholls, whose purview includes producing the ever-growing Hillcrest Farmers Market every Sunday on Normal Street, right at the doorstep of the motor vehicles office, declared the plan “decidedly suburban.” He added that it might be appropriate for Mission Valley, but not at all for the “urban-village” Hillcrest neighborhood.
Nicholls, Wahlstrom, and other community members expected a design that would be more simpatico with the Normal Street Promenade Plan. The plan is a so-called “linear park and green space.”
The pedestrian-focused and bike-friendly plan, which removes some motor-vehicle traffic from the area and adds bike lanes as well as vehicle-slowing traffic circles, recently got the go ahead for development and more than $2 million in municipal funding.
One feature that Wahlstrom claims was long expected and clearly planned as part of the Normal Street Linear Park, now superseded by the Normal Street Promenade plan, was a children’s play area. Asked why there didn’t appear to be any representation of such a play area in recent artist renderings of the proposed project, the Nicholls was unequivocal citing the real-world need for money to pay for such a feature.
“The Promenade is not a park,” Nicholls explains. “The Promenade is paid for with mostly transportation money. Transportation money cannot be used for a tot lot. If [Wahlstrom] has a pot of money or land that can be used for a park, he should tell us what rainbow crosswalk he’s hidden it under. The core elements of the promenade — pedestrian mall, bike lane, parking area — are all dictated by the funding sources for the project and not by some conspiracy that Mat has cooked up.”
Whereas just a couple of months ago, he saw the Department of Motor Vehicles branch as the biggest threat to his “Re-imagining Normal Street” vision, Nicholls is now in the familiar position of wondering whether Wahlstrom could be the project’s biggest foe — though he’s quick to dismiss his adversary’s influence on the way he approaches his work. “I spend so little time thinking about Mat’s concerns that I wouldn’t want to classify our relationship at all,” Nicholls says. “Mat fills his gaps in knowledge with conspiracy theories about the Hillcrest Business Association. This situation hasn’t changed with Mat ever since I’ve known him.”
Politicos leading from behind
“We hadn’t heard any opposition to the DMV’s plan from our state legislators” Senator Toni Atkins and Assemblyman Todd Gloria — “who have a lot of influence in Sacramento, until after I and Ben [Nicholls] and others went public with our opposition,” Wahlstrom says. “But they were pretty quick to get out front once they saw how opposed the community was.”
Now, as the Department of Motor Vehicles reworks rebuilding plans for the agency’s Hillcrest branch, the big question is how much willingness do administrators really have to bridge the expansive divide between its vision and that of the local community? After all, the agency is a nearly 100-year-old organization dedicated to the automobile, a machine that not long ago defined the “California lifestyle.”
Momentarily unified, Uptown Planners and the Hillcrest Business Association are asking the Department of Motor Vehicles to be a good neighbor of the new Normal Street Promenade by giving as much consideration, if not more, to pedestrians and cyclists as the agency gives to motorists and the automobile. But early feedback from state officials may not bode well for that request.
A spokeswoman for the agency reminded all concerned that its mandate is to serve motorists first and foremost. She told reporters that impressions the department had promised to design a mixed-use or “dual-purpose” facility were mistaken. She said, such an arrangement was never promised and would not fit with the department’s “automobile-focused mission.” She aded that the state, which needs no local approvals to build, has a set construction schedule to rebuild the Hillcrest office. “We are looking at a 2020 ground-breaking,” she said.
That timeline coincides with the expected groundbreaking of the new Normal Street Promenade. The bicycle and pedestrian-centered promenade is expected to be the centerpiece of a “new Hillcrest.”
In addition to being a completely redesigned home to the Hillcrest Farmers Market, it will host much of the annual San Diego LGBT Pride festivities. Amenities and features that will change Normal Street from a normal street into a “promenade” come in the form of sweeping expanses of sidewalks — replacing as much as half of the current roadway — and bike paths lined with plants, ornate lighting, decorative street fixtures, and traffic circles to direct cars away from the promenade.
“I believe the Promenade will be complete long before anything changes with the DMV,” Nicholls says. “When the DMV gets their ducks in a row, they’ll have to accommodate the public space on their doorstep.”
I asked Wahlstrom, a “smart-growth” advocate, and his unapologetically pro-developer counterpart, Nicholls, what were three “must-have” and “must not-have” design features for the new Department of Motor Vehicles branch. Nicholls’ design-don’ts include “a mindless fence,” and outdoor loud speakers like the ones currently filling daytime ears of nearby residents with hours of updates about which customer will be served next and to what window they should report. “I literally hear, ‘Now serving D-200 at Window Number Eight’ in my sleep,’” says Michael Cathe, a freelance graphic designer who works from home about two-hundred yards from the Department of Motor Vehicles office.
Nicholls also says he’ll be looking for “anything in the new design that hinders the Farmers Market or the Promenade.”
Wahlstrom wants to see housing as part of a mixed-use structure at the new motor vehicles branch. But that seems unlikely to happen given the state’s current posture and the power it enjoys. The state can build on the site without needing much if any approval from local government — much less from the Uptown Planners group or Hillcrest Business Association. “Most important is that this entire site be kept as state land and not sold or bartered in part or whole in a developer sweetheart deal,” Wahlstrom said. “As we’ve seen with Liberty Station and other situations where public property is surrendered in exchange for the promise of affordable housing, the affordable housing never materializes and the politicians who got their contributions are long gone.”