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12-story buildings sprinkled around San Diego

When you weren't looking – the Complete Communities Plan

The future of Monroe Avenue (artist's rendition)
The future of Monroe Avenue (artist's rendition)

Imagine a near-future trip to a central San Diego neighborhood reshaped by the zoning plans proposed by Mayor Kevin Faulconer. 12-story buildings line 30th Street, University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard – and up to Adams Avenue.

The apartment buildings spill around the corners on those main drags, and because of previous city council efforts, do not include parking. The buildings first appear on the largest existing lots – with the maximum size now decided by floor area ratio, so that a 12,001 square-foot lot can have that many stories – without having to consider the will of the neighborhood.

Winona Avenue now
Winona Avenue after (artist's rendition)

That’s what the Complete Communities plan that redefines zoning to encourage building new housing will allow. For example, the half block lot that now has a Vons store at 30th Street between Howard and Polk (and which sold to developers for $27.7 million earlier in May) can go a full 12 stories. But so can the lots across the street if two or three are combined – and developers will be allowed to do that.

Many streets within a block of those thoroughfares have double-Huffmans or several in a row; it’s a building design very common in North Park and Normal Heights. A developer that can buy adjacent Huffman lots and combine the square footage into area large enough to build tall buildings in older, single family and small apartment or condo complex neighborhoods all over the central part of the city from Barrio Logan to Mission Valley, and from Midway to the College area. San Ysidro is almost entirely transit priority area as well.

They face a relaxed city approval process both from the city and they don’t have to win public approval. And with floor-area ratio as the new standard, and using the bonuses the plan offers, developers can build tall buildings next to single-family homes.

They do have to meet requirements beyond the current density bonuses that, for example, are allowing developers to build a 20-story building on the west side of Balboa Park. The percentage of units that must be affordable jumps to 20 from the current 10 percent. And they must be in what the city calls “transit oriented” districts, which is almost any area along major bus lines.

But the hardest thing for neighborhood representatives from across the city who met Tuesday night to swallow is the speed with which the plan is being pushed through.

It goes to the city council for approval sometime in the next month. Many of the groups have been unable to meet or hold elections since the lockdown. Public input on the plan has been very limited, they say.

“It ought to be referred back to the planning department and go out to planning groups so they can weigh in on the advisability of these policy decisions,” said Howard Wayne, representing Linda Vista.

Community Planners chairman Wally Wulfeck said that what’s happened during the pandemic should be considered in current and future development decisions. In San Diego, as in cities with much higher numbers of people sickened and killed by COVID 19, denser and poorer neighborhoods are suffering the worst of the pandemic.

“The experience of the last three months has illustrated the problems with density and the problems with mass transit, and I think we ought to think carefully about putting low income people in these high density areas,” Wulfeck said.

The pandemic will slash government funding needed to build more infrastructure – which developers do not have to pay for, according to Nico Calavita, who calls the plan “a reckless approach.”

“These densities are being proposed in “transit priority” areas,” he wrote in a letter to the city. “But where is the transit?.......In a post-COVID19 economic reality, funding from the federal government or state is very unlikely. Additionally, with COVID19, the desirability and feasibility of transit has taken a hit.”

That’s a particularly thorny problem since the city does not control transit – and both the Metropolitan Transit System and SANDAG have no extra funding and need voter approval to raise money.

Though the plan was introduced months ago, it was months before anyone took a close look at the details; in part because the document is so hard to decipher, Calavita says.

Zoning maps reduce neighborhoods to codes – single family and multifamily, come in at R-1 and R 3-9, for example. Another, separate document contains the translations for the zoning and the mayor’s proposed regulations for how much can be built on those lots.

The plan ends transitional zoning, where heights and density change gradually so that tall buildings don’t tower over tiny homes. “They could actually be large scale buildings,” said Deborah Sharp. “And it would eliminate the community input.”

The sweeping relaxation of development rules and zoning is only meant to encourage small infill projects, says Leslie Keaveney of the city planning staff. If the project meets the relaxed city standards, approval is a development services department decision not subject to neighborhood review, though people can comment. The developer impact fee, meant to shore up amenities in neighborhoods – libraries, green spaces, infrastructure – may go away, too if there’s enough affordable housing in the project.

“The main goal of this program is to incentivize housing,” said Brian Schoenfrisch, from the city. “Right now we would have to triple our housing production to meet our housing goals. This is tailored to meet our local needs.”

But Andrea Schlageter from Ocean Beach pointed out that a city that needs 30,000 new homes shouldn’t tolerate 16,000 short-term rentals, something she says the city ignores.

“Every time we talk about housing, you guys just go to developers and ask them what do they want us to give them now,” she said. “You keep saying ‘holistic approach’ which means top down approach. What that approach means is taking money from the suburbs and putting downtown.“

Under pressure to approve the plan, the neighborhood representatives balked. “It ought to be referred back to the planning department and go out to planning groups so they can weigh in on the details,” said Howard Wayne, representing Linda Vista.

Floor area ratio is emerging as a way to assess a project while granting a building permit. It is derived by dividing the gross floor space by the lot size; so the allowable floor space is equal to the proposed floor area ratio set by the city multiplied by the size of the lot. With a floor area ratio of eight, all the bonuses and a 12,000 square foot lot, the developer can build up to 96,000 square feet – but in the buildable part of the lot, that’s eight stories.

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The future of Monroe Avenue (artist's rendition)
The future of Monroe Avenue (artist's rendition)

Imagine a near-future trip to a central San Diego neighborhood reshaped by the zoning plans proposed by Mayor Kevin Faulconer. 12-story buildings line 30th Street, University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard – and up to Adams Avenue.

The apartment buildings spill around the corners on those main drags, and because of previous city council efforts, do not include parking. The buildings first appear on the largest existing lots – with the maximum size now decided by floor area ratio, so that a 12,001 square-foot lot can have that many stories – without having to consider the will of the neighborhood.

Winona Avenue now
Winona Avenue after (artist's rendition)

That’s what the Complete Communities plan that redefines zoning to encourage building new housing will allow. For example, the half block lot that now has a Vons store at 30th Street between Howard and Polk (and which sold to developers for $27.7 million earlier in May) can go a full 12 stories. But so can the lots across the street if two or three are combined – and developers will be allowed to do that.

Many streets within a block of those thoroughfares have double-Huffmans or several in a row; it’s a building design very common in North Park and Normal Heights. A developer that can buy adjacent Huffman lots and combine the square footage into area large enough to build tall buildings in older, single family and small apartment or condo complex neighborhoods all over the central part of the city from Barrio Logan to Mission Valley, and from Midway to the College area. San Ysidro is almost entirely transit priority area as well.

They face a relaxed city approval process both from the city and they don’t have to win public approval. And with floor-area ratio as the new standard, and using the bonuses the plan offers, developers can build tall buildings next to single-family homes.

They do have to meet requirements beyond the current density bonuses that, for example, are allowing developers to build a 20-story building on the west side of Balboa Park. The percentage of units that must be affordable jumps to 20 from the current 10 percent. And they must be in what the city calls “transit oriented” districts, which is almost any area along major bus lines.

But the hardest thing for neighborhood representatives from across the city who met Tuesday night to swallow is the speed with which the plan is being pushed through.

It goes to the city council for approval sometime in the next month. Many of the groups have been unable to meet or hold elections since the lockdown. Public input on the plan has been very limited, they say.

“It ought to be referred back to the planning department and go out to planning groups so they can weigh in on the advisability of these policy decisions,” said Howard Wayne, representing Linda Vista.

Community Planners chairman Wally Wulfeck said that what’s happened during the pandemic should be considered in current and future development decisions. In San Diego, as in cities with much higher numbers of people sickened and killed by COVID 19, denser and poorer neighborhoods are suffering the worst of the pandemic.

“The experience of the last three months has illustrated the problems with density and the problems with mass transit, and I think we ought to think carefully about putting low income people in these high density areas,” Wulfeck said.

The pandemic will slash government funding needed to build more infrastructure – which developers do not have to pay for, according to Nico Calavita, who calls the plan “a reckless approach.”

“These densities are being proposed in “transit priority” areas,” he wrote in a letter to the city. “But where is the transit?.......In a post-COVID19 economic reality, funding from the federal government or state is very unlikely. Additionally, with COVID19, the desirability and feasibility of transit has taken a hit.”

That’s a particularly thorny problem since the city does not control transit – and both the Metropolitan Transit System and SANDAG have no extra funding and need voter approval to raise money.

Though the plan was introduced months ago, it was months before anyone took a close look at the details; in part because the document is so hard to decipher, Calavita says.

Zoning maps reduce neighborhoods to codes – single family and multifamily, come in at R-1 and R 3-9, for example. Another, separate document contains the translations for the zoning and the mayor’s proposed regulations for how much can be built on those lots.

The plan ends transitional zoning, where heights and density change gradually so that tall buildings don’t tower over tiny homes. “They could actually be large scale buildings,” said Deborah Sharp. “And it would eliminate the community input.”

The sweeping relaxation of development rules and zoning is only meant to encourage small infill projects, says Leslie Keaveney of the city planning staff. If the project meets the relaxed city standards, approval is a development services department decision not subject to neighborhood review, though people can comment. The developer impact fee, meant to shore up amenities in neighborhoods – libraries, green spaces, infrastructure – may go away, too if there’s enough affordable housing in the project.

“The main goal of this program is to incentivize housing,” said Brian Schoenfrisch, from the city. “Right now we would have to triple our housing production to meet our housing goals. This is tailored to meet our local needs.”

But Andrea Schlageter from Ocean Beach pointed out that a city that needs 30,000 new homes shouldn’t tolerate 16,000 short-term rentals, something she says the city ignores.

“Every time we talk about housing, you guys just go to developers and ask them what do they want us to give them now,” she said. “You keep saying ‘holistic approach’ which means top down approach. What that approach means is taking money from the suburbs and putting downtown.“

Under pressure to approve the plan, the neighborhood representatives balked. “It ought to be referred back to the planning department and go out to planning groups so they can weigh in on the details,” said Howard Wayne, representing Linda Vista.

Floor area ratio is emerging as a way to assess a project while granting a building permit. It is derived by dividing the gross floor space by the lot size; so the allowable floor space is equal to the proposed floor area ratio set by the city multiplied by the size of the lot. With a floor area ratio of eight, all the bonuses and a 12,000 square foot lot, the developer can build up to 96,000 square feet – but in the buildable part of the lot, that’s eight stories.

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Comments
13

Sounds like a great way to destroy the surrounding neighborhood.

June 1, 2020

San Diego is completely built out, so building bizarre 12-story apartments is the only way to construct more rental properties. The only trick is that many of these places burn through tenants - people living here would rather be homeowners than renters - and the buildings will have "Now Renting" on semi-permanent banners facing the freeway or the major road. The whole thing is a joke because nobody in SD real estate wants to admit that the city is mature now.

June 2, 2020

San Diego is NOT completely built out. There are no large tracks of land like in the 50's - 70's but there are many small parcels. There are many places where houses and small multi-unit buildings could be placed. Also there are many many lots which could accommodate a "granny flat". There is plenty of room to expand the housing inventory without dumping 12 story buildings along a "transit route" that few people can use or want to.

June 4, 2020

Sorry, they don't want to build a single house, at the bare minimum the developers want to put in 10-14 homes on a lot (look up the forthcoming Montemar Estates in Spring Valley, they are building 13 houses on an old horse paddock at the bottom of a sloping valley that will flood in the next gullywasher) or they build "townhome" condominiums like SETA in La Mesa (built on the old College Bowl/Coleman College lot, and still advertising that they have vacancies years after they opened.) They are tearing out viable commercial spaces like the Sweetwater Village strip mall on Austin Drive in Spring Valley to build "The Aventine", a forthcoming tract housing development that will probably devolve into a rental hellscape within fifteen years. I could also point at the Grove Lofts, which was built on the partial remaining space of an old gas station that was demolished when Broadway on the outskirts of Lemon Grove was realigned decades ago, and the site hangs over a twelve foot tall drainage ditch at the back. Local residents of Fairway Drive were unhappy with it, because the top story supposedly has a good view of most of their street. Do not fool yourself AlexClarke -- San Diego City and County are now mature areas, which means demolishing pre-existing houses or neighborhoods to build apartments and condos, or building on lots considered "sub-optimal" 20 years ago. You cannot granny flat your way out of this, real houses or condominiums or apartments are the only solution, but they have to allow for small commercial spaces so food stores can be put in so you don't suffer from "food deserts" (any developed area where you have to drive miles to hit a supermarket or any food store that has fresh produce.)

Sept. 15, 2020

Well... I can't say I'd appreciate a 12-story building in my neighborhood. But if you're a resident of the building, and your family and friends have no sense of direction, they might find the place. Eventually.

June 1, 2020

And...does not include parking. Brilliant.

June 1, 2020

Totally insensitive to community character.

Rushed, reckless and needs improvement.

Community Planning Groups had no roll out of this plan and no opportunity to comment.

Only the Community Planners Committee were given an chance to weigh in.

Removing DIF from communities which received the negative aspects of Complete Communities is a further insult.

June 2, 2020
This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.
June 3, 2020

Community Plans are intended to provide fair and clear rules made by neighborhood determination for all developers to follow. But during the past decade, with the rise of land-use lobby shops run as "charities," the big boys have been able to launder political contributions as tax-deductible "donations." The more bang for the buck this has bought them has now culminated in the Complete Communities Plan, which as this article reveals will have intentionally confused zoning and murky allowances that admit endless exceptions.

So the lobbyists got paid to deliberately muck things up, the politicians got paid to allow it, and now the whole scheme is being cast in concrete without community approval by shamelessly exploiting a pandemic to shove it through.

But don't worry about the "charities" going out of business once this is done: they'll get paid again when they have to be hired as fixers for all projects going forward.

June 3, 2020

Sadly our City officials have joined the grab-and-go zeitgeist of our times. The effort to take the zeal of youth and turn it into zealotry has succeeded, and powers-that-be are not going to let this opportunity be wasted. YIMBYs are armed with talking points and fearlessness as they attack community members who won't rubber stamp whatever a developer wants to build. And if the community members are over 60 they seem to enjoy it even more.

And while they call anyone who doesn't follow the party line climate change deniers (even though I just can't see how luxury high rises are going to save us from anything) YIMBYs are the ones who seem allergic to data, just like the like real climate change deniers. Such as the fact we are overbuilt on high end residential units, the current zoning allows for more than enough units, low-rise construction is substantially more affordable, eliminating illegal STVRs would be very helpful in reducing our housing needs.

It seems quite possible land owners will get entitlements on their property for buildings that won't get built at this time for lack of a market for the units if this scheme is approved. And these zombie un-built, but permitted, buildings will haunt our neighborhoods for years. And exist solely to increase the land value of their property.

But more importantly our elected officials and their staff's willingness to divide our communities at this time with needless land-use fights is shameful.

June 3, 2020

Another reason to not live in the City of San Diego

June 4, 2020
This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.
June 8, 2020
This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.
June 9, 2020

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