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Organization wants to add height to Hillcrest, residents not happy

Hillcrest and Mission Hills residents are going to be in for some pushback between developers and commercial property owners when it comes to height restrictions and density for new projects.

Currently the cap for building height is 65 feet, but the newly organized Uptown Gateway Council (UGC), nicknamed the Gateway gang, wants to raise that number to 200 feet according to The San Diego Reader..

The Uptown Gateway Council are a group of property owners who own 7.13 acres of real estate within the heart of Hillcrest and they are asking for their own zoning district to build taller and denser housing and commercial spaces.

They say that without these changes, property prices and rents will continue to soar, leaving those who can’t afford the price tag to leave the area for outlying areas of the city.

But others in the community think that the UGC's proposal, if implemented, would be the culprit in causing price increases.

Developers have always wanted to introduce taller buildings into the neighborhood and residents have won the battle against them for the last decade.

However an update to the Uptown Community Plan will soon come into effect raising height limits by 35 feet, meaning each new development will now have a cap of 100 feet.

This still is not enough for the UGC, they want that number to be raised to 200 feet and allow room for 73 units per acre instead of only 45.

Former Development Services Department director Marcela Escobar-Eck represents UGC and has sent a letter to the city’s planning department asking them to strongly consider allowing a stand-alone district within the grid to build structures up to 200 feet.

Escobar-Eck also stated in the letter that city planners are not doing real estate revenues any good if they continue to allow residents the upper hand. And that being inflexible to a larger and broader skyline is bad for the livability of the community, and ultimately property owners.

“…We cannot just stand still and wait for the rug to be pulled from under them, and with it their property values, dreams, and aspirations for a better Uptown,” wrote Escobar Eck.

She continues in the letter, “This draft plan does not accomplish what we anticipate all residents and property owners of Uptown would desire: the activation of streets with people, commerce, and entertainment.

“There is a disconnect in this draft plan, in that somehow this activation can be realized while simultaneously diminishing the height and density of future projects. The key to activation of the ground plane and to increasing the public realm is to build higher and denser....”

The letter to the city planners continues to say that limiting density also limits productivity and ultimately “regional failure.”

Residents are countering UGC’s proposal saying that their actions are all in an effort to stop city planners from making Hillcrest’s business center, the Gateway gang's target for the height leeway, an historic site.

Historic sites are privy to state and local preservation laws which may stunt any renovations or changes to a property once it is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The State Historic Preservation Office oversees these requests. If federal monies are attached to a proposed historic location the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation must also get involved.

It can be very complicated and sometimes fruitless to suggest any sort of changes to a property once it is on the National Historic Registry.

Uptown Planner Mat Wahlstrom told The San Diego Reader. that the “Gateway Gang” are simply trying to get their way with zoning in general.

“…and are especially trying to stop the establishment of a Hillcrest historic district the city has recommended since 1981 for the area where their properties are located,” he said. “[Adopting this proposal] would destroy the very quality of life that makes people want to build here in the first place.”

Wahlstrom has developed a group called Rescue Hillcrest in an effort to stop the Gateway project from gaining momentum. He says the Gateway gang are only interested in building luxury developments and condos which might be too expensive for the average consumer, therefore limiting the buyer to a certain economic class.

“Property values increase when density is increased and only the rich can afford it," Wahlstrom explains. "That’s why there’s sprawl. Increased density allows more units per lot, which means greater potential income; greater potential income increases value, which increases costs to developers — who pass the expense on to buyers.”

Timothy Rawles is Community Editor of SDGLN. He can be reached at editor@sdgln.com, @reporter66 on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.