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City Council votes to extend Uptown Interim Height Ordinance for two years

SAN DIEGO – Several residents, business owners and concerned citizens headed to the San Diego City Council meeting on Tuesday afternoon to voice their opinions on an agenda item that would extend the Uptown Interim Height Ordinance (IHO), which expired Jan. 23.

Speakers in favor and opposition of the item, titled “Amendment to the Mid-City Communities Planned District Ordinance for an Interim Height Restriction in the Uptown Community,” waited nearly four hours for the item to be discussed and voted upon. The council ultimately voted to extend the IHO, which has been a “hot button” issue pitting many residents, business owners and community groups against each other.

The IHO was originally adopted in 2008 after residents expressed concern over the potential for large-scale building projects to be built in the area while the Uptown Community Plan is being updated. The current community plan, which addresses growth in the Hillcrest, Mission Hills, Bankers Hill and Park West neighborhoods, was adopted Feb. 2, 1988.

Community members have been pushing the city to adopt an updated plan for some time, as the needs of the area’s densely populated neighborhoods have changed in the last 20 years. Work to update the community plan commenced in 2009, the city staff said at the meeting, with little to no progress being reported in the nearly three years since.

Councilmember Kevin Faulconer, whose district covers part of the area covered by the Uptown Community Plan, requested that city staff come up with a clear timeline for the completion of the plan.

“The problem is that we don’t have a date that holds the city accountable,” Faulconer said. “I can’t go with this open-ended completion date anymore – I’m trying to say to you: Finish!”

The IHO, which caps building heights at 65 feet in Hillcrest and 50 feet in Mission Hills until the community plan revisions are complete, was created as a compromise. The original IHO has been extended twice since its adoption in 2008.

A group of community members who want to see more flexibility for development projects in the area rallied to oppose the extension of the IHO.

Several people at the meeting wore red lapel stickers and carried penants that read “Grow Hillcrest!”

Ruben Barrales, president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, spoke in opposition to the IHO, saying he was concerned about a housing shortage in San Diego.

“We want to develop affordable housing along transit corridors,” Barrales told the council. “We oppose [city] staff’s recommendation [to extend the IHO] and hope some sort of compromise can be reached.”

Other speakers in opposition of the IHO included Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association; Walter Chambers, community activist and founder of Great Streets San Diego and Urb.en; and architect Ian Epley.

Several residents spoke in favor of extending the IHO.

Barry Hager, who chairs the Mission Hills Heritage group, said that the neighborhoods within Uptown are older, lower-scale areas.

“Uptown is not Downtown and that is how residents want it to remain,” Hager said. “There is a lot you can build that is under 50 and 65 feet. We don’t want the slippery slope of discretionary limits.”

Longtime Hillcrest community activist Ann Garwood, who serves on the board of directors of the Hillcrest Town Council, told the City Council that her group voted 29-1 at its November meeting to extend the IHO until the updated plan is implemented.

Faulconer motioned to extend the original height limit ordinance for two years, with an expiration date of Jan. 24, 2014. As part of his motion, city staff was asked to provide a written update of the progress on the community plan update every 180 days.

Seconding the motion, City Councilmember Todd Gloria requested that staff provide a report with a “time certain” date for the community plan update’s completion to the city’s Land Use & Housing Committee at its March 7 meeting.

The council voted 7-0 in favor of Faulconer’s motion, with Councilmember Marti Emerald absent.

Although the vote was taken, because of concerns over violations of the Brown Act because of “substantive changes” made to the ordinance, the City Attorney’s Office will bring back a modified version of the ordinance to the Jan. 31 meeting for another reading.

In a statement, The Hillcrest Town Council praised the decision:

"The Hillcrest Town Council has worked very hard on the IHO extension several times in the last few years because that is what the community has asked us to do. We are grateful that now we won’t have to come back for two years. Thanks to everybody that showed up, stood up, spoke up and signed up to extend the IHO. Thanks to Council members Faulconer and Gloria for their leadership."

Hillcrest resident and Uptown-area activist Dave McCulloch said he is also pleased with the decision:

"I’m thrilled that, once again, the IHO was extended based on community input and vocal interest in our neighborhoods, and that our representatives – especially Councilmembers Gloria and Faulconer – took that community input and ran with it. Now that we have the extension of the IHO on the books for two years, we must turn our focus to the completion of the Uptown Community Plan Update which will finalize the mold of our communities for decades to come and will solidify the pathway for our neighborhoods to excel."

Although Nicholls’ concerns were not completely addressed, he believes that the decision is a good compromise:

"While we didn't get everything we were hoping for I do think this is a good compromise. It sets a timeline for getting this plan done and creates some certainty for business people and those who wish to invest in Hillcrest. I appreciate the leadership shown by both Kevin Faulconer and Todd Gloria regarding this compromise. All eyes should now turn to the city planners. Hillcrest Business people have been heavily involved in making suggestions for the plan update process. I hope they've been listening."

Chambers also expressed disappointment, but optimism that the community plan will be updated soon:

"Great Streets San Diego is concerned with good placemaking and giving people a voice, so I am a little disappointed by the mandated height limit instead of a discretionary height limit. However, I think that adding the sunset provision was a good compromise, and will help create a greater urgency for the Planning Department to complete the Uptown Community Plan. Thank you to Kevin Faulconer and Todd Gloria for vision on this issue. Now let's finish the Plan!"

More information about the Uptown Community Plan is available online.