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Voice of San Diego: A vote of confidence for Uptown's height limit

(This article originally appeared in Voice of San Diego.)

San Diego’s uptown neighborhoods have had an interim height limit in effect since 2008. If the community’s planning group gets its wish, it’ll stay in place for another year or two.

At its June meeting, the Uptown Planners, the elected planning group representing Hillcrest, Bankers Hill, Mission Hills, Middletown and parts of University Heights voted to extend the height limit beyond its scheduled expiration date of Jan. 24, 2014.

The group would instead have the limit remain in place until whenever the city eventually approves the area’s updated community plan, its guiding document for future growth, which will include its own height restrictions. The update process is ongoing, but could take as long as two years to win council approval.

But the Uptown Planners can’t extend the height restriction unilaterally. The group’s vote is just a formal recommendation to the city.

The citywide Planning Commission will vote on its recommendation in the coming months, and the City Council will make a final decision sometime before January.

Uptown’s temporary height limit was approved by the City Council in July of 2008. The council extended it in 2012 for another two years, expecting that to be enough time for city planners to complete the update.

Unlike the 1972 voter-approved height limit in the city’s coastal communities, which prevents any project going above 30 feet anywhere West of Interstate 5 and north of downtown, the Uptown restriction sets different standards for different neighborhoods.

It restricts buildings to maximum heights of 50 feet in Mission Hills and 65 feet in Hillcrest. Bankers HIll has a 65 foot limit, but projects can be approved above that height on a case-by-case basis.

The Uptown Planners passed the extension with 13 votes in favor and just one against.

Those speaking in favor of the extension, both public commenters and members of the board, said it only made sense to keep the limit in place until a new community plan was put in place, lest developers use the lapse to build projects up to 200 feet tall.

Dissenting public voices said removing the height limit was necessary to provide middle class housing and to encourage the sorts of projects that would generate enough in developer fees to fund park and green space projects, among other reasons.

“We think there needs to be pressure on city staff to complete the plan when they say they want to complete it,” said Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association, arguing to let the height limit expire.

In September, city staff put forward a series of recommendations for new, permanent height restrictions in the Uptown area as part of the community plan update.

The city’s plan would create neighborhood-specific height restrictions in major commercial areas that would allow for a simple approval process for any project under the restriction. Mission Hills and a stretch of University Heights would have a 45 foot limit, parts of Hillcrest would have a 55 foot limit, and parts of Bankers Hill and Hillcrest would have a 65 foot limit.

But the plan would also allow projects in certain areas to be built above those limits through a discretionary review process. And projects could be built higher still if the developer built community amenities like public parking, parks or plazas. Ultimately, some projects in the neighborhood would be able to surpass 100 feet given certain considerations.

I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.