Thursday, July 31, 2008

City Council Passes Interim Height Ordinance

Huge Buildings Banned in Hillcrest, Mission Hills … for Now

story and photo by LEO E. LAURENCE

Copyright © 2008 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

In a major victory for community activists in Hillcrest and Mission Hills, the City Council on July 8 passed the controversial Interim Height Ordinance (IHO).

That means that huge new buildings like the infamous 301 University Project, successfully chal-lenged in court by Tom Mullvaney’s Friends of San Diego, cannot be built while the Uptown Community Plan is being revised. That is expected to be a two- to three-year process.

The IHO will be in force for 30 months, with two possible 180-day extensions if the update to the Uptown Community Plan is not completed, according to documents submitted to the city council by the Independent Task Force for the Uptown Interim Height Ordinance.

Until the IHO was approved, the 20-year old Uptown Community Plan allowed for building heights of up to 150 and 200 feet along parts of Washington St., University Ave. and 4th, 5th and 6th Avenues.

“Many residents and business owners feel that taller buildings overwhelm the lower profile and historic character of the Uptown community,” the IHO Task Force’s documents said.

During the past two years, a coalition of nine community organizations led by attorney Barry Hager, president of Mission Hills Heritage and chair of the IHO’s Independent Task Force, developed the IHO. Without Hager’s personal, relentless work on this IHO campaign, it would not have been successful.

Generally, new buildings in the Mission Hills area are now limited to no more than 50 feet, and in the main Hillcrest/Uptown neighborhoods to no more than 65 feet. South of Upas and down into the Banker’s Hill area, higher buildings are “discretionary,” meaning that they will require specific approvals by the Planning Commission.

“Some leaders in the community say that agency tends to favor development projects,” Hager said. But its decisions can be appealed to the City Council.

The IHO that passed was actually a compromise. Many property and business owners strongly voiced opinions that the Hillcrest height limit needed to be lower than 65 feet. The compromise was accepted to get something passed into law.

It wasn’t easy to win approval of the IHO. Opposition from developers and the Building Industry Association (BIA) was very strong.

The main argument supporting the IHO was that higher limits for new buildings destroy the unique community character of the Hillcrest and Mission Hills neighborhoods, some of which are over 100 years old.

John Taylor, a Hillcrest community activist and property owner, testified before the City Council saying he didn’t want the neighborhoods to “become an extension of downtown.”

“The reason why these (new) buildings are so tall is that they are being built with unusually large unit sizes,” Hager said in an interview.

“That pushes the buildings higher,” he added.

The Mi Arbolito project at Sixth and Upas features a 14-story building with one unit per floor, each with 2,280 square feet. The Park Laurel Towers are 148 feet tall and feature 96 units on an entire city block, with four penthouses of 4,715 square feet each.

The proposed St. Paul’s Cathedral Towers include average unit sizes of over 2,200 square feet.

There is also an alarming trend towards these luxury condos in new construction, with condos costing from $1.7 to $3.8 million. That is not “affordable” housing, the community activists told the Councilmembers before they approved the IHO.

Developers argued that the IHO amounted to a zooming downgrade, but attorney Hager said that was false.

“The ordinance will promote affordable housing and sustainable development,” Hager explained.

“In the past, the city has been a rubber stamp for the developers. They will come and go. We will stay,” said Ellen Preston, a longtime Mission Hills homeowner and activist.

For comment, contact Leo Laurence at, or at (619) 757-4909.

Photo caption: Attorney Barry Hager (left) led the successful 2-year battle for the Interim Height Ordinance for Hillcrest and Mission Hills. In city council chambers, he chats with third-District council candidate Steve Whitburn (right) and Ernie Villafrance (center).