[Update: several hours after publication, San Diego’s city council approved an updated version of the community plan that would downzone other areas of Hillcrest, but not the area in Uptown discussed here.]
San Diego, CA–There is a scourge afflicting U.S. cities, and it is a little thing called “downzoning.” Over the past few decades, cities that were already suffering the side-effects of underdevelopment worsened their problems through stronger regulations, further reducing build-out on their infill lots. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a large portion of Los Angeles was downzoned, even as population steadily grew. New York City has established a regulatory framework that would outlaw 40% of buildings today. Miami, thanks to parking regulations, has effectively illegalized the type of development that created notable neighborhoods like Little Havana. And there are countless other examples, meaning that the dense land use pattern which first made our cities great can no longer be replicated.
San Diego, too, may be subject to this downzoning trend. Like California’s other destination cities, San Diego has both a fast-growing population, and restrictive land-use regulations that keep housing supply from meeting demand. But rather than reforming their laws in a progressive direction, they’re doing the opposite. While living in San Diego this October, I studied one neighborhood, Hillcrest, that was slated for downzoning, and the efforts of one property owner coalition, the Uptown Gateway Council, to stop it. If successful, this council could become a model for how to prevent downzonings elsewhere.
Hillcrest is a fast-blossoming neighborhood—San Diego’s de facto “gayborhood”—that is 2 miles north of downtown. It’s on the northwestern edge of Balboa park, which is the city’s central park, and like other neighborhoods within walking distance of Balboa, could become central for a denser and more transit-oriented future of San Diego. The area’s high property values suggest this would already be the outcome under an open market.
But existing zoning here and in nearby neighborhoods is generally low-density, allowing either single-family residential or low-rise multi-family. Meanwhile, the process for loosening this is getting harder. San Diego’s development policy is dictated at micro-local level by “community planning groups,” with one group representing each neighborhood. These 16-member groups are made up of neighborhood residents who are elected by their neighbors. The groups have heavy influence on land use in their area, says Maya Rosas, a San Diego-based land consultant. When the city planning department wants to write a new neighborhood plan every 20 or 30 years, it “does extensive outreach with the planning group, the planning group tells them what they want, and technically the city writes the plan incorporating the feedback they receive.” Because these neighborhood groups typically consist of older property owners, such plans, says Rosas, are rooted in NIMBYism.
One recent example was the Uptown Community Plan. The plan was drawn for the Uptown District, which is one of the leading commercial centers within Hillcrest. The current Uptown plan was written in 1988, and allows a build-out of 34,600 housing units. 8 years ago, a new Uptown plan was submitted by the neighborhood group that would downzone the area, reducing build-out to 32,700 units. The plan was finally slated for city approval this summer…before Uptown property owners found out.
Property owners in the area are a hodgepodge of family-owned businesses, joe schmoe landlords, and larger developers. Many of them have owned property in Uptown for decades, enduring an extended period of neighborhood decay. They have long held out in anticipation of San Diego’s interior revival, and now that this is happening, they would like either to develop their properties at greater heights and densities, or sell at a premium to other developers. So these Uptown property owners were shocked last year to hear that, rather than lifting regulatory burdens in the face of these changes, the city might actually downzone Uptown. This would be especially catastrophic since approved community plans usually remain in effect for decades in San Diego.
Uptown’s property owners responded by pooling together money and forming the Uptown Gateway Council, a coalition of 15 area owners. They have both resisted the downzoning proposed by the neighborhood planning group, and published an alternative plan that calls for greater heights, densities and public amenities.
Recently I had coffee, and took a tour, with two women who are spearheading this owner coalition, Elizabeth Robinson and Mercedes Sheehan. Both are asset managers for Greenwald Company, an 8-person firm that has a small portfolio in San Diego and Chicago. The company, run by Bennett Greenwald, owns several adjacent lots in Uptown. Like much of the neighborhood, these lots are now moderately dense and generally uninspiring, with a gas station, a music store and a ramen bar, among other shops, sitting within cookie-cutter 1970s architecture. The buildings are fronted by clogged streets that have been oriented more for automobile through-traffic than for Uptown’s many pedestrians.
Greenwald’s plans would be a dramatic upgrade. While the company will preserve the street-facing retail, it wants to build two modern towers–one that replaces the gas station, another that rises above one of the storefronts. The company wants to put one, and possibly two, pocket parks at the center of the property.
A similar mentality drives other owners within the Uptown Gateway Council. Rather than developing their properties autonomously, the council’s alternative plan expresses a shared vision among these 15 owners, in which new buildings are interspersed with new parks, public squares, improved streetscapes, and even a pedestrian promenade.
Of course, this will require greater cooperation and deregulation from the city, and that’s what I found interesting about the developer coalition strategy. The property owners pursued it, according to Robinson, because “we realized that we were more powerful together than if it was just one property owner.” They formed the coalition about a year ago, and decided step 1 would be to hold meetings with the neighbors and the neighborhood planning group, to reach a compromise. Robinson said that quickly fell apart, because residents’ mentality going in was “you’re just a greedy developer.”
Uptown Gateway Council members did learn during the course of talks, though, that there was a demand among neighbors for more parks. The neighbors may not have realized how such parks are actually funded–i.e. through more development, property tax revenue, and user traffic–but this is what they said they wanted.
“In one breath they would say ‘downzone downzone downzone’,” said Robinson. “And in the next breath they would say ‘we need more parks here’.”
These meetings thus gave the Uptown Gateway Council a good sense of the bargaining chips they could draw into their plan. The final plan–with its higher densities and greater park space–was presented this summer to the city. Robinson said that it has been well-received by staffers, because of the plan’s fundamentally urbanist nature.
But there is still a ways to go–before any upzonings occur, Uptown must first avoid a downzoning. The original plan written by the neighborhood group is going before city council tonight, November 14. The developer coalition’s goal is to have council vote against this downzoning. But Robinson explained that even if they vote against it, council still needs to vote for an upzoning in the future. Otherwise, Hillcrest’s 1988 plan remains in place—meaning Uptown will remain entirely as is, with the same build-out and the same low-rise character. Robinson said that the 15 property owners have already spent a combined $400,000 to form the coalition, hold numerous neighborhood meetings, draw the plan, hire lobbyists, and more. If they don’t eventually get an upzoning, “then we just lit $400,000 on fire.”
If they do get it, then the Uptown Gateway Council will have provided a huge boost to San Diego. The city is suffering both a housing affordability crisis, and the legally-binding mandates from a Climate Action Plan that calls for more transit use and less carbon emissions. Building up neighborhoods like Hillcrest can help with those problems, while bringing more vibrancy to numerous San Diego neighborhoods, helping extend the urbanist momentum already occurring downtown.
Even more, the Uptown Gateway Council could provide a model for how to fight the regulatory grip strangling other cities. When faced with unreasonable constraints—or even downzonings—against their properties, developers can pool resources to create a political coalition and draw a plan. If this plan communicates a greater vision for the neighborhood than what exists, it might just get the attention of local government.