Height Restrictions and Bicycles: Uptown is at a Transportation Crossroads

What is the Interim Height Ordinance, and what does it have to do with bicycles?

Currently, the Interim Height Ordinance (IHO) limits building heights in Hillcrest and Mission Hills to 65 and 50 feet, respectively. Prior to the IHO, the 1998 Uptown Community Plan allowed building heights up to 200 feet on some streets, and under these guidelines a 12-story hotel was proposed for 301 University Avenue in 2008. The project was out of scale for the relatively narrow street, so residents protested, and the City Council enacted the IHO for the two years required to complete Uptown’s Community Plan.

That was then. Now, over five years later, the Community Plan is targeted for completion in late 2015. Meanwhile the IHO has been extended repeatedly. Many residents and community leaders advocate for making it permanent, or even further reducing its height limit.

Why should Bike SD’s readers care about Uptown building heights? Because the Uptown Planners (the community planning group for Hillcrest, Bankers Hill, Mission Hills and University Heights) advises the city on both this issue and the proposed SANDAG Uptown Bike Corridor. Many of the board and community members who oppose smart growth in Uptown also oppose implementing safe bike lanes. Last year, Uptown Planners voted against even considering bike corridor implementation in their neighborhoods until the community plan was completed. In my next post, I’ll discuss the bike corridor in greater detail, and whether increased density can make neighborhoods more bike-friendly.

Since the IHO went into effect, the trend of millennials and empty-nesters moving to urban neighborhoods from suburbs has increased. Good resources on the subject include recent books The End of the Suburbs, Walkable City, and The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. These new residents seek walkable, bikeable, active communities with various transit options to nearby downtown jobs. “Smart growth” and “transit-oriented development” are two terms describing the mixed-use construction built to accommodate them. There are numerous benefits to this trend, from reduced vehicle miles driven to increased public transit use, even increased innovation and reduced obesity rates. In San Diego, with projections of a large population increase in Council District 3, Hillcrest represents an ideal location for smart growth – without putting all new growth downtown, as some suggest.

Instead of addressing this demand, the IHO has arguably suppressed residential construction in Hillcrest. IHO supporters cited the Snooze AM building on 5th Avenue as an example of IHO-era construction, but it contains zero residential units. While there are many excellent examples of urban neighborhoods with human-scale architectures of 5 stories, commercial thoroughfares like eastern University Avenue, Park Boulevard, and 4th/5th/6th Avenues all present opportunities to carefully exceed this height without ruining the neighborhood’s character. To be fair, construction costs do increase significantly above 65 feet, and raising the height limit won’t magically produce affordable and middle class housing – but it would likely offer an improvement over the current lack of construction.

What are some reasonable alternatives to making the IHO permanent that permit mixed-use projects on main streets while retaining neighborhood character? One plan floated by city planning staff set 45-65 foot height limits for Mission Hills and Hillcrest, with discretionary review required above that level. Heights could surpass 100 feet if community amenities were provided, such as parks or plazas. Another plan offered by Walt Chambers on his Great Streets San Diego site considers commercial street widths. At a recent Uptown Planners meeting where Chambers’ plan was presented, the Uptown Community Planning Group Chair, Leo Wilson, acknowledged that height/discretionary limits between 65 and 100 feet might be a workable compromise.

Unfortunately, many community members are unwilling to budge from the IHO. Chief among their complaints are: congestion and lack of parking. However these problems are present in almost any urban neighborhood around the country.

Nearly all of San Diego was built for cars, often at the expense of pedestrians and bicycle riders. However I think Hillcrest is great precisely because it is different in this regard. The Hillcrest community owes its strengths of being more walkable with diverse amenities largely to its higher density (relative to the rest of the city). Furthermore, many potential new residents to Uptown have little desire to own a car and seek alternative transit options. So why do Uptown’s leaders continue to insist on applying suburban planning principles to their community?

A diversity of incomes in Uptown could reduce congestion, since some lower-income workers would live near their jobs rather than driving in and parking. Instead, Hillcrest’s anti-growth stance is morphing it into a neighborhood that is exclusive only to individuals who occupy a higher income bracket. This is troubling, since the Uptown neighborhood used to welcome anyone – especially gays and lesbians who experienced discrimination. Now many of these same community members who used to be discriminated against are unwittingly discriminating against middle and lower-income earners, as they close the door to new residents due to their shortsighted stance on height limits and downzoning.

IHO proponents frequently state that the “good businesses will survive” without new growth, but doesn’t this aversion to increasing the height limit limit the total number of good businesses? Instead of a virtuous urban cycle of more residents attracting more businesses attracting more residents that we’ve witnessed in North Park and Little Italy, Hillcrest’s businesses struggle and the neighborhood’s vibrancy wanes.

Some residents have described a fear that outside developers would tear down historic architecture, but as a member of Save our Heritage Organisation, I support strengthening the city’s historic preservation laws in order to prevent this.

Bicycle riders will benefit from awareness of the challenges they face in implementing bike infrastructure in Uptown. The majority of the Uptown Planners’ board members, and the residents who attend its meetings, have demonstrated that they are either woefully out of touch or simply opposed to the interests of tomorrow’s Uptown residents. It’s important that we all participate in planning Uptown’s future, whether the issue is building heights or cycle tracks.

You can read more from Paul Jamason at SD Urban