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Height of Stupidity?

San Diego's coastal strip limits tall buildings, but it's a free-for-all everywhere else

IN 1971, ALEX LEONDIS had a fateful conversation with a tired schoolteacher who’d spent the day picketing “Grant’s Tomb”—two great towers owned by a Dr. Grant that were being built on the ocean in Pacific Beach.

“I told her to try the initiative procedure,” Leondis says. “She said, ‘If you think you’re so damn smart, why don’t you see what you can do about it!’ ”

And so Proposition D was born. Passed by two-thirds of voters in 1972, it established a 30-foot height limit on new construction in the city’s coastal zone west of Interstate 5, with the cutoff at Laurel Street to exempt Little Italy and downtown.

“We could see the writing on the wall,” says 81-year-old Mignon Scherer, who also championed Prop D. “If we ruin what people come here for, then what will we have?”

Thirty years later, with highrises marching up Bankers Hill and along main arteries like University Avenue, Park Boulevard and El Cajon Boulevard, many locals question whether Proposition D went far enough. They feel their views—as well as the quality of life they defended in the “City of Villages” plan—are in serious danger, noting that aside from the coastal areas, San Diego is one giant free-for-all when it comes to the construction of tall buildings.

John Taylor sits at Bread & Cie in Hillcrest, staring out at bumper-to-bumper traffic in the 300 block of University Avenue, where a proposed 11-story development would fill part of the block between Third and Fourth avenues.

“I live a block away in a little house,” he says. “I feel dwarfed. . . . I’m not happy about something so out-of-proportion to the community.”

Height restrictions are one of the most significant ways of controlling growth of a neighborhood and defining its character. Across the Hudson River from New York City, Frank Sinatra’s hometown of Hoboken is an oasis of brownstones, preserved by a three-story limit.

“Height restrictions can be appropriate,” says Mike Stepner, professor at the New School of Architecture in San Diego and the city’s former acting planning director. “You have to look at the character, what you’re trying to achieve and what you’re trying to preserve.”

Along the commercial corridors in the Mid-City area, there is “height flexibility,” according to planning department deputy director Betsy McCullough. “In general, in our commercial zones there are usually no height restrictions.”

The height laws in the city of San Diego date back to the 1980s. Recognized community planning groups can recommend changes, but the final decision rests with the city council.

According to Leo Wilson, chair of the Uptown Planners group, 20 years ago no one expected high-rises in Bankers Hill like Park Laurel, twin 14-story towers occupying a block between Fifth and Sixth avenues.

“San Diego has adopted this philosophy to grow at any price,” Wilson says. “So they are encouraging these projects. But this isn’t affordable housing!”

One idea Uptown Planners has discussed is a seven-story height limit. Wilson sees strong support in the community, but an uphill fight against special interests. “People are thinking they’ve got to do something,” he says. “Right now the whole Hillcrest area is approaching gridlock.”

Longtime San Diegan John McGaughty says “transit will be the key, the key, the key.” As head of the Greater North Park Planning Committee, he sees growth as inevitable. He is pleased with negotiations over the historic Lafayette Hotel on El Cajon Boulevard. “The developer will restore the hotel in return for putting [17 stories] at the back of the lot,” he says.

The view is different to the east, at the Normal Heights Planning Committee. Says chair Judy Elliot: “We would see anything beyond three stories as inappropriate.”


Voodoo Donna and Chicken Jerry

is now behind us, and City Hall’s new top dog, former police chief Jerry Sanders, will likely be giving his first state-of-the-city address sometime this month. But while the olive branches have been extended, and Sanders and Donna Frye, still on the city council, have promised to work together, the bitter words of the campaign likely won’t be forgotten by either candidate. Here are some choice sound bytes of what Sanders said about Frye, and Frye about Sanders:

He said:

“She says one thing, and the record shows another.”

“Councilmember Frye’s failure to accept responsibility for her pension votes, or for her purchase of discounted pension credits, raises serious questions about her character and her integrity.”

“[Frye’s fiscal plan] “brings ‘voodoo economics’ to a new level.”

“After four years on the council, I don’t think Councilmember Frye can come in and tell us we need to be honest about budgeting.”

“My opponent talks a great game. Councilmember Frye has been a part of the problem for the last five years at the City Council.”

She said:

“There’s a lot Mr. Sanders doesn’t understand, including the budget.”

“Jerry Sanders has turned around his position on taxes so many times that I think he will soon be the lead gymnast at the Olympics.”

“Show me the money, Jerry! Show me how your numbers add up, or are you too chicken to show the people the money? You just can’t tell ’em the truth, can ya, Jerry? Because the truth is, your numbers don’t add up, because you don’t have numbers and because you change them all the time.”

“I actually know what to do to keep the city moving. I actually understand the government. I actually know what needs to be done. He doesn’t.”
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