Since I came of age here in Ocean Beach, I’ve always believed that urban planning should be a process in which the citizens and residents of a community have a significant and substantial role to play. This concept was shared by an entire generation of grassroots activists here in OB during the first half of the Seventies – the decade that is usually overshadowed in lore and myth by the infamous Sixties. Yet, as logical and reasonable as that concept seems today, back then it was “radical!”
In this continuous series about the history of urban planning in Ocean Beach, I’m attempting to outline the historical record so newer generations of OBceans can appreciate how OB came to be what it is today. OB is the way it is today due to the trials and tribulations of this Seventies community of activists – who pushed this community out of the way of highrise and a drastic redevelopment of OB’s waterfront and into having a democratically-decided urban plan and design for the community.
OB is one of the first communities in the history of San Diego – yea, even the State of California – to have a popularly elected planning committee. The formation and election of the OB Planning Board, its underlining planning document – the OB Precise Plan – are the subjects of this series within my broader story. Much of what I describe I personally witnessed and experienced, as I was deeply involved both in the early development of the Board in the mid-seventies, and then sat on the Board twice – the first time in the early Nineties, and the second time as Chair back in the early days of this decade.
Let the story continue ….
Pen Inc and the First OB Precise Plan
Peninsulans, Inc., a non-profit and the elite child of the business-oriented Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, was formed in the mid-Sixties to map out a urban design plan for the Peninsula Proper and its communities – Point Loma, Loma Portal and Ocean Beach. Pen. Inc, was designated by the City to be the “citizen’s committee” that had the authority to sit down and make plans with the City planning department. The Peninsula Community Plan was the product of this wedding.
But who was Pen Inc, exactly? Generally, it was made up of large property and business owners. We turn to a hardcopy of the original OB Rag to focus our present view. The late February 1972 issue front page article asked it: “The Precise Plan – Who Drew It Up???”
Pen Inc was a non-profit, incorporated in November 1965, “to aid in creating and putting into effect a functional community plan for the Peninsula.” They had breakfast meetings every two weeks at 7:30, and required membership fees to join their elite club of real estate people, developers, insurance agents, lawyers, bank officials, contractors and business owners.
The original thirty-members of Pen Inc included Helen Fane, a Point Loman with substantial downtown connections. In late 1971, she was appointed to the San Diego Planning Commission by Mayor Frank Curran. Curran – who later was driven from office due to the Yellow Cab scandal – had his friend glide through a unanimous City Council approval process. Fane, while chair of Pen Inc, refused to allow discussions about the land that became Collier Park and any interests Pen Inc members had with it, as Pen Inc was one of the very few organizations that did not support the park’s creation. A number of Pen Inc members had substantial holdings in and around the parkland. (Collier Park was the subject of intense community-city debate in the early Seventies – finally becoming a neighborhood park in northeast OB.)
It included Tom Fittam, Jr., owner of the Bali Hai restaurant on Shelter Island, who also owned other expensive eateries in town. Gene DeFalco was also in the original Pen Inc, owner of a couple of high-end large markets in Point Loma and Little Italy. Another developer in the group, Tom P Faulconer, reportedly was attempting to purchase land that became Collier Park West, and who owned the two largest apartment buildings near the so-to-become park.
The original group had Charles “Chuck” Baldwin, another apartment developer. He owned the apartment complex at what was then called Collier Park West. At least one of his buildings – on Narragansett Ave – had been later burned down by anti-development arsonists in May 1971. The Rag reported that Baldwin had “showed up last April  at Collier Park with a gun – he would have shot people to protect some dirt!” [pg 8]
Page Cummings was in Pen Inc as the group’s secretary. Cummings was the vocal leader of a militant ‘born again’ Campus Crusade for Christ crusade. She owned income-producing property at the foot of Saratoga.
Ross Tharp was also in it. Tharp had been the legal adviser of Pen Inc for years, then was appointed to the Superior Court bench. He presided over at least three trials of people arrested during the Collier Park Riot that occurred in March of 1971. He failed to disclose his connections with the parkland and Pen Inc, meting out what seemed to some observers as harsh penalties. He even later denied a motion from one of the defendants for a new trial based on the judge’s conflict of interest with Pen Inc.
It included another developer, Jack Crowningshield, who became infamous as a target for later anti-development protest actions led by the OB Ecology Action Committee due to his penchant for building apartments. Crowningshield, along with his wife, Gloria, owned Peninsula Realty. During the 1970 OB Jetty fight, his office was fire-bombed by sandy rascals.
A sub-set of Pen Inc actually made up the precise planning implementation committee- which formalized the Peninsula Community Plan’s designs for OB. We again turn to the original OB Rag for help. On the front page of the early January 1972 issue, there was a large graphic of a machine titled “The City” and “Pen Inc” eating trees and spewing out rectangular apartment boxes, with the headline “the rape of ocean beach.” The accompanying article discussed “The Precise Plan.”
The Ocean Beach Precise Plan is an actuality but how many people have read it or even know of its existence? Well how are 13,000 OB residents expected to know of it or to have read it when the Precise Planners had only 200-300 token copies printed and made available to the public? The Ocean Beach Library thoughtfully kept a copy for reference.
But who has done this planning? An “interested” citizens group has worked with the City Planning Department for 3 years spending huge amounts (close to $50,000 annually) of tax money to devise the Plan. The group is composed o several members of the Board of Directors of Peninsulans, Inc. (who so kindly took care of Collier Park for us), augmented by residents and merchants. The members of the small group conveniently have large land interests in Ocean Beach. At the same time they have drawn up a plan to greatly increase the monetary value of that land.
Another hardcopy of the original OB Rag reports (Late January 1972, Vol 5, No 2):
Our muckrakers have given us the list of names of the current board members of the Precise Planning Organization and the type of work they are engaged in, here they are: Spike Webb, chairman (major property owner-income producing); Ned Titlow, (insurance, real estate, and land development); Page Cummings, Secretary, (real estate); Helen Fane, Peninsulans, Inc. Chairman; Jack Crowningshield, (Real estate and land development); Ted Kistner, (property owner-income producing); Vernon Lontz, Restaurant owner – Natie’s; Joe Richardson, (insurance); Ruth Sweeney, Principal of Warren Walker School); and Al Vallin, (Building Contractor.)
In the same article, the Rag observed and complained:
As you can see, there aren’t any mechanics, welders, cooks, telephone operators, workers, artists, sailors, students, ecologists, sociologists on the Precise Planning Board. …and its no accident that there isn’t a true representation of a real cross-section of the OB community. The committee is made up of real estate speculators and greedy business people. There wasn’t any environmental, sociological or true economic impact study conducted by this group, except maybe the economics of profit and how to increase the value of land.
Of the 15 members of Pen Inc who formed the sub-committee that focused on Ocean Beach (the OB Implementation Planning Organization), only three actually lived in the OB study area. The Rag continued to make the charge:
The vast majority of the membership of the Precise Planning Committee own property that will become more valuable in the Precise Plan is implemented.
These observations may have been true – these folks certainly appear part of the propertied and business elite of the area, but these are certainly serious charges. Just what kind of perceived monster did the Pen Inc create with the OB Precise Plan?
Actually, the OB Precise Plan, at least the first one, was not different than what the Peninsula Community Plan called for in terms of density and types of residential housing permitted for Ocean Beach.
Density limits were key. Density limits determined whether the neighborhood was single-family residential homes, apartments, or high rise. Remember- these were the days before the 30 foot height limit.
Let’s look at what these definitions allow by viewing graphics right out of the Peninsula Community Plan itself.
Here’s what the Plan called for:
Ocean Beach – Medium high, medium and low medium residential densities are proposed. The area generally bounded by West Point Loma, Saratoga and Sunset Cliffs is proposed for medium high density; the section bounded by Niagara, Sunset Cliffs and the ocean front is proposed for medium density; and the area approximately bounded by Sunset Cliffs, Muir, Froude, and Point Loma Avenue is proposed for low medium density (10 to 20 units per acre). …
A substantial increase in density for the area north of the Ocean Beach shopping center is based on the development of a new beach park with direct access to future State Route 109 [ed: SR 109 was the forerunner to what became I-8’s extension to Ocean Beach]. …
(Peninsula Community Plan, 1968, pg 22). Lower densities were of course proposed for the more scenic sections of the community and the for the hill itself.
The Plan also outlined these proposals of note for the West Point Loma- Voltaire Street corridor:
West Point Loma-Voltaire – Medium high, medium and low medium residential densities are proposed.
Medium high density multifamily development is proposed for an area generally bounded by West Point Loma Boulevard, Famosa and Valeta. ….
Medium density multifamily development is proposed for the area generally bounded by Nimitz, Voltaire, Chatsworth, Tennyson and Muir. … [pg 23]
In a moment of honesty, this section of the Plan summarized – showing its true goal:
Further emphasis is placed on the development of higher densities near the community boundaries [meaning OB], thus protecting the handsome single family nature of the Peninsula and enhancing residential values. [Editor’s emphasis] [pg 23]
The Precise Plan called for high rise, no doubt about it. “… high rise development should be permitted in select areas of the community where density and economic and site planning considerations warrant this type of construction.” [pg 14]
The goal of Pen Inc and their plan was to maintain the quaintness of the single family areas at the expense of high rise and high density in Ocean Beach (and Roseville). Of course, no one – least of all Pen Inc – asked Ocean Beach.
In fact, the Rag reported that during the August 18, 1970, meeting of the OB Implementation Committee, the group felt “the committee might run into some opposition when the Ocean Beach plan is presented, particularly with respect to ‘Miami Beach high rise’ fears expressed by ecology groups and others.”
They weren’t kidding. And they really didn’t know to what extent that “opposition” would mobilize against them. They didn’t know that the opposition would be so strong in Ocean Beach that their entire Precise Plan would be derailed over the next few years, and that the backlash they caused would result in the first democratically elected planning committee in the history of the state.
Ah, but that is all for a future segment of the story of urban planning in OB.