Tom Gawronski is very worried about the future of Ocean Beach. As the Planning Board representative for District 1, he’s especially worried about that section of West Pt Loma Boulevard that curves around down at the beach, west of Abbott Street. Gawronski sees the row of single-story duplexes along that stretch of boulevard as the front lines of the City of San Diego’s efforts to allow the gentrification of Ocean Beach. As a retired molecular biologist, Tom is not easily shaken. But he’s agitated now.
According to Merriam Webster, the definition of “gentrification” is:
the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.
I met with Tom late last week in Newbreak, across from the Life Guard station. It was filled with 20-somethings, most of whom had their laptops open. We grabbed our steaming mugs and found a corner table. And then he proceeded to describe what had just happened when he traveled to Santa Rosa in northern California for a Coastal Commission meeting about the Cox Residence.
The story of the Cox Residence at 5164 West Pt. Loma actually goes back to the story of the Stebbins residence next door. The Stebbins wanted to take down the single story duplex on their 25 by 100 foot lot at 5166 West Pt. Loma and throw up a three-story single-family house. The problem was that the original plans called for underground parking, and would have allowed the construction of a building out of scale and character for that area of northwest Ocean Beach.
The OB Planning Board was split on the proposed development. Even though the Board can only make advisory decisions, its voice carries weight at the City. Created in the mid-seventies by popular pressure, and guided by the OB Precise Plan, this grandparent of all San Diego planning committees balked at the underground parking aspect and the huge scale. The vote was 6 to 6.
Eventually, the underground parking was removed by resistance by certain Board members, including current VP Landry Watson (can you imagine? – anyone who is familiar with that part of OB knows that the area floods fairly often). So, instead of the undergrounding, the Stebbins proposed covered parking in the front. Now for that size lot, the most a developer can build is a residence with a total of ‘under the roof’ space of 1750 square feet, which normally has to include 25% of it as enclosed parking.
In the end, the City’s hearing officer allowed a variance which enabled the Stebbins to build their 3-story with only covered parking. And today, their place stands as a tall beacon for gentrification.
What’s the problem, you might ask. How can only one residence do that?
Consider for a moment, what that length of West Pt. Loma would look like if each of the 15 duplexes along that stretch were allowed to build houses up to the limits imposed by the 30 foot height limit? If each duplex was torn down and replaced with a huge (for that area) building, three stories up, with very little space between them, you would see a wall 30 feet high from end to end. The wall would dwarf anything to either side and the residences across the street. It would represent an inpenetrable high ridge of stucco and wood, cutting off views for blocks around. You wouldn’t even know or sense that there is a beach right behind them. It woull help create a canyon-like effect – and create a slippery slope for the entire rest of northwest Ocean Beach to slide down and into full-on gentrification.
For don’t forget, gentrification allows a different class of people in, while removing a lower class. This area of OB is one of the last sections that is somewhat “low rent” allowing for all kinds of different folks to live there; retired seniors, enlisted navy, students, surfers, working people and their families. The gentrification would force in upper-middle class professionals, people who could afford these monstrous, 3-story behemoths.
And this is all what Tom Gawronski fears.
Because once the Stebbins project was approved, then along came the Cox residence. Right next door, the Cox Residence applicant wanted to build something very similar to the type of structure the Stebbins built. A three story house was proposed, but even without the required 25% covered parking – as the OB Precise Plan demands – and with only uncovered parking in the front.
Alvin Cox through his developer Scott Fleming of Stonebrook Studio, wants to demolish the existing duplex and build a 1,749 square foot place, using a combo of stucco, stone veneer with “glass and metal accents.” The design includes 3 bedrooms and two and one-half bathrooms, where 2 bedrooms and a full bathroom are on the ground floor, with the main livingroom, kitchen on the second floor, and a 449 square foot master bedroom making up the entire third floor. Two parking spaces would be covered by an attached carport in the front.
Cox is proposing that instead of following the Precise Plan floor-area-ratio (FAR) of 0.7 for the zone in that area, he wants a deviation to include the added space from the carport not counted, as part of his habitable area. So instead of having the enclosed parking that the Precise Plan and the applicable zone demand be counted as part of the gross floor area, the extra space would be part of the living area. This would all require a variance – which the City seemed to be willing to grant.
The Planning Board did not like this proposal, and voted 10 to 1 against it on August 5, 2009. Yet, obviously, this wasn’t the end of it. Because such votes are only “advisory”, developers – or the Board itself – can appeal decisions. There’s a three step appeal process: first, there is a hearing before a City hearing officer. Second, there is the San Diego Planning Commission. And finally, the appeal can be taken to the California Coastal Commission. And this is where Gawronski had just returned from.
What had happened was that after the OB Planning Board voted against the proposal, the applicant took the appeal to the hearing officer, who approved the project and allowed the variance to circumvent the requirements of the OB Precise Plan; the Board appealed this decision. The project then went to and was approved by the Planning Commission. So the Board appealed it to the Coastal Commission.
The Coastal Commission meets monthly, but in different locations up and down this huge state. That’s why Tom had to drive up to Santa Rose for the May 11th meeting. He and a local resident, Bill Wilson, drove up there on their own dime to testify against the project because they felt it was wrong and that the City was improperly allowing variances.
Once up at the Santa Rosa meeting, San Diego city staff presented their 6 page report asking that the appeal be denied and that the project be allowed.
Here is part of their reasoning:
City staff believes the proposed deviations should be considered reasonable based on the substandard lot size (2,500 square-feet) combined with the limitations of the F.A.R. in the RM-2-4 Zone that apply only in the Ocean Beach and Peninsula communities, and are not applied City-wide. As stated these limitations restrict the allowable FAR to 0.7. Similarly zone RM-2-4 properties outside of these communities have a minimum lot size of 6,000 square-feet and an allowable maximum FAR of 1.20. …
Listen to the logic here:
The Variance is reasonable to allow one unit within a zone that encourages higher density development on medium sized lots at nearly twice the floor area and alley access. The variance would provide a superior design than would be rendered with strict compliance of the zone which would likely result in a box-like structure necessary to maximize living area at the expense of articulation, design and aesthetics. It should also be noted that parking for all of the existing duplexes is located within the street yard setbacks which is typical for the beach community, though nonconforming pursuant to the Land Development Code. Additionally, it should be noted that the existing duplex exceeds the RM 2-4 zone density of one unit per 1,750 square feet therefore both the density and the parking currently do not comply with the zoning.
Watch for the tricks, as the city staff report continues:
Whereas the new structure may represent a notable change from that of the existing structure, and would be dissimilar to the row of old duplexes, the design of the residence would be consistent with new single-family homes throughout the Ocean Beach community and compatible with adjacent two and three-story structures in the neighborhood including the newly constructed Stebbins Residence adjacent to this property. Likewise, the proposed residential structure would be consistent with the Ocean Beach Precise Plan that envisioned new and revitalized development, and the project would conform to the Land Development Code regulations including the required parking and the prescribed density with the approval of the appropriate development permits.
There is a set up here, can you find it?
… The project site is located on a block consisting of identical one-story duplexes, many of which are dilapidated and in need of repair/ modeling. … The proposed demolition and construction would meet the plan’s residential element objective to “renovate substandard and dilapidated property.”
The report goes on to claim that the project’s design with its terracing, “reduces the structure’s apparent bulk and minimizes structural scale from the pedestrian right-of-way.” Even the proposed carport actually enhances views, the report claims, as “the proposed carport incorporates an open/transparent design and pedestrians may look through the structure, further enhancing the pedestrian experience.”
The claims in this report are preposterous and almost sound like they are tongue-in-cheek:
“The project would implement the Ocean Beach Precise Plan and residential goals to preserve small-scale character. At three stories, the project would appear larger than immediately surrounding development,” and “more closely match 2-story and 3-story structures on the block to the immediate north of West Point Loma Boulevard.”
The report calls the additional 500 square feet to be added – a 40% increase – to the habitable area as a “modest increase”, and makes this claim: “The proposed project would not affect either visual or physical access to the shoreline.”
Against this report, full of holes as it was, Tom and Bill Wilson – the local resident – both had 3 minutes to speak to the Commission.They raised the issues of the rezoning problem, the loss of view, and the project’s inconsistency with the community character. Only three of the 11 Commission members agreed with them however,and the final vote was 8 votes against the appeal – that is – in favor of the project.
Later at Newbreak, Tom told me that the City staffer representing the city told the Commission that the area of OB in question – that stretch along West Pt. Loma – is all zoned wrong. The idea that the proposed project is in an area that is not zoned correctly became part of the basis of the Commission’s decision, no doubt.
Tom told me, listen, if the zoning in that area is wrong, then the city should change it properly. Right now, with the Cox Residence and earlier with the Stebbins Residence, the City is using variances for each property in order to allow them to circumvent the Precise Plan. The Development Services department, Tom said, cannot rezone the city on its own. So, how does the City change zoning?
Tom showed me the part of the Municipal Code that applies to zoning.
Section 123.0155 – Decision Process for Zoning or Rezoning
(a) A decision on a proposed zone or rezoning action shall be made in accordance with Process Five.
(b) The City Council may approve a zoning or rezoning action whenever public necessity or convenience, the general welfare, or good zoning practice justifies this action.
What this means is that any rezoning has to come before the City Council and have a full public hearing on the issue. Zones cannot be changed unless that happens. What the City is doing is granting zoning changes through the issuance of variances. This is wrong, improper – even illegal.
Once the Stebbins Residence is allowed, and now the Cox Residence, the flood gates will open. All the property owners of the other 14 lots on that stretch could now all apply for the same type of developments. Tom warned that if they are all built out, with only 3 foot sideyard setbacks, “you won’t be able to see anything,” and that “there’ll be a thirty foot wall coming down West Point Loma.”
Tom returns to the Planning Board Wednesday, June 1st, to give his report. There is one final step in the appeal process, Tom reminded me. And it is filing a Writ of Mandamus – a legal move that basically says this cannot happen because it’s illegal. We need to find a lawyer, he said, that could file one.
And guess what? There is already another applicant on file who wants to do the very same thing – demolish the duplex and put up a three story at 5170 West Pt Loma, two doors down from the Cox Residence. Tom Gawronski vows to fight this one. We’ve got to send a lot of letters, we’ve got to fill the Council Chambers, he said. Just like the old days, I thought.
But, here we are, with the City’s Planning Department abolished, and the city granting variances illegally – all part of the gentrification process within Ocean Beach. This cannot be allowed to continue.