Community Planning Lesson # 1: The coming gentrification crisis of Ocean Beach

by on June 28, 2011 · 12 comments

in Civil Rights, Ocean Beach, Popular

5100 block of West Point Loma – the front lines of the gentrification crisis.

After sitting down recently with a couple of members of the Ocean Beach Planning Board, I now have a grasp of the coming gentrification crisis about to hit OB.  I spoke with Board member Tom Gawronski, representative for District 1 – the northwest beach portion of OB, and with Landry Watson, the vice-chair of the Board.  Both had bad things to say about this new trend that they see and what the village of Ocean Beach is experiencing along the 5100 block of West Point Loma. And what it all means.

Having been on the local Planning Board myself for a total of 3 years – one of them being the chair of the Board – I was able to follow both Tom and Landry as they presented me with outlines of what they felt were troubling signs of this coming crisis. But, as it’s been a few years since all of that – which makes me rusty with all this planning lingo, I furiously took notes so I could then pass on the info … and importantly the message.

And I am presenting it in the form of lesson plans, with this being the Community Planning Lesson #1. So, class, take your seats, get out  your pencils, and put on your thinking caps. (And if I screw up, Landry, Tom, Seth, Jane, and others on the Board can correct me in the comments below – so be sure to check those out, as well.)

Land Development and Use in Ocean Beach

This lesson is focused on a broad understanding of land development and how it applies to the specific situation in northwest OB. So, it is NOT a comprehensive lesson covering the wide spectrum of land use issues and definitions, etc.

In general, land development and use in Ocean Beach is governed by the City of San Diego’s Land Development Code.  More specifically, land development and use in OB is covered by the Ocean Beach Precise Plan. This covers private and public land, zoning, density, types of development, public facilities and infrastructure. The Precise Plan also is the community blueprint and governing set of rules that the Ocean Beach Planning Board uses in making its planning decisions.

The Precise Plan

As said, it’s within the Precise Plan for Ocean Beach that we find a so-called community blueprint for construction and development.  And the Precise Plan that was written by consensus in the mid-seventies by local tenants, home owners and small business people still stands to this day as a document way before its time. It set on paper how OB would handle itself within land use and development issues, giving a green populist approach to urban design. It forbade one-way streets, for example, as they divide up neighborhoods; it restricted any apartments to the west side of OB; it required apartments to provide their own parking, issues like that.

The Precise Plan also called for tree plantings, for more open space, and in general set a tone for how to resolve these type of issues. It set up the Planning Board.

The original plan written in the late sixties by commercial and propertied interests was a sorry excuse for open, unbridled development – allowing for massive apartments and increased density for most of OB. It also heralded the destruction of the entire beach front to make way for hotels, resorts, and even a marina. This Plan was thoroughly defeated and a new one written by a coalition of locals who had responded in mass to the crisis of the early seventies.

OB Planning Board

The OB Planning Board is made up of representatives of the neighborhood who sit and make decisions about planning here in the village of OB. Ocean Beach is divided up into seven districts and has an OB Planning Area with specific boundaries that separates it from other communities, like Point Loma – which has its own planning committee.

Set up in the mid-1970s, the OB Planning Board has advisory capacity decision-making authority over all development projects within the OB planning area – unless they are rehabs.  Each district has two representatives and the Board has a Chair, Vice-Chair, Secretary and Treasurer.  It meets twice a month at the OB Recreation Center and both meetings are open to the public (in contrast to the OB Town Council – which also has 2 meetings a month, but only one is open to the public).

Each year in March, annual elections are held during which any OB resident, property owner or business owner may vote. Voters elect reps for 2 year terms.  These are open, public elections – which makes the Planning Board the most representative voice of the community, the only democratically-elected body that represents Ocean Beach.

The OB Planning Board is considered the grand-parent of all planning committees in the City of San Diego, as it was the very first planning body in this city that was created through democratic elections.  The Board was formed in response to a huge popular demand that crystallized in OB during the early and mid-seventies – a demand to do something about the urban planning crisis that enveloped Ocean Beach – and many other beach communities. Due to uncontrolled apartment buildings and other issues that affected density, parking, access to the beach and water, and quality of life issues, public pressure built to demand more environmental, more democratic and lower-class participation in land use and urban planning decisions.

Like the creation of the California Coastal Commission and the passage of the 30 foot height limit, the  OB Planning Board was part of the Seventies push for more of a green, popular, and democratic public governance over these types of issues.

Density and Zoning

When dealing with planning issues, two of the most important ones are DENSITY and ZONING.

Zoning tells you what types and numbers of buildings you can construct in a certain area. Whether commercial or residential – or mixed.  Whether single-family homes or apartments.

Most of Ocean Beach is either what’s called RM 1-1 or RM 2-4. (RM is “Residential Multiple”.)  This is all per the Land Development Code of San Diego.

Just about everything east of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard is RM1-1 – except for about a block in south OB -, a more restrictive zoning area – less units per lot are allowed.  And just about everything west of Sunset Cliffs Blvd is zoned RM2-4 – except the commercial districts -, which allows for more units per lot, thus a higher density.  This all makes sense, right? Drive around and see the difference in density and types of buildings allowed.  There are very few apartments, for example, east of Sunset Cliffs Blvd – and what few there are were ‘grand-parented in’.

Density tells you – just that – how dense in terms of buildings – a certain area can be. If two story apartments are allowed in a particular area, it will of course be more “dense” than a neighborhood that only has single-family residences.

The Mighty FAR

In terms of density, most of OB is roughly 8 to 10 units per acre. One way density is controlled is through a calculation determined by the size of the lot and the size of the building being planned. It’s called the FAR – the Floor Area Ratio.  This is a ratio between the size of the building over the size of the lot.

So, think this through. If you have an FAR of 1.0 – that means you could build out to every inch of your lot, right (not counting setback requirements yet)? If allowed, you could do this several ways.  You could build out to the property line with one story.  Or you could build two stories, each with 50% of the lot, or 3 stories, each with one-third, and so on.

Of course, there are all kinds of set-back requirements, side yards, parking issues – which prevent you from building out to your property line, but we aren’t dealing with them right now.

Now, if you have an FAR that is less than 1.0, then you have restrictions of how far out or how high you could build.

And if you have an FAR that is higher than 1.0, you could build more than your lot size – you can build up.  (These are maximums we’re dealing with.)

The FAR in Ocean Beach is 0.7.  So is a lot of Point Loma.  In comparison, much of the rest of San Diego is 1.2.  So, in general, we find that building in Ocean Beach – at the coast – is more restrictive than in the rest of the city. Makes sense.

So, take your typical OB lot, a residential plot. It’s got a 25 foot length across the front and is 100 feet deep. Okay, so the square footage for the lot is 2500 square feet. If the FAR for that lot is .7, then the maximum ratio of the building being planned to the land is .7, or 70%.  And seventy percent of the 2500 sq. ft. lot is 1,750 square feet.  That is the total size of the building that can be built on that type and size of lot in OB.

So, since this is your typical OB lot – in a certain and dramatic way it’s also the standard lot. Keep this in mind for later.

Now, we already said that the area zoned RM2-4 is your area west of Sunset Cliffs Blvd – with Sunset Cliffs being an obvious north-south dividing line in the community.

Now, here’s an anomaly: according to the City’s development code, a minimum lot in the RM2-4 zone is 6,000 square feet.  Well, think about it – this is OB.  There are no single lots in OB of that size, no single lots here in OB with 6,000 sq. ft.  Well, you might say, okay, Ocean Beach is the exception in that zone.

Yet according to research done by a Planning Board member, outside OB, there’s only about a dozen parcels in the entire city that are zoned RM2-4.  Or in other words, 99% of the parcels that are zoned RM2-4 are in OB. Except for some exceptions.  This means, ‘no, OB is not the exception in this zone, it’s the rule, it’s the standard.’  The Code is wrong.

What About Parking?

One of the other requirements and restrictions to building is the parking element.  Under the requirements of the RM2-4 zone in the OB Precise Plan, the building must include enclosed parking.  So, that 1,750 square foot area must include an enclosed parking space, which usually makes up 25%.

Okay, that’s it for today, class. See you next time – and don’t forget what we just learned.

NEXT:  The situation on 5100 West Point Loma Avenue.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Frank Gormlie June 28, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Okay, class, already getting some feedback. Here’s the first batch:

1. Zoning call outs should look like this RM 2-4, RM 1-1. That is the way the city shows it in their reports.
2. Not sure that I said that “Both had bad things to say”…. I like the way you put it in the next paragraph as “concerned” or “troubled”.
3. FAR most closely controls the bulk and scale of a project. Density is determined by the underlying Land Development Plan in dwelling units per acre. I misquoted when I told you 8 – 10 units. Ours is up to 24 units per acre. Which in math…. 43,560sf / 25 units = 1750 sf/unit. Where 43,560 is an acre. Thus, a parcel or plot must have 1750 for one unit, 3500 for two units and so on.


avatar Frank Gormlie June 28, 2011 at 1:35 pm

More feedback:

More on the densities.

We are Res Low-med (10-14 du/ac on the east of Sunset Cliffs)
We are Res Med (15-29 du/ac on the east of Sunset Cliffs)

Specifically… the RM 2-4 zone says that one unit per 1750 can be built —– which is 24.89 du/ac.

page 14 of the 1973 precise plan has a map and graphic of this.


avatar Frank Gormlie June 28, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Landry Watson, the Board Vice-Chair, sent us an updated OB District Map, which I have now included above. (I had downloaded the other apparently out-dated map off the Planning Board’s own website.)


avatar Robert Burns June 28, 2011 at 5:23 pm

I spent a considerable amount of time in O.B. Local Coastal Program affairs but have been pretty well away from it about 15 years (I think). I don’t sense that anything has changed other than that the economy and housing market tanked, huge water/sewer lines have been installed, and someone is redeveloping one of those lots down there. Gentrification can occur at any density for obvious reasons.


avatar Sunshine June 28, 2011 at 10:23 pm

finally! thanx, frank, for spelling it out so clearly in lesson #1. i’ve heard these terms in conversations since moving to OB, yet now feel more familiar as to what they’re talking about. I look forward to more on this subject.

for me, what makes this such an enjoyable and walkable community are the front yards. many of them brimming with vegetable or flower gardens, abundant & fragrant nature, simple gathering spots with fire pits, chairs, and potted plants, or a combination of all these. the fence height limits also allow for friendly and neighborly interactions.

i have lived in other beach communities where houses filled the entire lot, no side or front yards, prolific concrete walls stood as barriers along the sidewalks, and parking was street-only, first come first served, between residents and visitors alike. all this did was to virtually eliminating all human interaction.

any wonder why i left those other beach towns and came here. I would like to see future construction / development in OB maintain the current community-oriented design laid out so well in the Precise Plan. What’s that they say, “if it aint broke, dont fuck with it.” or something like that.

if i understand the Precise Plan’s original intention correctly, it is about honoring the connection between nature and neighbors in the community. beats me why anyone would want to eliminate something as powerful and wonderful as that to opt for concrete barriers void of nature.


avatar OB law(yer) June 29, 2011 at 8:40 am

Close enough Frank! Since I can guess where this is going with gentrification, I’ll withold my discussion till lesson #2 when we discuss those ramifications.

Important note about community plans and specifically our Precise Plan. The “fore fathers” of OB were indeed wise when they insisted on the exception to our RM-2-4 zone to .7 FAR. Whether they knew that the bulldozer was just around the corner or if it was a hard tough slog just to get the exception included isn’t evident. Either way, the exception has served the Precise Plan extremely well in that the major goal for the residential design was for “small remodels and renovations of existing cottages and bungalows”.

That exception, in combination with the Mills Act has saved so many wonderful examples of the California Bungalow and American Craftsman Cottage that Ocean Beach is recognized by the City as an Emerging Cottage District with recognized historical value. There are literally hundreds of examples of this type of architecture and over 80 that are recognized with historical value documented. The City loves to downplay that!

The “fore fathers” were also wise beyond their years when they insisted that the .7 FAR be mentioned specifically in the Precise Plan (a document that is usually silent on zoning which is maintained in the Muni Code). A move that clearly documented the community’s strong desire to design to a smaller standard and made it part of the long term planning document for all to see.

In any case, the result has been that builders and developers have continued to shy away from OB as a place to “scrape and plant” stucco abominations like the house at 5166 West Point Loma and other McMansions that lack any heart or soul that you find in the planned neighborhoods out east — or just across the river in Mission Beach where you will find nothing but 30ft high shoeboxes across 99% of the parcels. You can find the blueprints to those stucco bunkers in the back of the Developer Monthly magazine – next to the hammerless nails and the sea monkeys.

Bottom line: It just isn’t profitable to build a home to .7 FAR and then try to sell it for a profit. It doesn’t “pencil out” as they say in their business. The only people who build to that “non-profitable” size are people who really want to actually LIVE in the home they are building.

We’ll see if 1.0 FAR is the dividing line to gentrification…. Evidenced by the recent approval of another project of the same design and rumours of more on the way.

Good on the OBPB for standing up to this chicanery by the City and developers.

Frank — I’m guessing that you are heading towards a discussion about variances next and the legal findings necessary to justify a “hardship”. Can’t wait to comment on that.


avatar Frank Gormlie June 29, 2011 at 9:16 am

Oh geez! Don’t know if I can stand up to your expectations, but yes variances and what’s going down on the 5100 block of W Pt Loma are the next lesson plan. (Don’t expect a legal treatise on the requirements to obtain a variance, as the City seems bent on handing them out to ‘anybody’ – or anybody rich enough to hire a fancy land-use lawyer.)


avatar Craig Klein July 1, 2011 at 7:45 am

Frank: As a member of the OB Planning Board, (but speaking as an individual, and not on behalf of the Board) I commend you for taking the time to wade through the arcane language of the City’s Land Development Code and distilling it down into plain English, which “ordinary folk” can understand. Education and understanding of how law and government work is the key to a functioning democracy. Only an educated populace can render the sound decisions that make democracy work. Looking forward to your next installment.


avatar Rich Grosch July 5, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Frank, I want to add my voice to those who have already commended you on this terrific community planning 101 article. I have recommended it to several new resdents that love OB and had questions and this is a concise and well organized reference for them. There’s really something wonderfully special about a community and planning board that has such a high regard for Floor Area Ratio. Obviously we must remain vigilant to make sure that development conforms to the precise plan and articles like this reminds us of those citizen responsibilities. Well done.
Rich Grosch


avatar Brenda McFarlane December 8, 2011 at 5:40 am

Thanks Frank! Very helpful and important!


avatar Terrie Leigh Relf December 15, 2011 at 11:09 am

I really appreciate this series of classes, Professor. While I don’t usually “get” the numbers aspect, the diagrams and descriptions, etc. bring the point home.


avatar edwin decker June 29, 2014 at 2:13 pm

Yeah man, the best, most comprehensive explanation to date! Thanks! Keep it up


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