Okay class, let’s take our seats, get out our pens and notebooks. Hopefully, you didn’t forget too much from Lesson #1. And as in that earlier lesson, if I screw up, Landry, Tom, Seth, Gio, Jane, and others on the Board – or those who are knowledgeable about city and OB planning – can correct me in the comments below – so be sure to check those out, as well.)
Today’s lesson about gentrification coming to OB is going to focus on the 5100 block of West Point Loma, for that is the front line in this gentrification crisis.
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.
Gentrification is all around us, but one way it has been slowed down over the decades is with the 30 foot height limit.
The 30 Foot Height Limit
In general, there is a slow process of gentrification going on in Ocean Beach. It is slow and gradual, as a new 3 story house pops up here, and over a block away another pops up, and in time, every block in OB has a large, single-family residence built out to the max, all the way up to 30 feet. They cannot go higher because of this sacrosanct limit. You can build 3 stories with 30 feet. And some builders, in order to get around this limit, pile dirt on the lot in order to produce a base that is higher than the original, in other words they raise the grade higher than the original. And then they go up the thirty feet. Unfortunately, this has been more common than people think.
The 30 foot height limit was passed by San Diego voters in 1972 – in reaction to the widespread unbridled apartment construction close to the ocean or bays going back over three decades ago.
It was November 1972, and San Diego voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition D – which was what the 30 foot limit was titled. It established a 30-foot height limit on new construction whether on private or city property in the city’s coastal zone. This coastal zone was west of Interstate 5, with two exceptions: Little Italy and Downtown.
The ballot had language on Prop D that stated the intended purpose of the proposition was to preserve “the unique and beautiful character of the coastal zone of San Diego,” and prohibited buildings that obstructed “ocean breezes, sky and sunshine.”
And we are so glad that voters back then did that. That was a people’s victory, and must be protected.
5100 Block of West Point Loma
So, what is going on at the 5100 block of West Point Loma?
Well, decades ago, a series of 15 duplexes were built all in a row, all next to each other. They are single story, with parking for 2 vehicles in the front and small yards in the back. The fenced back yards butt up against the grass at North OB, so they do not have alleys or alley-access. Originally part of one development, most now are singularly owned.
A lot of people feel these duplexes are ugly, dilapidated, and some are quite run-down. But people live in them, and without any study of the rents of these units, we can lump them in with much of the rest of north-west Ocean Beach, an area that has been called the “war zone” over the years – much to the disdain of realtors and speculators.
This sector of OB is also the more “low-rent” neighborhood of our village, which allows low income people to live at the beach. This includes seniors on fixed incomes, young families, students, surfers, sailors, and working people without many resources. Living at the beach is one of those joys, and OB is one of the last remaining beach towns in Southern California where poor people can reside. The units of these duplexes are not large, obviously, and this is part of their attraction and distraction.
When the new Precise Plan was written and instituted in the mid-seventies, this area of OB was obviously included. It’s in District 1 of the OB Planning Area. And as much of the western portion of Ocean Beach, this area is zoned RM 2-4. And it’s been that way ever since.
Now, during Lesson #1, we just touched on parking as an issue. We said then:
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%.
Again, going back to the issue of the size of the lots, the duplexes along this stretch of West Point Loma are all 25 feet in front and a 100 foot depth. That’s a total of 2500 square feet. This size is very common in OB – in fact it’s the “standard” lot in much of the village.
With the FAR (Floor Area Ratio – if you don’t know what that is or have forgotten – return to Lesson #1) being 0.7, the most a home builder or developer can build is 1,750 square feet. Under the zoning for this area, RM 2-4, the Precise Plan requires that any parking be enclosed, and that this enclosed parking has to be included in the 1,750 square feet. Okay so far (no pun intended)?
So, what’s the problem?
The problem stems from property owners who own these duplexes coming forward with plans to first, demolish their duplex, and then build large, chunky three-story single family residences. And these property owners do not want to follow the Precise Plan as they want to get around the requirements of the parking restrictions and the liveable space. Up to now, the City of San Diego seems geared to happily allow them to do just that. To the detriment of the rest of us.
The duplex owners want to take the 25% reserved for the enclosed garage, and add it to their living space. They are doing this by either getting the City to authorize a car port instead of a garage, so the rule that the Precise Plan and the zoning has for parking is trashed. Or in the case of the most recent planned house, the City agreed to allow the owner not even to have to build a car port, and the parking space is at the front of the lot.
Why or how is the City doing this?
The City is granting these owners and builders what’s called variances. These variances allow the builder to get around the rules of the Precise Plan.
So, for example, both the Stebbins residence at 5166 West Point Loma and the Cox residence next door, at 5164, were granted variances that allowed, first, the Stebbins to build their bulky, out-of-character place – which has been constructed, and has allowed, second, the Cox builder approval to build something very similar – but even without the car port in front.
These deviations from the prescribed plan are being handed out by the City – which has demolished its own Planning Department – under a reasoning that disses the OB Precise Plan, the zoning of the area, and the will of the people. (See this accounting of the Stebbins and Cox residences process from an earlier post.)
The City is doing all this by, first calling the RM 2-4 lots “substandard”, and using that logic, are granting these variances. But as we discussed in Lesson #1, the most common lot in OB is the 100 foot by 25 foot lot – so how can these plots be called “substandard” if they are, in fact, the standard for our community? The City, of course, is saying that the lots are substandard compared to the rest of the City, and that the zoning for that area that includes West Point Loma is just wrong.
Both the Stebbins and Cox residences were granted two variances that chill the protections to our community under the Precise Plan and under current zoning laws.
The first variance the City seems eager to grant is to allow parking in the front, instead of in an enclosed garage or even a covered parking area. The second is to allow that 25% of the buildable space reserved for parking now to be part of the living space. (There is a third variance which has to do with elevation – the building is supposed to be 3 feet about the median high tide.)
The City has been arguing that because the lots are “substandard” and because the zoning is “wrong”, that developers like the Stebbins and Coxes deserve these variances in order to throw up these 3 story behemoths.
Chapter 12 of the City Land Use Code defines variances for us. First, we have the purpose:
§126.0801 Purpose of Variance Procedures
The purpose of these procedures is to provide relief for cases in which, because of special circumstances applicable to the property including size, shape, topography, location, or surroundings, the strict application of the development regulations would deprive the property of privileges enjoyed by other property in the vicinity and under the same land use designation and zone.
And then we have what must be determined or found in order to grant a variance:
§126.0805 Findings for Variance Approval
The decision maker may approve or conditionally approve an application for a variance only if the decision maker makes the following findings:
(a) There are special circumstances or conditions applying to the land or premises for which the variance is sought that are peculiar to the land or premises and do not apply generally to the land or premises in the neighborhood, and these conditions have not resulted from any act of the applicant after the adoption of the applicable zone regulations;
(b) The circumstances or conditions are such that the strict application of the regulations of the Land Development Code would deprive the applicant of reasonable use of the land or premises and the variance granted by the City is the minimum variance that will permit the reasonable use of the land or premises;
(c) The granting of the variance will be in harmony with the general purpose and intent of the regulations and will not be detrimental to the public health, safety, or welfare; and
(d) The granting of the variance will not adversely affect the applicable land use plan. If the variance is being sought in conjunction with any proposed coastal development, the required finding shall specify that granting of the variance conforms with, and is adequate to carry out, the provisions of the certified land use plan.
Now, we could pick this apart line by line and show how the variances already granted to Stebbins and Cox do not meet these standards. For instance, after the Stebbins residence was approved, Cox came along and said ‘we want to build a similar structure just like Stebbins.’
Well, right there in sub-section (a), it states the variance sought must be due to conditions “that are peculiar to the land or premises and do not apply generally to the land or premises in the neighborhood.” That might have applied to Stebbins but certainly not to Cox. That’s just the beginning. And there’s already a third applicant – another duplex owner – who wants to do the exact same thing as Stebbins and now Cox.
If the variances granted are to allow the builder to get around the Precise Plan and its zoning requirements, how can the City then comply with sub-sections (b), (c), and (d)?
Significantly, the City is calling the zoning in this area “wrong”. If the zoning is truly “wrong”, then there are procedures for changing the zoning, and that procedure is outlined in the City’s Municipal Code:
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 (the Process Five) and have a full public hearing on the issue. Zoning 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.
Okay, class, that’s enough for today. Get out there and enjoy the remainder of the day or night. Just remember this lesson. Gentrification is a complicated process but it also is an unforgiving process, as once it’s done, it’s done.