By Brittany Bailey / Special to the OB Rag
The meeting was held at 7pm at the United Methodist on Sunset Cliffs Blvd. The house was packed with many standing at the back. There was a brief introduction by Pat James, the chair of the OB Historical Society, and then Gormlie took the stage with a skit – complete with props and funny voices– demonstrating the three interests at play in the conflict in the development of Ocean Beach and subsequent creation of the Planning Board. Donning sunglasses and pretending to smoke a cigar, Frank embodied the “propertied, monied fat cats” that dominated the development of the day, a handkerchief over his head to represent the marginalized citizens of OB, and a dundee-esque hat to convey the spirit of activism that pushed against the big developers in their effort to gentrify OB.
The history of the Planning Board is one that has been discussed previously in the Rag, and is worth reiterating as it is a useful allegory to understand the underlying conflict today between the Planning Board and the City.
If you’ll allow a brief synopsis:
In the 20’s and 30’s, the Ocean Beach area was a cheap beach resort, but then became a rental community covered in community housing for the military. In the 1950’s there was a building boom; enter the construction of Mission Bay, Shelter Island, Mission Valley, and numerous high rises along the coast. The construction boom and lack of regulations led to unbridled and haphazard construction.There was no Floor Area Ratio (FAR) or 30 foot height limit. There was concern about access to beaches and environmental issues.
Eventually, the “local citizen’s planning committee” was formed, Peninsulans Inc or Pen Inc. Pen Inc was an outgrowth from the Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, which was populated by wealthier business owners and developers. There were no blue collar representatives, and of the members, only three were OB residents. Pen Inc eventually released a development plan for Ocean Beach that called for medium-low to medium-high density buildings (4 to 5 story apartments), a marina, and high rise hotels.
This was without public comment from the residents of OB- the ones who would be most affected by the commercial development of the waterfront. Concern about gentrification was rampant; the plan called for the demo of existing housing stock to be replaced with blocky, four story buildings, and displacing lower income residents in favor of a commercial waterfront that favored tourism and monied interests.
But then, outrage. Local residents began to to talk and mobilize. OB had already seen successful showdowns with the protests against the jetty construction and the Collier Park Riot. Radical hippies and middle-class mainstream Point Lomans joined forces to create the Ocean Beach Planning Organization, which immediately led efforts to get their neighbors involved.
They walked door-to-door and canvassed a whopping 8500 houses. Of 8500 surveys left at front doors, 2,805 surveys were returned. 90.4% favored the small town character of OB, and 87.3% favored a moratorium on new building construction until a community plan was approved by a majority of the residents. Results were sent to local politicians, and by the spring of 1972, the City Planning Department had canceled or postponed meetings on the Precise Plan.
However, the fighting continued. It involved the usual- protests on the part of the Ocean Beach Planning Organization, and their successors, the OB Community Planning Group, lawsuits from the pro-development opposition, numerous City Council hearings. Eventually, in 1976, the first elections were held. The OB Planning Board was formed and the OB Precise Plan developed and approved democratically by local residents . The OB Planning Board has held elections every year, and has been advising the City, facilitating community involvement, and advocating for responsible construction for the benefit of ALL OB residents ever since.
For further details on the history of the Planning Board, see Frank Gormlie’s previous articles.
Gormlie’s presentation was especially enlightening in view of the current conflict over the 5100 block of W. Point Loma Blvd, where the City has granted Variances to circumvent regulations originally established by the OB Precise Plan. It is easy to understand the frustration of the community over the granting of Variances, when so many fought against the establishment and the status quo for their right to a voice in the way our community is formed. The OB Precise Plan was the first of it’s kind; it’s legitimacy is derived from the power of the people who voted it into existence. The City granting Variances to circumvent the Plan violates the purpose of the plan itself and violates the democratic process in which it was conceived.
My Four Take Homes
1) OB’s Right to Self-Determination. The history of the OB Planning Board and the OB Precise Plan is unique. The residents of OB made history when they fought back against the establishment, and against the people who stood to benefit from the commercial development of the community. They were not satisfied with a group of nonresident business owners and developers telling them what their community would look like. They challenged the status quo and fought for a Plan that gave voice to the residents of the community. OB’s enduring legacy is that of their fight for their right to self-determination.
2) The Idea of Revolution at the Ballot Box: OB was able to change it’s fate by a few angry hippies and a ballot. The OB Precise Plan is the culmination of democracy in our community; there is no bigger way that average everyday citizens are affected than by the structure of our communities, and no bigger way that a citizen’s voice can change the course of the development of those communities.
3) When citizens are involved in their community, they are actively engaged in shaping their world. This isn’t Mission Valley. You can’t just build a four story box and call it luxury living. The movement started with a handful of angry hippies, and snowballed into an effort that joined forces of the average, everyday middle-class folks who fought to establish responsible building practices in the community; efforts that led to the establishment of the 30 foot height limit, Floor Area Ratio, preservation of ocean views, and access to beaches for all.
4) The Fight Never Ends. It is always up to the next generation of OBceians to carry the torch. When there is something to be gained, money and influence will always try to circumvent the rules, to repress the voice of the people, and to game the system. Your government will unwittingly or willingly aid them. Or they won’t give a shit. No one will fight for you. You have to have stand up for your own community. Don’t give in to the status quo.
That said, Ocean Beach Planning Board elections are on Tuesday, March 12th. Pick up your torch, and get down to the ballot box. More details: www.oceanbeachpb.com