By Geoff Page / Special Rant for OB Rag
There was a time, believe it or not, when it wasn’t considered desirable to live at the ocean.
The cultural attitude about being near the ocean, and how one spent time at the ocean, was very different from today’s attitude. Places evolve, sometimes unexpectedly.
Las Vegas is a perfect example, it used to be undesirable desert landscape and look at it now.
To get an idea of what folks used to think about the ocean, look at some of the older homes along Sunset Cliffs. Many of these homes have no, or very little, deck or balcony space and take no advantage of the open ocean air. Contrast that with the newer places that have as much balcony or deck space as possible. Times have changed and attitudes about living at the ocean have changed.
One of the drawbacks to living at the ocean for some people in the past was the small homes on the small lots. Many of the smaller beach homes were never intended for year round residency, they were more like vacation cottages.
Inland you could have a much bigger home on a much bigger lot. As the culture changed and living near the ocean developed into something very much desired, people began to come here bringing the bigger house attitudes. Other people moved here from cities and brought dense city sensibilities. Some of these people wanted to live at the ocean because it had cachet; many of these people never set foot in the ocean or on the beach.
Pretty soon, the pressure of development began to be felt and it continues unabated. Land values shot up and now beach property is a good investment, one only has to see how much better beach property fared when the real estate bubble burst to see that. The only answer to this pressure is to increase density to its maximum and that is changing, ruining some might say, the quality of life that beachside folks cherish. Density doesn’t just mean more people, it also means more building and less open space on lots.
The recent article in the OB Rag about the project on the corner of Catalina and Voltaire is an example of how to increase density.
The project falls into one of the newer favorite development styles called “mixed-use.” This type of development is now being sold to the public as eco-friendly, encouraging the “village” concept and emphasizing walkability.
Most of these developments are missing the one key “village” component, places to work, that the concept needs to be successful.
The problem with this particular project is as much its proximity to three other, larger mixed-use developments planned for the immediate area as anything else. One project on the same block is a much bigger mixed-use project planned for the old House of Hui site and the empty lot next door, another even bigger project is planned for the old Dominoe’s Pizza site directly across the street, and another is planned for the current site of Sunshine Liquor.
All mixed-use, village, walkability plans with no places to work dumping traffic and sewage into the infrastructure that can barely handle the existing population. If you deign to criticize this style of development, you may be accused of being anti-environment and not being a progressive thinking person.
Mixed-use is one way to increase density.
Then, there are the guest quarters and companion units. In the past, there some were restrictions on these units, albeit poorly enforced. These units were supposed to be for family and guests originally.
Guest quarters are not allowed to be rented out but the only way this is ever enforced is when a private citizen calls Code Enforcement, which most people balk at doing.
As for companion units, as long as the owner of record lives in one, the other may be rented. How often do you think the City polices that one? And why was this ever allowed in areas zoned for single-family residences? If you have a rented companion unit on your property along with a primary residence, you have a duplex, not a single-family residence.
But, at least there were some restrictions that limited the numbers of these units. These restrictions were important because these units are quietly turning our single-family zoned areas into multi-family zones. Some key restrictions have recently been removed.
Last week, there was a great article in the Reader about a group called the Code Monitoring Team. The title of the article is “The City’s Code Monitoring Team: foxes guarding the henhouse” by Dorian Hargrave. This article illustrates beautifully the institutional problem San Diego has with land development.
This group is packed with people representing the development industry. Many of the same people in this group were involved in the 7th update to of the land development code adopted in August 2011. The names represent a roster of developers, land use attorneys, and lobbyists for the development and building industry.
Here are just two of the changes in the 7th update of the land development code that affected companion units and guest cottages, sections that got quite a rewrite:
§141.0302 – Companion Units
A companion unit is an allowed accessory to a single dwelling unit in compliance with Section 141.0302. The amendment would remove the requirement for double the minimum lot size and the restriction that limits concurrent development of a primary dwelling unit and companion unit. The amendment would also clarify that the property owner is required to live onsite in either the primary dwelling unit or the companion unit. The amendments are consistent with the City’s adopted Housing Element Implementation Chart, which identifies a need to promote ministerial approval of companion units consistent with State Law. (Author’s emphasis)
The removal of the lot size requirement opened up any lot for one of these second units in areas zoned for single-family homes. This was a key limiting factor. And, instead of these being units that property owners added onto their lots, the new code now allows a home and a companion unit to be built at the same time. This means single-family zoned lots may be developed with two units and sold as such. We will see older homes knocked down now and lots rebuilt in this manner with no zoning change.
How will the City inspect these projects to ensure the owner of record is actually living on the property? They won’t.
141.0306 Guest Quarters/Habitable Accessory Buildings
Clarifies regulations applicable to habitable accessory buildings, which can be used for living or sleeping purposes similar to guest quarters. (Examples include home offices, game rooms or pool cabanas.) Regulates as a separately regulated use regardless of what the building is labeled by the designer, and removes the existing parking requirement and tree requirement for new habitable buildings accessory to a single dwelling unit. (author’s emphasis)
The parking requirement was the key limiting factor and it was removed. It now much easier to build these units in areas zoned for a single-family residences. And they are being built everywhere and used as income units. They are supposed to be built without kitchens to discourage making them rentals but as the inspector rides off into the sunset after final inspection, the contractor is pulling up to put that kitchen in. Unless a neighbor calls Code Enforcement, no one will ever know. I’ve seen these built with separate electric meters, which is a clear indication they will be rentals.
More people and more cars straining our roads and our sewage system. For me, the almost unfettered allowance of these types of units is the single biggest threat to the quality of life in Pt. Loma and Ocean Beach.
Another example of increasing density can be seen at the corner of Santa Monica and Ebers in Ocean Beach. There used to be a large old wood building there for years that served as a preschool. A few years ago the property sold and the new development entity planned to build four homes. It turned out that the old building sat astride four 25-foot wide lots. The first attempt to develop the lots apparently failed because the project wasn’t built, the property went up for sale, and the recession hit. It came back.
The Santa Monica and Ebers project is half built, two of four planned units are for sale. The width of the units is 18 feet. That’s only 18 feet wide, four of these. In order to build these four skinny homes the City had to grant variances. Here is the reasoning for one of the variances, reducing the Ebers street side yard setback from 10 feet to 5 feet from the Report to the Hearing Officer:
Previous variances have been granted for encroachments into the required yards to properties immediately to the south (1917 Ebers), which currently observes a zero-foot street side setback where 10 feet is required, therefore, 5 feet will be in line with the current development pattern along the block.
Let me interject here to say that the property referred to as having a zero foot setback is an old property, probably built long before the current setback regulations were put into place. The City offered no substantiation that this older property ever received variances of any kind. The setback revisions over the years were implemented to prevent building in this manner. To say that “5 feet will be in line with the current development pattern” is a gross extrapolation. The report continues with this:
There are other properties within the vicinity that appear to have street side and/or front setbacks less than 10 feet.
Let me interject again. First, the issue was the street side yard setback, the front setback was not an issue. Second, I defy anyone to find anything in the immediate vicinity that has a setback less than 10 feet. Notice that no other addresses were given for these “other properties?” The report continued:
Due to the existing constraints of the site, special circumstances can be found that are unique and unusual to this site that would create a hardship in constructing the new dwelling unit.
“Special circumstances?” These are four symmetrical lots 25 feet wide on a very gentle slope. There are no special circumstances relating to the land itself, the special circumstances were only that the project the developer wanted to build would not fit so instead of adjusting the project aspirations, the City granted variances to setback requirements that were intended to preserve space. The site was simply not conducive to cramming in four units without the City’s agreement and the City agreed.
I spent a number of years on the Peninsula Community Planning Board and heard many requests for variances for private residences.
There was usually a sad story about an ailing mother or father that the applicant wanted to accommodate and desperately needed development variances for. One applicant wanted to build a third story and add substantially to the allowable floor area that was already at its maximum, to have a place for an ailing mom. When asked why mom could not be accommodated somewhere on the 1,700 square foot ground floor, the answer was that this wasn’t feasible. More feasible would be to allow the extra square footage.
What would happen when mom passed on, would the extra footage be removed? Of course not. I asked time after time why people didn’t either scale back their plan for something that would not fit on the lot they had without variances from the rest of us or why they didn’t find a property that would accommodate their needs without variances. I usually got dirty looks as if I was a cold, heartless person, not one who was trying to protect the rest of the community or even just trying to get people to adhere to the code requirements.
In addition to the street side setback variance, all of the Santa Monica and Ebers lots were granted the following variance:
The new garage to observe a zero foot side yard setback whereas a 3-foot setback is required on the east side of the property.
Where was the benefit to Ocean Beach for these variances? If the code had not been relaxed, maybe only two or three units could have been built and open space preserved.
Another famous project that the Ocean Beach community fought to no avail was the three story skinny house that went up overlooking the beach parking lot at the end of Voltaire. This is density by building size and footprint.
Where once a one-story set of concrete block duplexes sat now stands a three story tall home that was only able to be constructed after the City granted a host of variances. One more has gone up since and a third is being built right now.
Because these lots are in a multi-family zone, the floor area ratio allowed for the home is much higher than it would be in an RS-1 zone. Additionally, the allowable setbacks are reduced; this is another issue that is causing us all to lose space. This allows for large homes on lots with much less landscape and yard space than would be required of the same home on an RS-1 lot. In this case, people have argued it reduced density from two units to one but these homes are expensive and the owners arguably bring as many people and cars as the duplexes did.
The problem with this development pocket is that soon that whole stretch will be a wall of these tall skinny, expensive units that could not have been built without the City’s complicity.
There is another one of these big homes built on a multi-family lot that the architect said was to be their dream house residence. It is now for sale and it is three bedrooms and three bathrooms. This will make an ideal rental with that configuration.
Then, there is the sad story of the project being built adjacent to the parking lot at the main lifeguard tower. The City sold the developer two alleys, one running east and west on the north side of the parking lot and one running north and south on the east side of the little park. The price? $50,000. The City gave up a golden opportunity to increase the size of the little parking lot on one side and to increase the size of the little park on the other for a mere pittance. And, had this not happened, maybe the project being built would have had to be scaled back somewhat.
Finally, there are the community plans. Ocean Beach just ratified its new plan.
The Pt. Loma plan is almost 30 years old. The community plans are supposed to be a development guide describing what the community wants to look like. The problem is that these plans are not part of the Municipal Code and are unenforceable. The City plan reviewers do not consider them. If a developer, or a home owner building a home, wants to ignore the plans, they can, and many do.
So, what to do? Be aware. Get involved. Pay attention to what is proposed to be built and what you see being built. Ask questions. Without diligence from everyone, one day you’ll wake up and realize you can’t move on our streets and you can’t see the sun anymore because of all this unfettered density development. That’s my rant.
Geoff Page is a Peninsula activist and former member of the Peninsula Community Planning Board.