Flashback to the past: 1983 – the City wanted to increase OB’s density then too

by on September 13, 2011 · 13 comments

in Environment, Ocean Beach, San Diego

Editor: Mike James responded to our article entitled “Public Hearing” on Ocean Beach Proposed Density Increase Falls Flat with the following.  Mike was part of the original James Gang and over the years, was involved in just about every Ocean Beach group. He now lives in La Mesa.

By Mike James / Special to the OB Rag

In the fall of 1983 it came to the attention of the Ocean Beach Planning Board that certain large property owners and local Realtors had persuaded then Councilman Bill Cleator to silently put before the Council an amendment for the Ocean Beach Precise Plan. The amendment would have doubled Ocean Beach’s residential density from 25 units-per-acre to 52-units-per-acre.

Due the quick action of a few O.B. activists, we were able to rally the community to stop any changes to the Plan. One element of our effort was a flyer I drafted that spoke of the disastrous effects of increasing the population of an already overtaxed infrastructure. We filled City Hall and stopped them in their tracks.

I think you find the following article from the San Diego Business Journal of interest with the current effort by city planners.

OB merchants, residents agree on growth plan

By Ted Woerner / San Diego Business Journal / November 7, 1983

Ocean Beach is a community in transition.

After more than a decade of bickering amongst its factionalized and diverse populace, a consensus solution to growth and development is emerging. Community and business leaders appear to agree that the landmark San Diego beach area indeed will remain a broad-based citizen collage.

The synthesis of business and social groups, and the feeling that Ocean Beach has leaped a great hurdle is due in large part to the passage last September of the community precise plan by the San Diego City Council and the Ocean Beach Planning Board. Not surprisingly, getting that far was not a simple process.

A last minute zoning controversy sent the precise plan process into stormy seas.

The debate centered on the proposal to increase residential density to 52 units per acre, rather than 25 units per acre that had been approved. The lesser density finally won out, but not before the factions in Ocean Beach did battle.

Large property owners and Realtors – led briefly by San Diego Councilman Bill Cleator, who represented the area – wanted the increased density. They claimed Ocean Beach would become a “ghetto” unless incentives to replace older homes with income-producing-properties.

But others in the community were incensed by the possibility of doubling the residential density just before the plan was voted upon by the City Council. They pointed to the city planning department statements that were critical of the 52 units-per-acre proposal.
But some shop owners believed that either zoning decision would be have resulted in a no-lose situation for the business community.

“It’s not that I wasn’t interested,” says merchant John Burdine, “but the way I saw it was that either I was going to have had a lot of people coming in and buying (if the higher allowable density had been approved). Or, I would have fewer people with more money coming in to buy.”

Burdine runs a stationary store on Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach’s main commercial thoroughfare, and the hub of single-owner enterprise. Burdine subscribes to the law of “unintended consequences.”

“If you look at what the community planners were saying 10 years ago, you would find it’s not very practical today,” said Burdine. “And if you look at the reasoning behind keeping the density lower and what will happen to a beach area – which is one of the more attractive places to live – when this plan is put in place, I think you might find something unintentional occurring.”

Translation: The prices for rental units and for home buyers will rise as the demand to the ocean increases, while the number of residential units available stays the same and fails to keep up with demand.

However proponents of the 25-units-per-acre proposal were well aware that fewer homes and apartments would in the long run push prices up as more people compete to live at the beach area. At the same time, the slower-growth advocates were also aware that property values would have jumped had the higher density plan been adopted.

Local planning board member and homeowner Rich Grosch wanted the lesser density, he has already worked within its restrictions. Two years ago, he bought a home on a 50-foot-by-140-foot lot for $116,000. Since then he has added a two-room townhouse and a studio apartment in the back for $50,000. The townhouse rents for $575, the studio for $300.

“ There were many people on my block – homeowners, not just renters – who were strongly behind the lower density proposal,” he said. “The plan is not a no-growth proposal – it’s a growth plan, or planned growth. It’s not laissez-fare. You have to consider the bad that comes along with the higher density; over-crowded schools, over-used sewage system, traffic, parking problems and over-crowded beaches.”

Grosch concedes rents are bound to rise but said his motives for backing the plan to preserve some of Ocean Beach’s character.” Some of the homes people are calling shacks I think of as quaint cottages. I’ll admit some have to go, but they shouldn’t be replaced by the big square boxes that are prevalent around here.”

Larry Kline does much of his Silvergate Reality’s business in the Ocean Beach area, and he is distressed by the density decision. “From a strictly business standpoint, if you can’t buy it, develop it and make money from it, then there’s no use doing it. So what you have is an instant slum; you can’t upgrade the property.”

Kline said that many property owners – primarily older people – had hoped that they would have made money from their property to have a cushion for retirement. “I think they’re owned what they lost. If I can only build four units where once they could build eight, I think they’re owed what they lost – four units,” said Kline. “I think people should have reasonable rental rates. The only way to do that is have the supply to meet the demand.”

A ‘case study’

But trying to meet demand with supply by dealing with existing structures and a community plan has its limits. Ocean Beach, as a result could be become a case study for development of an older community.

It is virtually an island, surrounded on three sides by water and on the fourth by Point Loma. There is only one main road into the area, and its streets were laid out more than 50 years ago. These two factors have resulted in a community that has limited space and a street-alley configuration that was not designed for its current use.

Councilman Bill Cleator was thinking about days gone by when he first pursued a density change from 25 units per acre to 52 acre. The lure if the beach brought Cleator and other young families to Ocean Beach years ago. Too, rents were low and housing was affordable.

Cleator said he initially thought additional apartment space would allow a new crop of young people to live near the ocean by increasing housing. But after examining the situation and with heavy lobbying from a vocal and well organized low density advocacy group, nostalgia gave way to imperatives.

“After I went down and walked through the area, talked with the people and examined the situation,” said Cleator, “I realized that Ocean Beach couldn’t handle the increase. I looked at the sewage system, looked at the elementary school (Ocean Beach Elementary). They’re darned-near meeting in closets now.”

Mike James – who along with his brothers runs a the James Gang beach wear store on Newport Avenue – is keenly aware of the space problems. As president of the Ocean Beach Merchants Association, he helped organize and was very vocal in the high-density opposition. Ironically, he understood that if more people were allowed in the area, he and his brothers might have made more money.

“If I wanted to live in a place with more people or run a business in a area with more people, I would move, he reasoned. “Ocean Beach is like a small town. There’s a real sense of community here that is worth preserving. If you had a lot of huge apartments, we might lose that. And it’s something we value.”

Others speak optimistically about Ocean Beach’s future. Excitedly, business-people say the merchant association grown form 50 members to 75 members in a year, has improved both planning dialog and the business climate.

“In terms of business – retail sales – you’ll see a great increase in the next 10 years,” said John Hensel, president of the Ocean Beach Town Council. “ Two things are happening: The positive image Ocean Beach has been trying to project the past five years is beginning to pay off. And second, there is development going on right now. If people are creative with their planning decisions, it can be enough; they just have to use what they have.”

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

George September 13, 2011 at 2:13 pm

A “stationary store” eh? Guess he planned on staying put!


Mike James September 13, 2011 at 3:27 pm

My error. While the store did stay in one place for a long time, it sold paper and was a “stationery” store. :) (Ironically, there was also a moving company on Bacon Street that didn’t go anywhere as well.)


Seth September 13, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Mike, appreciate all your work for the community. As fellow OBPB member Bill Bushe likes to tell me, “we are standing on the shoulders of giants,” as we continue to try to help keep OB a special community. With the work people had already done in this regard, our job is a lot easier.

With that said, the articles that have written about this 1,399 dwelling unit increase in OB are completely misinterpreting what is taking place with the Precise Plan update, and I really want to help clear this up so we can all focus the discussion a bit more. That 1,399 number was a semi-sloppily written throw-away line in the EIR scoping meeting public notice. The only zoning changes proposed are for two small pockets of South OB, mostly on the East side of Sunset Cliffs. They apply to 99 properties on 21 acres total, and theoretically would allow for 126 new units.

The other 1,273 units being referred to are ones that are already allowed per the current zoning. For instance, the Rite-Aid property is probably zoned to allow for something like 10 residential units if an owner wanted to tear the building down and build them. Ditto Appletree. The James Gang building is probably allowed to have 3-4 units, many residential properties are already allowed to have an extra unit if they choose, and so on. This has always been the case, and there will continue to be gradual, small-scale increases in density because of it.

My guess is that the City must acknowledge the total growth that is theoretically possible per the plan’s zoning as part of the EIR process, in order to ensure that we don’t overload our streets with traffic or bring any adverse environmental impacts. The zoning change in South OB is also probably a matter of bringing that area into conformance with what is already built there and in adjacent areas.

But there are several reasons that the 1,399 number is not even close to accurate in terms of what the future growth will be . Here’s a few of them, and I welcome any input or corrections on this by anyone reading along:

* Even in the areas of South OB where the nominal 126 additional allowable units are proposed, many of them are already built. Either due to variances or structures that pre-date the current zoning, a significant number of these properties appear to already have more dwelling units than they are currently zoned for. I would guesstimate about 40 of that 126 number are already built, over a period of the last several decades.

* The 126 number was arrived at by multiplying the total acreage of the zones by the increase in dwelling units allowed per acre. 21 total acres is going from 9 units per acre to 15 units per acre, so 21 times 6 equals 126. That’s not how it would work in practice, however. Most of the property owners only have properties of 0.23 acres, meaning that they go from 2.07 allowable units to 3.45 allowable units. Assuming that only allows them to build 3 units as opposed to 2, the 0.45 remainder is included in the City’s calculations. If you do this for all 99 properties, that is about 45 units worth out of that 126 number that doesn’t even exist in practice. Assuming the City did a similar calculation for each zone of OB, and subtracted the number of existing units from the number that are theoretically allowed, that 1,399 figure could include something like 400 units that only exist in theory, and which can realistically never even be built in practice.

* The 30-foot height limit and current FARs (floor-area ratios) make it difficult for people to max out their number of allowable dwelling units. Your property might be zoned for 3 residential units, but if you only have 1,800 sq ft to work with, and a height limit and setbacks that restrict your buildable space, most people are not going to try to cram in three 600 sqft residential units on one property. Most would opt to build one large residence, or two smaller ones.

* I would suspect that most of the historical properties in OB do not have their maximum number of residential units. No good guess as to how many, but probably worth mentioning here.

* All this aside, the neighborhood is already built-out. Achieving this theoretically allowable maximum of residential units would basically require demolishing most of structures in OB and everyone building to their maximum number allowed — including every gas station, every convenience store, every cottage, every taco shop and most of the restaurants. That won’t happen.

Long story not so short, I have heard that there will likely be an increase of approximately 100 residential units over the next 25 years or so, half of which will probably be rear units on top of garages. I’d assume that this is pretty much the same rate OB has been putting along at for the last few generations. Which is, of course, due in no small part to the work of committed community members like yourself.

You guys won the battle over density a long time ago, my man.


Mike James September 14, 2011 at 9:00 am

Thank you for trying to clarify the issue.
Hopefully you could answer a few additional questions.
Is the EIR and/or proposed changes to the Precise Plan available online?
What is the history of the these particular changes to the Precise Plan?
What is the timeline of the approval process for the updates to the Precise Plan?
Mike James


Seth September 15, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Mike, no worries. I definitely don’t blame anyone for taking issue with the idea of widespread increased density in OB, especially when it has been presented that way.

The Precise Plan update is still a draft document, and cannot be distributed publicly right now. It can be reviewed by the public in the subcommittee meetings, however. The EIR hasn’t taken place yet, and we will likely not be having a public meeting until it is completed. That meeting that was held was an initial scoping meeting to allow the community to provide input on the kinds of environmental impacts they are concerned about as we enter the EIR process.

That process is now beginning, and should take several months. When completed, the next public subcommittee meeting will likely be to discuss the results of the EIR and see if any major changes need to be made. If there aren’t any, a final draft Precise Plan will then be released for public comment and review. Maybe a couple of months after that, it gets finalized. There is no way to really estimate it, but hopefully, this process would all be completed in a year’s time.

As to the specific changes in it, I am probably not the best guy to speak on it. I have not been a central person in the process, and people like Mindy know far more about the evolution of the changes. To the extent I am qualified to speak on it, I think that beyond the modest zoning changes in pockets of South OB that are likely just reflecting what is already built that, the central theme of the document is how to meet future challenges *without* bringing big changes to OB.

Or at least, this is what *I* am fighting for.

In event, thanks again for all your work for this community. It’s has helped to make it a very special place to live and raise a family.


OB law(yer) September 15, 2011 at 11:23 am

Mr. Seth here always has great context and perspective on Planning situations and if he lived in my District…he’d have my vote.

I’ll just highlight two very very critical “assumptions” to your points. I call these assumptions because if either of these restrictions were lifted, your points are no longer valid and it would be an Oklahoma Sooner land rush to the beaches to build high rise Miami Beach condo buildings.

“* The 30-foot height limit and current FARs (floor-area ratios) make it difficult for people to max out their number of allowable dwelling units” – from Seth post above

I couldn’t agree more and make no mistake — “they” are always after these two rules. See other posts here reference the FAR variances (of which I know you are aware since you posted there) and also Prop D attackers. Watch yesterday’s City of SD Land Use Committee meeting and you will see folks reaching so so hard to bring Prop D under attack. And has been since its inception in 1972 which predates the attached article by a decade.

What still isn’t clear to me is when OB made the stand to set its FAR below the RM 2-4 base zone’s standard 1.2 to .7 That singular event, in addition to Prop D were wise in keeping the character of the OB neighborhood and the sense of community Mike refers to in the article almost 30 years ago. Sure…. the faces change and people come and go, but OB is still a neighborhood, a village, a community within itself.

Maybe Mr. Grosch or someone could be contacted for some history on that specific issue??

Love the references to “case study in planned growth”. Yes…. Now that we’ve fastforwarded 30 years from this critical decision point in history… What can we say about our “case study”.

Love for some smart person with urban planning experience to do a snapshot study of whether or not our CURRENT community plan (OB Precise Plan of 1973) is doing to maintain our small town character. Mr. Seth? You seem like a logical candidate for this!

Props (or Propes as Gov. Perry said the other night on the debate) to the OBRag for getting this great article out here to educate and remind us about the decisions we’ve made as a community.


Seth September 15, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Thanks, and great points, as usual.

I am a bit torn on the uproar over density here. On one hand, I am glad that that is gets people paying attention, but on the other, it is over the wrong issue. Speaking for myself, the two biggest issues facing OB’s future are preserving the FARs and updating the Precise Plan. This hubbub over density distracts us from talking about the former (which are clearly under renewed “attack”, if you will), and stands in opposition to accomplishing the latter.

As to the current Precise Plan, I am almost reluctant to even speak on it at this point, lest I serve as a road map for circumventing it. Bottom line is that many projects have been approved in the last few years that are not in general conformance with it, despite the recommendations of the OBPB. I think it was you who said in a different thread that the City was establishing a precedent against the Precise Plan on a particular series of projects, and I could not agree more. As I am sure you know, the plan cannot be applied arbitrarily and still be a defensible document upon appeal.

I am far from being the most knowledgeable to speak on the Precise Plan update in progress, and do believe that it will require much public review after the EIR is completed, but as one who has seen the draft document, I support it and would like to see it finalized ASAP.


Citizen Cane September 15, 2011 at 10:48 pm

It was almost thirty years ago, so I’m a little fuzzy on the details. I remember Bill Cleator was caught copping a feel on the Queen of England around that time. I can’t seem to recall the parking proposal for that 52 unit per acre plan. Weren’t they also looking to lower the parking requirements per unit?


Judy Swink September 16, 2011 at 2:15 pm

@Seth – it’s always a pleasure to read a well-thought out, detailed explanation of reality vs. (some) developers’ dreams. Referring back to the 1983 article above, I was saddened by the philosophy expressed by Larry Kline (but not exclusive to him) that “if you can’t buy it, develop it and make money from it, then there’s no use doing it”. Imagine what an ugly community we would have if that perspective dictated how our community would grow with every lot built to the max. Imagine Mission Beach, as dense as it is, if the community plan didn’t have FARs and the 30′ height limit. And thank you, Mike James, for a history lesson that will help inform the future of OB.


Mike James September 19, 2011 at 8:09 am

Thank you for your clarification of the status of the Precise Plan. Also thank you for your efforts as a guardian of the community.

It seems to me we must keep vigilant on any changes to Prop D and/or the floor-area-ratios. Please keep us informed and know that they many of us are ready to assist you on once again rallying the community to stop those who wish develop Ocean Beach without regard to its unique character.


mr.rick September 19, 2011 at 9:27 am

If FAR and the Precise Plan are under cut, maybe these dumb asses will be stupid enough to try and finish the “Jetty”. That ought to wake some people up.


Geoff Page June 24, 2014 at 10:00 am

“Local planning board member and homeowner Rich Grosch wanted the lesser density, he has already worked within its restrictions. Two years ago, he bought a home on a 50-foot-by-140-foot lot for $116,000. Since then he has added a two-room townhouse and a studio apartment in the back for $50,000. The townhouse rents for $575, the studio for $300.”

What zone was Mr. Grosch in that allowed a home, a townhome, and a studio, two of which were rented? I’m not familiar with a zone that allows that.


Marc Snelling June 24, 2014 at 10:19 am

Without a density increase OB would become an “instant slum”? HA! Only slum I’ve ever seen where the average property value is close to $1,000,000. Shows how short-sighted the developers were in ’83 and still are today.

I wish I had been around OB in these days to see an OB Merchants Association with Mike James at the helm. Guessing it was very different to the current OB Mainstreet Association and their private security plans, police trailer, and Starbucks ads.


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