Ocean Beach Is at a Development Crossroads – Is OB Ready for the Changes and Challenges?

by on January 28, 2014 · 17 comments

in Culture, Economy, Environment, Ocean Beach

OB Demolition Sarat tract 01

Demolition equipment at Abbott and Saratoga – Oct. 2013.

With the dawning of the new year, it is clear that the beloved community of Ocean Beach is indeed at a crossroads.  Across the face of OB bulldozers and dump-trucks can be seen, hammers and saws can be  heard. Local residents can attest to all the construction and development that is going on right now throughout the Village of OB.

Here are the more visible signs:

  • There’s the very visible large construction going on at the corner of Abbott and Saratoga as large semis lumber through the streets dumping tons of dirt onto the site.
  • Across from the OB Rec Center, two 2-story condos were recently built, and two more to be built.
  • Over on West Point Loma, more construction has appeared as the third large-framed building takes shape.
  • The busy intersection of Voltaire and Sunset Cliffs is about to become even more busier as World Oil readies to construct their 2 story office and retail building.
  • More construction right outside OB is also taking place at the very visible corner of Voltaire and Catalina.

All this construction is not the only thing going on in OB, what with all the traffic delays and detours these days due to the City’s replacement of aging pipes in its multi-year project which is winding its way through the neighborhoods.

Saratoga Park New plans 01Yet all the recent, current and future construction taking place in OB represents the very unavoidable and poignant sign that the community is indeed at a crossroads – a crossroads with itself and the pressures of development.

OB is at a crossroads of development, construction and urban planning. And all the changes, challenges and threats to the community’s face, its livelihood and future, and perhaps its very essence – are all on the table.

The question at the crossroads is this: Is OB up for these changes and challenges? That query forces the issue upon the quaint seaside community.

The Great Recession has receded and all that capital that has been pent up and stored during these poor years is now being unleashed upon the community.  Monies that have been held back during these recession years are now springing forth into full blown construction projects. This is not of course going on just in OB.

A building boomlet and the accompanying increases in jobs has developed up in LA. An “explosion” in LA of developers’ projects to construct highrises, apartments, condos in downtown and other areas is expected.  The trend is actually occurring throughout the Southern California region as new construction job gains have been added to those local economies.

The gains weren’t just limited to Los Angeles. The Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine area added 8,200 construction jobs in the past year, an 11 percent increase, while the San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos region added 5,300, a 9 percent increase.

 But what about San Diego?

It is mixed.  The San Diego housing market has reportedly rebounded. The median price for newly built single-family homes and condos in San Diego County shot up to a record high in December, 2013. Yet at the same time, the number of new homes sold hit a record low.  (For comparison, the average rent in Los Angeles is $1,771 and in San Diego $1,529. )

The pressure to build at the beach because it’s “the beach” is also a strong factor for our  neck of the woods. OB – like other SoCal beach towns – offers more than empty dirt lots or the demolished rubble of old buildings for potential builders.  And this is why planning and development have been thrust into the forefront of OB issues.

There is naturally the general trend and process of gentrification that all this development represents.  And we acknowledge that not all the attributes and spin-offs of increased and intensified development are negative.

There are the jobs, of course, that come with the construction projects.  The salaries, wages and expenses flow into the local San Diego regional economy, and the benefits are spread around as banks, landlords, markets, malls, gas stations and utilities and all their employees get paid.

There is the positive factor that much of this development is infield development, within the metropolis, and not on virgin ground in rural or park lands.

Plus the developments have been held to some standards, as set by the various city regulations and community plans and input. For example, the original design of World Oil’s “Sunset Plaza” – due to be built at the corner of Voltaire and Sunset Cliffs Boulevard – was so horrible – so “all-glass” and cement and chrome, that it set off an outcry of discontent from the community, OB’s planners and even the city – and the design was changed.

Yet the negative aspects of all this current and planned development also have to be acknowledged – for that is what is occurring – the community of Ocean Beach will be experiencing an explosion of developments throughout the village – some that will change its face – and all that will have some series of negative impacts.

There’s the outright increased congestion that they will bring – more of everything; the increased parking demands and squeezes, the intensified traffic problems and congestion; the noise, the pollution, the use of natural resources – like water – .

Let’s look at each of these examples of what brings OB and its denizens to this crossroads.

OB Warm Saratoga condos3 Stories at Abbott and Saratoga

Hardly anyone can miss the huge construction project going on at the corner of Saratoga and Abbott; a large, 3-story complex is going in at the site, 10 units in all, 7 with 3 bedrooms and 3 with 2 bedrooms.

Entitled “Ocean Park Villas“, it replaces the old two story apartments, the adjoining single-story units, and the boarded-up former Dempsey’s and original site of Hodad’s – all bordering Saratoga Park.

Construction was to begin in January 2013, as all the residents had to be out by January 2nd of last year.  Demolition didn’t begin until last October.  This project too had changes made to the original design, and is the product of a long fight with the the community and the OB Planning Board. Hint: the community “lost”.  (Here’s a history of the site and project.)

Saratoga Park New plans good 01More than any other current development project in OB, this one will bring a serious alteration to OB’s waterfront appearance – and some feel for the better – as the dilapidated apartments that sat at the location were certainly nothing to be proud about. Yet the three stories of private condos will tower over Saratoga Park just to the west and dominate that end of Abbott – and in the process significantly changing OB’s skyline.  With sidewalks being cut for complex drive-ways, OB will lose parking and have more traffic at that already dangerous section at Santa Monica and Abbott.

Condos at Ebers and Santa Monica

OB Warm SantaMon Condos

Condos for sale at Ebers and Santa Monica.

Another example of the challenge of the crossroads is the first set of two-story condos that have recently been completed at the corner of Ebers and Santa Monica.  Two more of the long buildings with garages on the alley will set up in the very near future.  So, half of the project is done.

Santa Monica olddaycare

Former Children’s Energy Center building was demolished.

To get to this point, a very old building housing a former well-known childcare center – the Children’s Energy Center –  was sold and demolished. The selling had local opposition but there was hardly a peep about the demolition.  And now the buildings insert themselves into this busy intersection, and due to some kind of mysterious formula utilized due to the lot-accumulation, the developer was able to build his units without any side set-back.  Where is the set-back along Ebers?

Owners and residents of the condos will benefit with their proximity to the Recreation Center, the school, the library, the parks and business district, but the return benefit to the community from this project is not all that apparent. During their construction, we were told the units would be rentals. This remains to be seen.

 West Pt. Loma Blvd

The on-going battle with gentrification is no more real or displayed than on the 5100 block of West Pt Loma Boulevard.  There a few homeowners have managed to finagle variances from a more-than-willing planning department that have allowed them to build large, 3-story single-family mini-mansions.

OB West Pt Loma Jan 2014 good-smOut of character in terms of bulk and scale with the immediate neighborhood, these represent a direct gentrifying threat to OB, and will not be allowed in the new community plan if its approved. OB planners also have a long history of trench warfare with the issue.

If allowed to continue, these houses will wall-off views and a sense of being at the beach or near the Pacific Ocean.  See other beach towns for examples, like Mission Beach, Venice.

Sunset Plaza

It appears that the owner of the large lot at Voltaire and Sunset Cliffs Boulevard is getting set to begin construction of its two -story retail and office building, “Sunset Plaza“. Current plans call for the demolition of the former Dover Plumbing building by February.

OB Sunset Plaza NewDraw

Artist rendering of planned Sunset Plaza.

The controversy around this lot is long and arduous, and the story could fill a book. Suffice to say, the short version is that after numerous unsuccessful attempts to build a gas station on their lot, World Oil finally won approval for their building by both the OB Planning Board and the California Coastal Commission.

Their vacant lot at the busy corner was interrupted by a guerrilla community garden installed and maintained by community activists for several years – that was then bulldozed by World Oil, with San Diego cops standing by in case there was a disturbance.

Catalina and Voltaire Condos

Even construction projects just outside OB affect the community.  On the southeast corner of the extremely busy intersection of Voltaire and Catalina Boulevard  a three-story “mixed-used” development is going up, and  will include 8 townhomes, one flat, and one commercial space.

voltaire n catalina new graphicThe traffic and parking impact on the local neighborhood by this project will be horrendous.

The Challenge – Strengthen OB Planning Board

The challenge at this historic crossroads is for OBceans and village organizations to withstand the worst negative impacts of all this development.  One of the substantial ways to do this is to strengthen the Ocean Beach Planning Board, the planning committee for the community.

It can be strengthened by ensuring that all the representatives that sit on the Board are the best planners that OB has to offer, folks who are aware of all our planning history and the issues that are forcing their way onto this beach town. (This plea is not a suggestion of any current inadequacy of the current Board.)

The OB Planning Board is holding its annual election this March 11th – and residents, property owners, and business owners can run and vote in this election. Go to their website for info on how to be a candidate and other details.

Here is the Districts map for the OB Planning Area:

OB Plan Bd district map best

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

hoodie January 28, 2014 at 12:23 pm

Is there supposed to be two zones labeled district 5 on the map?


Frank Gormlie January 28, 2014 at 4:15 pm

Hoodie – good eye – no, definitely an error; we got the map off the Planning Board website, so please guys – take note!


nostalgic January 28, 2014 at 3:58 pm

And what is REALLY coming? The new community plan supports mixed use for all of the commercial locations. This means replacements for the single story businesses now there, with two stories of condos on top. Because mixed-use is by definition, mixed-use of every parking space, the parking required is the bare minimum. Wonderland lasted last time. Not this time.


Seth January 28, 2014 at 7:27 pm

It doesn’t really mean that. These areas have already been zoned that way for decades now. The height limit and parking requirements are huge obstacles in terms of developing large-scale mixed-use projects in OB.

That’s a good thing overall in terms of preserving community character, but it’s worth noting that for all the recent cries of gentrification, this also eliminates one of the best opportunities to increase the affordable housing stock in our neighborhood. I mean, what rich person do you know wants to shell out big bucks to live in a shoebox-sized unit above a restaurant on a street with 30 bars and dozens of street people everywhere?


Seth January 28, 2014 at 8:16 pm

As someone who sat on the OBPB for most of these projects (all but the Catalina + Voltaire project that is not in the OBPB planning area, and the first of the West Point Loma FAR variances), and voted for half of them (Saratoga/Abbott and Ebers/Santa Monica, but not the West Point Loma FAR variances or the World Oil project), I don’t necessarily agree with how this is being presented.

That’s not to say that I don’t share a view that OB’s unique community character and small-scale of housing should be preserved, but I really think the threats of increased density and gentrification that are getting thrown around are overstated. OB is already built-out, and the Precise Plan predicts a rather modest and inevitable increase of perhaps 1k new residents in the next 20 years (from 14.5k or so to 15.5k or so). This stands in stark contrast to the projected regional growth, as OB will be one of the only neighborhoods that doesn’t get a large-scale increase in density over that period.

Market incentive to develop Southern California beachfront property will only get more acute going forward, but that’s mostly because they aren’t making any more of it, and this is really something that goes way beyond one neighborhood’s community plan.

Since the heavy lifting to protect against those market incentives has already been done by Frank and other long-time residents, would seem to me that the best way to help preserve OB’s community character going forward is to work to preserve the stock of small-scale housing units – something that entails protecting FAR limits and allowing the construction and rehabilitation of said units.

Also, while many important points have been raised about them, I do feel that the particulars of the Saratoga/Abbott and Ebers/Santa Monica projects have been somewhat mischaracterized in many quarters. I’ve written here several times about the former, but since the latter has gotten less attention until recently, I would like to say that the latter is in my opinion a better project for having gone through the community planning process. The previous structures were not original to that property and therefore not historic, nor did they adhere to the existing property lines beneath them.

As with Voltaire Park and the Saratoga/Abbott apartments, it was a shame to see them go, but unless the owner is trying to build a gas station or 5-story hotel, there is really very little that can be done to keep them from developing their properties within reason. Like pretty much every other property owner, they have the right to develop their properties under the same rules everyone else has to play by.

What is left unsaid about the minimal side setback variance granted for one of the Ebers/Santa Monica units is that, among other requests, the developer agreed to move all 4 of them further back from the front side on Santa Monica in return, making the buildings uniform with existing properties on both sides and preserving some degree of afternoon sunlight for their neighbors. Overall, the (modest) variances granted were not entirely necessary for the 4 units, which could have been built with or without them. One can argue the wisdom of this either way, but in my view, they were requested not to skirt the rules or get more build-able space (as is true of many variance requests), but because they made the project better by spacing out the units a bit and making them slightly more consistent with the existing neighbors. This is in my estimation a decidedly different context than the West Point Loma FAR variances that I visited during my tenure on the Board.


Tyler January 29, 2014 at 6:48 am

Well said. I agree with pretty much everything you have pointed out. I’m excited to see development as long as it stays within FAR limits. Why should delapodated be part of the OB character? If a property owner wants to make the property look nicer and newer, I’m all for it.


john eisenhart January 28, 2014 at 10:51 pm

OB strength is the older architecture, older streets, older landscape. We all know this is one of the last remaining Southern California beach towns. The City’s non-designated “emerging cottage district” should be the designated “historic cottage district.” It is paramount issue to preserve the unique character of OB. OB community need his help as much as the Barrio Logan needs his help. David Alvarez should have this on the top of his agenda as Mayor. OB Rag should continue to make this a top priority.


Debra January 31, 2014 at 2:38 pm

I agree.


mr.rick January 29, 2014 at 1:14 am

There will be no saving the small courts of cottages when the property owners can put eight units where four are. It would be wonderful to keep OB the same as we all remember. But it ain’t happening. At least it should be stylistically compatible with the personality of OB.


I.b.long January 29, 2014 at 8:43 am

That, my friends, is how to write an article on business in OB. Thanks Frank and take note OBWood.


nostalgic January 29, 2014 at 2:59 pm

In 1985 it was Winchell’s Donuts. But times, they are a’changing.


And Sunset Plaza might even have a Starbucks. Maybe a Subway. Do you really think rents will become affordable with development?


OBJamie January 31, 2014 at 12:32 pm

Yay! A corporate owned, overpriced, hyper-caffeinated coffee provider might add a DUAL OB location, or perhaps a corporate owned, preservative-laden, FAKE healthy sandwich shop might add a DUAL OB location. Awesome!

I will be eating @ Peoples and drinking their fair-trade sourced, organic coffee. See ya there. Here is some happy reading about Subway: http://www.hangthebankers.com/the-subway-deception/


Robert Burns January 30, 2014 at 9:36 pm

I must be short using this small screen & keypad. The projects of today will become those of the past. Some of the projects have qualities which really appeal to me but I want to emphasize the ugliness I see in the condos at Ebers & Santa Monica.


DonCharly February 11, 2014 at 6:30 am

Ugly Indeed. I do question why were not facing toward the Mighty Pacific for the view.


Frank Gormlie January 31, 2014 at 9:42 am

I actually believe OB is up for the challenge. There’s a lot of new good people joining the OB Town Council and Planning Board – bringing fresh energy and a renewed spirit of protecting OB and making the Village better.


Frank Gormlie February 1, 2014 at 8:29 am

Today’s U-T (Sat 2/1/14) ran an ad for the Santa Monica condos at 4693-4697, and they’re priced at $879K and $899K! Wow! One condo for nearly $900,000 – way too much! How could these units ever be rentals with such prices? There goes the neighborhood.


John Filthy February 1, 2014 at 11:52 am

Are you sure OB is up to the challenge? That place on the 5100 block of West Point Loma next to the David Stebbins place is totally hemmed in now. It’s value as a home is much less and value as a development opportunity much higher. The three shoe-box David Stebbins model will keep getting pushed on the planning board.


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