OB Planners Reject Out-of-Compliance Condo Project Slated for Abbott and Muir

by on June 18, 2015 · 5 comments

in Culture, Environment, History, Ocean Beach


Proposed project for Abbott and Muir fails OB’s FAR.

Condo Project Failed to Meet OB’s FAR; 2 Other Projects Approved

The OB Project Review Committee, as a sub-committee of the full Planning Board, previews any construction projects that come before the official volunteer group, and it usually decides to either make a recommendation for approval or denial of the project.

And at last night’s meeting of the Project Review Committee, it unanimously rejected a proposed project slated for the large empty lot at the southwest corner at Abbott and Muir. By a vote of 8 to 0, the sub-committee voted to recommend denial of the project for the full Board, which next meets on July 1.

The sub-committee did vote to recommend approval for 2 other projects on their agenda, one on the 4900 block of Cape May and the other on the 5000 block of Santa Monica.


Project Review committee members discuss Abbott and Muir project with developers.

Abbott and Muir Condo Project

The primary reason the 2 story project for Abbott and Muir, a project with 4 condos, decks on top, and first floor parking was recommended for denial was that the developers were requesting a deviation to the FAR, the floor-area-ratio – in other words, a variance.

That’s a huge problem for OB planners, as the FAR of 0.70 has been the subject of much debate over the last couple of years and is the center of OB’s planning requirements that residents credit for keeping out over-development. And asking for a variance to the FAR is what led to the ‘down and dirty’ fights on the 5100 block of West Pt Loma that the Planning Board had to engage in with the City and a few developers.

Briefly, what had been happening was that a handful of property owners along the 5100’s had received variances from the City to get around the requirements for parking and in effect were able to maneuver around OB’s strict FAR. The OB planners had appealed the granting, as they believed – and rightly so – that the variances were granted improperly by city staff.

Over the last year, OB planners – as the community plan update process wound down – spearheaded a drive to strengthen the Plan’s language to secure the FAR – which was unanimously approved by the San Diego City Council last summer. (It still needs final approval by the California Coastal Commission.)

Because in the present case – the large project for Abbott and Muir, the developers were going through the City’s Green Building Program, which allows some non-compliance with certain city building codes, some city staff encouraged the applicant to request a deviation or variance on the FAR issue. When they presented the case for their project last night, OB planners were stunned that any city staff had pushed them to fiddle with the FAR – as the issue had been central to the Plan update approval process, and city staff should have known about the community’s sensitivity on the FAR issue.

OB Abbott n Muir street

Southwest corner of Abbott and Muir.

The applicant was consolidating 3 lots to make one large one for the project at the corner, and actually was proposing to construct 2 duplexes, 2 separate 2-story buildings, 6 inches apart. They would include two 2-bedroom condos, and two 3-bedroom ones. Decks would be on top and 10 or 11 parking spaces – most inside on the bottom floor. The units proposed would be between 1250 square feet and 1350 square feet.

In essence the applicant was led to believe by city approval of their design that they didn’t need to include the downstairs parking when they figured out the floor-area-ratio and came up with a figure of 0.70.  But this was not correct, as the planners demonstrated that the true FAR for the project was 0.98 – clearly over the required number.

John Ambert, chair of the full Board, explained to the developer that OB’s FAR was “the single aspect that keeps the community from over-development,” and briefly informed them that this was the same issue that the Board had to fight over on West Pt Loma. Ambert recommended that the developers read the OB Community Plan – available on the Board’s website,  and discuss the issue with the City’s planning rep and their own OB District rep.

Before the vote on the project, other comments about it from Board members included:

  • the building seemed closed off with no transparency;
  • it needed more windows;
  • the building looks “unfriendly”, looks like a “fortress”;
  • find a compromise;
  • except for the FAR, its bulk and scale meet the Plan’s requirements.

As noted, there was a motion to recommend denial, seconded, and the vote was 8 to zero for denial.  The recommendation will be presented to the full Board at their next regular monthly meeting on July 1.


One commercial and 4 residential units for 5040 Santa Monica.

Commercial and Residential for Santa Monica – the “Last Sand Dune in OB”

The project proposed for 5040 Santa Monica was a scaled-down version of a development that had been approved back in 2006 but never constructed.  The developer was going for a ‘substantial compliance review’ with the city, as the site has been dormant for around 10 years.  The lot supposedly contains “the last sand dune in OB”.

The new design includes one 2-story commercial unit in front and 4 residential units behind and above it.  As that block of Santa Monica is zoned as a mix of commercial and residential, it was incumbent on the developer to install some commercial. The commercial parking – as is all the parking – is in the back and off the alley.  Twelve parking spaces are planned. The residential units will be eventually turned into condos, the owner said.


More artists’ renderings of planned project on Santa Monica.

There were some questions whether an upstairs deck hung over the required set-back, and it was noted that from the street level to the very top of the development was close to 40 feet, but the 30 foot height limit is not measured from the very bottom of the project. Also, Board members bemoaned the “industrial” look, the very linear and heavy on the glass appearance of the units, and lack of fitting into the community’s character. “This is transforming,” one member said, and complained that “the character of the community is starting to deteriorate.”

Another said “the facade has very vertical lines, no sloped lines, all flat roofs, and doesn’t necessarily jive with the Community Plan ….”

One of the architects stated that this building is the very first “purposely-designed” building to take energy storage into its design. “It will be highly visible nationally”, he said. Another stated that every one of the units has a view of the pier and ocean.

After all discussion, the Project Review Committee voted 6 to 2 to recommend approval to the full Board.


4965 Cape May Ave.

Two Units for Cape May

The third project under review is a proposed 2-house project for 4965 Cape May, a vacant lot empty for decades; the front house has 2 stories and the rear house has three.  The owner – who currently lives out of state – wanst to return to OB and live in one of them. The parking is off the alley as the 2 palm trees in front are part of the design.

The project did not appear too controversial, and was voted for approval with a 5 – 2 vote.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jana June 18, 2015 at 3:24 pm

Thank you, Project Review Committee, for “holding the line.”
These developers are so short-sighted that they don’t realize if each of them gets to put up ugly fortresses that bend the zoning rules, OB will look horrible and who will want to visit here, let alone live here.
It’s quite ironic to me that the “last hippie stronghold in Southern California” is really that – and “we” ARE holding the line!


Geoff Page Geoff Page June 18, 2015 at 4:05 pm

I hate to say it, but I found this quote from the story to be surprising in its naiveté:

“When they presented the case for their project last night, OB planners were stunned that any city staff had pushed them to fiddle with the FAR – as the issue had been central to the Plan update approval process, and city staff should have known about the community’s sensitivity on the FAR issue.”

The Development Services Department (DSD) is there to help developers, not safeguard the city for the rest of us. As I’ve noted before, the community plans have no teeth and if OB really believed the bullshit that came out of the mouths of the Planning Department, they were deceived. The DSD does not review plans for conformance to the community plan, that is the job of the planning boards, which the city ignores if the result is negative. If the result is positive, they wave the decision like a grand banner. The new plan, which isn’t in effect yet folks, will not protect the town, that will still be up to everyone else.


Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie June 18, 2015 at 6:44 pm

Geoff – a tad harsh, my friend, as OB planners and their supporters found certain city staff very helpful in the stand-off with the SD Planning Commission. And, in fact, something I did not put in the article, was an email that emerged showing that a key veteran planning staffer had to explain to other staff the significance of the FAR.

Plus, there’s teeth in them thar (perhaps with a few holes) committees and boards if the community stands behind them and they represent the community’s wishes.

Overall, I have to agree with the general criticism of the role of the DSD, as certain elements in the bureaucracy always tried to limit the power and authority of the OB Board, and city staff from other department don’t treat it with the respect it deserves, and it was the city that pushed for OB to have its plan updated in the first place. That process took 12 years.


Geoff Page Geoff Page June 19, 2015 at 11:58 am

Well, Frank, with all due respect, I had a number of direct dealings with the Planning Department and came away with a very negative opinion of them all. One of the worst ones I dealt with was Maxx Stalheim, the guy who was there when the OB Plan was finaled and the subject of an OB Rag story. His presentation gave folks a false hope and I commented on that. The stand-off with the Planning Commission was a very different issue, it was in their interests to help because the Planning Commission’s action also went against what the Planning Department did. They weren’t just helping OB, they were also defending themselves. But, this was a different issue, when it comes to project approvals, the Planning Department has no role.

As for the teeth, we will see how that pans out in the future.


Seth Connolly June 20, 2015 at 12:10 am

I have no issue with any individual working for the City, but have long felt that there is an overall culture and prevailing attitude there that is not only developer-friendly, but also often on their heels with regard to the threat of developer lawsuits — up to and past the point where the City gets intimidated into not enforcing their own code/law. In many other parts of CA and the country at large, land use-related activism takes the form of well-chosen and well-articulated citizens lawsuits, or at least the threat of them. The FAR issue in OB is quite possibly on solid ground in this regard.


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