Councilmembers Campbell and Cate Push for Measure on November Ballot to Remove 30 Foot Height Limit in Midway Area

by on February 28, 2020 · 14 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

Our dire prediction nearly 2 years ago that the City of San Diego was poised to dismantle the 30 foot height limit in the Midway District in order to allow massive redevelopment is coming true.

Just yesterday, Feb. 27, Council members Jen Campbell and Chris Cate in a memo have asked a San Diego City Council committee to place a measure on the November ballot to rescind the 30-foot coastal height limit “for the entirety of the Midway -Pacific Highway Community Plan area.”

The thirty-foot height limit was a citizen initiative that was approved overwhelmingly by voters in 1972 for the area essentially west of I-5, which included areas north of downtown, in the Midway, Pacific Highway and Sports Arena communities. (See this history of the 30-foot height limit.)

Campbell and Cate argue that any Sports Arena area development plans “are constrained by the voter-approved 30-foot height limit, and that “the public should have the opportunity to vote to remove the height limit for the entirety of the Midway -Pacific Highway Community Plan area.”

They’re asking the Rules Committee to consider placing such a City-sponsored measure on the November 2020 ballot.

Here’s the full text of the Memo, dated Feb. 27, 2020, from Campbell and Cate to Council President Georgette Gomez:

SUBJECT: Amendment to San Diego Municipal Code 132.0505 Coastal Height Limit

Housing continues to be a priority in the City of San Diego. Since population growth has outpaced housing development by more than double, the San Diego Housing Commission projects the City will need between 150,000-220,000 new units by 2028 to meet local demand. The City must explore innovative solutions to address this crisis.

For over 50 years, the Sports Arena has been part of San Diego’s cultural fabric. The recently adopted Midway – Pacific Highway Community Plan establishes a vision of the Sports Arena Community Village as a vibrant, pedestrian and transit-oriented entertainment destination that has the potential to be a landmark for surrounding communities. Currently, the City is requesting proposals for the development, lease, and use of the City-owned property within the Sports Arena, and other associated parcels, consisting of 48 acres. Nevertheless, any development plans for this City-owned parcel are constrained by the voter-approved 30-foot height limit.

To take full advantage of the vision of the current community plan and with the potential for a mix of entertainment, office, retail, residential, recreational, public, and park use on this site, the public should have the opportunity to vote to remove the height limit for the entirety of the Midway -Pacific Highway Community Plan area. We respectfully request that this item be heard at the Rules Committee in conjunction with the process for the Committee’s consideration of placing City-sponsored measures on the November 2020 ballot.

Here’s what we stated in May 2018:

It appears the City of San Diego is getting set to dismantle the 30 foot height limit in order to allow massive redevelopment of the Midway District.

With the Midway area community plan update – okayed by the Midway planning committee on March 21, 2018 – about to be approved by the City Council in June, all the chips are falling into place to set the stage for some kind of political action that would get rid of the sacrosanct height limit for the some 1324 acres being considered for the redevelopment. The redevelopment would bring in dense housing – some of it affordable -, “modern commercial districts”, and 7-fold population increase to the area.

But the 30 foot height limit stands in the way of the dreams of developers, city planners, and their sycophants within the mainly commercial zones of the district.

Here’s a San Diego Union-Tribune report, referencing statements by the chair of the Midway planning committee, Kathy Kenton:

Another hurdle facing the transformation of the area is the city’s 30-foot coastal height limit, which covers all of the Midway District. The arena, which is 75 feet tall, and the former Cabrillo Hospital exceed the limit because they were built before it was put in place in the early 1970s.

Any new construction exceeding the limit couldn’t move forward without a ballot measure seeking majority approval by residents across the city. Some have suggested the city place a measure on the ballot exempting all city-owned properties from the height limit.

Kenton, contending the Midway District probably shouldn’t have been included in the area governed by the height limit in the first place, said the ballot measure might also include exempting all property there – not just city-owned lots.

When the Midway community plan update was approved by the San Diego Planning Commission in late April, 2018 “… commissioners lamented the city’s 30-foot coastal development height limit, which limits housing density potential. Bypassing the limit requires a successful ballot measure.” Fox 5

… Once approved, the updated community plan will be the blueprint for a massive overhaul and redevelopment of a huge section of the Midway District -1370-some acres, envisioned by the San Diego City Planning Department over the next 20 years.

The plan includes:

    • a transformation of the area around the city’s sports arena, where the city owns 100 acres.
    • changing commercial and industrial zoning to residential zones;
    • raising the district population from 4,600 to 27,000;
    • adding dense housing with an increase of housing units from just under 2,000 to more than 11,000, with some reserved for low-income families.
    • breaking up the industrial mega-blocks into smaller residential “villages”;
    • creating “modern commercial projects” that require heights over 30 feet;
    • making a series of small parks, totaling less than 30 acres – which is less than 2.3% of the acreage being considered for redevelopment.
    • installing a “bay to bay” walkway for pedestrians and bicyclists;

One of the decisive decisions the city must make is what to do with the sports arena – currently branded as the Valley View Casino Center – and the surrounding city-owned 100 acres.

By the year 2020 many of the commercial leases expire and the city is currently not talking about what they’ll do. (We discussed this in our February 13 report.) There’s a whole bunch of businesses that don’t want to leave and want the city to extend their leases, businesses like Dixieland Lumber, Pier 1 Imports, the Salvation Army, the sports arena of course and the sports teams, Kolby’s Swap Meet, numerous affordable housing apartment complexes. (See chart)

One thought among city planners is – if the than city-owned acres around the arena are redeveloped quickly then that development would serve as a catalyst to other projects.


Here’s the memo:

Here’s the Voice of San Diego‘s hit on the recent developments:

Come November, voters could be asked to get rid of a sacrosanct development restriction for a portion of the coastal area. …

That area has been eyed for increased development for years. In 2018, the city adopted a new outline for growth in the area that made way for 11,000 new homes, twice as many as are there today. The city is also asking developers for proposals to revamp the city-owned property underneath and surrounding the Pechanga Arena, after it strategically timed many of the private leases there to expire simultaneously. …

When the coastal height limit turned 40, we examined the legacy of one of the city’s most impactful land use regulations. Doing so elicited an … uh, impassioned … response, such that then-Councilman Kevin Faulconer felt it necessary to release a statement assuring everyone that there were no plans, of any kind, to change the height limit and that he would never support anything of the sort. “My sense is it’s working, and it’s working well,” he said then. “It doesn’t need any tweaks.”



{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Ol OB Hippie February 28, 2020 at 1:37 pm

Jen, Jen, Jen … what have you den? Very politically risky. Pushed by the developers, no doubt, and the YIMBYs. This could be a career-ender, oh doctor.


Geoff Page February 28, 2020 at 2:02 pm

I don’t think I have to defend my credentials when it comes to protecting the 30-foot height limit so my comment may surprise some. If any changes to the old law are all just immediately opposed with no consideration, I think that provides fodder for those who want to do away with it completely. It may be necessary to show some reasonableness in order to preserve what we want most, saving the coastline. The Midway district is not near the coast, it is a good area for development, and it does make sense as the best use for the land to allow taller buildings so there is room for amenities. Prop 13 was passed 48 years ago and things have changed. I think allowing this modification in this area strengthens the hard line position for the areas we want to protect most. It will take a public vote but what would we all rather see, a vote specifically or the Midway area or a vote to completely do away with it? I’m suggesting everyone think about this rather than the knee jerk reaction to any changes at all.


Pete R February 28, 2020 at 2:04 pm

The issue is that new development doesn’t pencil out if the height limit remains in place. No developer will touch it. Maybe you see this as a good thing. But it also ensures that the site will remain as is – a rundown parking lot.


Geoff Page February 28, 2020 at 2:48 pm

Gotta disagree with you there Pete, if there is prime land to develop they will come up with something. What has been expressed is that they can build all of the proposed new residences under the 30-foot limit but that would cover all the available land leaving little for open spaces. Not saying if that is true or not but if there is a basis for that statement, developers will do it.


Tom Mullaney February 28, 2020 at 3:35 pm

One reality about the market economy which gets overlooked: Land values adjust based on the development which is allowed. In the Midway/Sports Arena ares, the current Community Plan, zoning and Prop D height limit form the underpinning for current land values. If height limits are increased, land values will increase.
It is assumed that zoning waivers and taller height limits benefit developers, and will provide an incentive to build more. This is doubtful. When zoning regulation are relaxed, the primary benefit goes to the land owners who will sell at a higher price.


TLD February 28, 2020 at 4:44 pm

To prevent sprawl and allow for some green spaces I think going up will best. It will allow for more housing units – which are desperately needed and since there are no views to block, it seems like a perfect area for it. The whole area has become a commercial zone pit of concrete and despair and I for one am glad to see the wheels rolling for something better.

My only concern is that the developers will not do anything to improve the roadway infrastructure and the city will not care because it’s all within a TPA with quick access to busses and the trolley.

I also do not like that they have not proposed a revised height limit. Just removing one and not placing a new one could open the door for ultimate craziness and development that absolutely would not be supported by the transportation infrastructure. So I think a new limit should be in place. Whatever that would be, if have no idea. But we cannot just open the door to unlimited heights.

According a previous article, the Midway Planning Group is also in Board with the heigh increase. So let’s not just blame Councilmember Cambell. There are more stirrers in the pot than just her.


Frank Gormlie February 28, 2020 at 4:55 pm

This: “adding dense housing with an increase of housing units from just under 2,000 to more than 11,000, with some reserved for low-income families.” Affordable housing needs to be 50%.


unwashedWalmartThong March 1, 2020 at 10:42 pm

If the height restrictions are completely reversed, then 40 or 50 or 60 foot tall million dollar condos could go in there. They would have a nice view from the top floors. Restrict part of the parcels and then add lots of parking, infrastructure, mass transit (but forget about the smart street lights with the tiny cameras). If the density increases, then, really, there ought to be a great amount of thought put into this; otherwise the whole area will be one freak show of bumper-to-bumper traffic.
The ballot measure should state exactly what area is to have the reversal; no verbal legerdemain permitted. No shenanigans. No loopholes.


Debbie March 2, 2020 at 10:42 am

What happened to the water shortage? Why increase density if there is no water and the roads are overcrowded.

Mignon is turning over in her grave along with all those other activists that supported the height limit restriction.


Geoff Page March 2, 2020 at 11:15 am

Increasing density in the Midway area does no necessarily mean more people for San Diego. There is a housing shortage for the people already here now, if you recall.

And, I believe you have prematurely buried Mr. Leondis.


kh March 3, 2020 at 10:03 am

Apparently there’s no water shortage now that we can use ungodly amounts of electricity to remove the salt from seawater. 40 megawatts! Where are the environmentalists on this one?

That’s 10% of the power generation of San Onofre. Oh wait we shut that down too.


Sam March 2, 2020 at 12:59 pm

This idea stinks from the head! Once the 30 foot rule is changed for one area there will be no stopping the spread of this idea. Next thing you know OB will be bulldozed and turned into 15 story condos, with no parking I might add!

Jen Campbell needs to go.


TLD March 3, 2020 at 10:09 am

I disagree. There are plenty of towns in SD that do not have a 30’ height limit and the coastal areas have been able to maintain the limit so it has not been the slippery slope you think it will. Midway is inland as far as I’m concerned. No views to block.

Midway has a potential here to become more than a concrete pit of low profile industrial boxes. It has potential to bring families and life into it-where it’s now asphalt, concrete and homeless. I am choosing optimism because what it is now is gross.


Tom Cairns March 3, 2020 at 9:32 am

uWT’s comment is good. Looking at the Airport Approach Overlay Zone map, used to restrict development height, the Midway area is partially covered. The area basically bordered by Midway Drive, Rosecrans Street and the OB Freeway, has NO restrictions. The Barnett-Pacific Highway-Old Town area has an escalating height restriction from about 150 feet to 450 feet. Therefore, the most lucrative parcels are those around the Sports Arena, and without a new height restriction, 10 or 20 story towers would be legal. Just think of the views as the selling point. As you left OB on the OB Freeway, you could have a “wall” of towers from the Midway Drive overpass to Interstate 5. Developers would get what they have always wished for OB, MB, and PB.


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