Without a Mandate, Jen Campbell Leads the Charge to Destroy the 30-Foot Height Limit in the Midway

by on April 23, 2020 · 19 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

San Diego Councilwoman Jen Campbell, we find, is leading the charge to destroy the 30-foot height limit in the Midway District. And she is doing this despite the lack of any mandate from her District 2 community or constituents.

Yes, it is true, Campbell is touting the recent approval of her plan by the Midway planning committee.

But that decision by literally a handful of people who, under the cover of the pandemic, voted without public participation to get onboard her roaring train – is definitely not a mandate. There’s barely a Midway District resident on that committee of business-minded planners. Okay, there aren’t that many residents in the planning area, which also includes the Pacific Highway area. As OB Rag reporter Geoff Page recently described:

The Midway group is made up mostly of business people who own property or businesses in the Midway area. After having attended these meetings for more than three years, this reporter can say that this is a nice group of people, they are not a rapacious group of developers like the Mission Valley planning group. The Midway people have good reason for wanting to see the area improved, anyone who has spent any time there would understand. But, many do have a vested interest in the future development.

Holding a meeting on-line to discuss such an important issue was questionable because the public really did not have a chance to participate. The meeting was advertised properly but because of how it had to be held, very few people had a chance to be heard and those who spoke were all in favor of this change.

So, it appears, Campbell, a Democrat, has allied herself with one of the last remaining Republicans on the City Council, Chris Cate, to whip up the idea of reversing nearly a half century of urban planning in the coastal areas of San Diego, and do away with that nagging, stumbling block of not allowing buildings above thirty feet west of Interstate 5.

Since February Campbell and Cate have been pushing their plan of developing the Midway District with higher buildings. Their plan is to have the full City Council vote to place their plan on the November ballot for voter approval. And getting the Midway planners on board was key – as it lent some legitimacy to the whole idea by displaying “grassroots support.” But as noted, 6 people with business conflicts of interest does not a mandate make. But, it still looks good. Campbell and Cate can now wave the Midway planners’ approval like a green flag for their train.

As Geoff Page noted, during her 2018 campaign for a council seat – in which she ousted Republican Lori Zapf – Campbell was all for the 30-foot height limit:

That our own council person is one of the two pushing this change, is a surprise to many. When asked during her campaign about the 30-foot height limit, Campbell answered as any politician had to and said she believed in it and would protect the provision. Now that there is a big push to redevelop the Midway area, Campbell changed her mind at least for that area.

It’s one thing for the councilmember who represents the coast to understand the complexities of redeveloping a sizable chuck of San Diego, but it’s quite another for that councilmember to be leading the charge to undo the overwhelming support for the citizen-initiative of 1972 that established the height limit that basically restricts buildings to three floors. In the early 1970s, it was a massive undertaking for a handful of beach activists to be able to gather the thousands of signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot. And they did it for no pay. Clearly, nearly 5 decades later, Campbell doesn’t really appreciate that very, grassroots tidal wave of citizen involvement in the electoral process.

Recently in an Op-Ed in the March 12 edition of the  San Diego Union-Tribune, Campbell presented her views – her bold vision for the Midway District area. “There are not many areas in San Diego,” she opined, “where the potential for something bold and visionary exists more than it does in the Midway-Pacific Highway community.” And as an example of another bold vision that came to fruition, Campbell touts the redevelopment of the Naval Training Center into Liberty Station.

Whoops, some might exclaim – what an example! The redevelopment of NTC by a private company, McMillan, was truly one of the greatest public land give-aways in modern San Diego history.

Campbell also leans on the perception that the Midway is somehow not worthy of the height restriction. It’s not near the coast – and it’s just, well, different. In her Op-Ed, Campbell explains:

“There will be skeptics and those who feel the height limit is sacrosanct. However … the Midway-Pacific Highway Community Plan area is geographically different than the other areas that adhere to the height limit restriction.”

Apparently, one of those “skeptics” is (or was at least) Mayor Faulconer, who when he was a councilman for District 2, felt it was incumbent on him – when the height limit was under criticism – 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.”

To paraphrase a recent comment on the OB Rag:

First they came for the Morena area, but it wasn’t me so I didn’t care.
Then they came for the Midway District but I didn’t live there so…
Then they came for inland PB since it wasn’t ‘really’ on the coast.
Then they came for the bay side of Pt. Loma since it wasn’t actually on the Pacific Ocean…

(Hat tip to seal).

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar Tom Cairns April 23, 2020 at 1:39 pm

Any attempt to remove the current height limit, without putting in a new cap, would open the doors to 40 story condo towers. The prime area of the district, bordered by Midway Drive, Rosecrans Street and the O. B. Freeway, is outside the Airport Approach Overlay Zone. That means no height restrictions due to airplanes. You could get a cluster of downtown-like condo towers. And the penthouse flats, with a 360 degree view, would have such an incredible view, it would almost be priceless. Frank, maybe you could find someone who could photoshop pictures of just what it would look like with towers like that. Give the view perspectives of what people would see from North Loma Portal, Mission Hills, Clairemont, Mission Bay, coming down the O. B. Freeway from both east and west. And you’re right about them beginning with shoehorning the idea in Morena with the 60 and 100 foot proposals.

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie April 23, 2020 at 3:06 pm

So good to hear from you, Tom. Hope your health is getting you through all of this. The OB Street Fair is probably cancelled this summer.

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Avatar FJL April 23, 2020 at 5:26 pm

Lack of representation, campaign promises, flip-flops (remember that term?), former skeptics. Don’t lose site of the fact that to a large extent, it’s all about the politicians’ donors and what they want. Thanks SCOTUS. ‘Midway District’ covers more space than I expected when I searched it. This will be interesting.

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Avatar Dike Anyiwo April 23, 2020 at 5:35 pm

I’m very disappointed reading this column Frank. As one of the *three* residents who sit on the 12-member Midway Pacific Highway Community Planning Group board, I feel obligated to correct your inaccurate and misleading writing.

The desire of the MPHCPG to relax the height limit specifically in the Midway neighborhood manifested long before I even joined the board in October of 2018, which you probably need to have pointed out to you, also pre-dates Councilmember Campbell’s term in office. The notion that she conceived this idea by herself is simply inaccurate. I find your assertion to be both disrespectful to and dismissive of the dozens of people who served the community throughout the Community Plan Update process and since.

This item was docketed to be heard at our March meeting, which was cancelled due to the onset of the covid-19 outbreak. To insinuate so strongly that there is some nefarious maneuvering or sleight of hand going on with transitioning to a virtual meeting format for our April meeting is downright despicable. The onset of this global pandemic has affected us all. It takes a special kind of person to attempt to score cheap points by playing that card, and I hope you and your family are all staying safe in these unique times.

Furthermore, the concept of raising the limit was discussed at length during the Community Plan Update process, but ultimately it was decided that the council-led initiative process which is underway now was the best way to achieve the desired outcome of spurring redevelopment in our neighborhood. Particularly coupled with the City’s longstanding desire to redevelop the Sports Arena site. Ideally, the height limit should have been addressed in the Community Plan Update, but since any amendment to the 1972 Prop D requires a public vote of the citizens of San Diego, here we are.

Unfortunately, I was born 35 years too late to vote in 1972, but I’m glad I was born after we as a nation decided it was not ok for people to own people. I’m sure slavery was considered nearly as sacrosanct as your beloved 30-ft height limit, but I trust we can all agree that just because people thought something made sense once upon a time doesn’t mean that things will make sense in perpetuity. San Diego has changed in the nearly 50 years since Prop D was enacted. The people of this city deserve the opportunity to decide whether they’ve changed as well.

I was curious to know who led the original effort to extend the coastal overlay zone to include the Midway District in the first place. Imagine my surprise when I came across this column (https://obrag.org/2018/05/the-origins-of-the-30-foot-height-limit/) that you yourself wrote nearly two years ago in response to the already ongoing conversation regarding resolving the conflict between the City’s obligation to redevelop the Sports Arena and the existing 30-ft height limit.

Aside from all your pathetic attempts to degrade the community and our elected leaders, I think what actually irks me the most about your piece is that you’ve fabricated this falsely contentious conflict using words like “destroy” and “despite the lack of any mandate from her District 2 community or constituents” when describing the priorities of our community. If you’d engaged with our board at all in recent years, you’d know better. I applaud the Councilmember’s willingness to champion the issues our board is engaged on, but to suggest that this effort originated in her office and was borne of some malignant machination is just flat out wrong.

As soon as we’re allowed, we will convene our MPHCPG meetings in person again, but until then we will continue meeting in a virtual format. I heartily encourage you to attend our meetings in the future. Frankly I’d be embarrassed to show my face if I were you, but it is a public meeting and the more people involved in the process the better, so the invitation will remain open to you and everyone in perpetuity.

I look forward to your active and product participation with our board in the future.

Dike Anyiwo
Vice Chair
Midway Pacific Highway Community Planning Group

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie April 23, 2020 at 10:25 pm

Thanks Dike for your response. I think you first need to do some more research – and start here on the OB Rag as we’ve been covering the past 2-3 years of talk about raising the height limit in the Midway. Otherwise, I think you made my point for me. There’s no mandate. Best of all, though, was your attempt to equate the views of locals on the 30-foot height limit to slavery. That said – you had your say.

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Avatar Geoff Page April 24, 2020 at 10:25 am

Dike,
You wrote “The desire of the MPHCPG to relax the height limit specifically in the Midway neighborhood manifested long before I even joined the board in October of 2018, which you probably need to have pointed out to you, also pre-dates Councilmember Campbell’s term in office. The notion that she conceived this idea by herself is simply inaccurate. I find your assertion to be both disrespectful to and dismissive of the dozens of people who served the community throughout the Community Plan Update process and since.”

No one said this originated with Campbell, the idea has been around forever. But, as the councilperson representing the coast, she is the very first one to actually put her name on a proposal to change the height limit. That is the distinction.

You wrote “To insinuate so strongly that there is some nefarious maneuvering or sleight of hand going on with transitioning to a virtual meeting format for our April meeting is downright despicable.”

I think you may have misread this part. The point was that an issue this important should have waited until a normal public meeting when the public could more easily participate. We explained why it was done this way, to get the Midway group’s approval into the city fast because of the upcoming hearing and the deadline for the ballot. The group was very candid about that, there was nothing nefarious about it.

You wrote “Ideally, the height limit should have been addressed in the Community Plan Update, but since any amendment to the 1972 Prop D requires a public vote of the citizens of San Diego, here we are.”

The desire to change the height limit could have been placed in the plan, the community plans are not law, they are in fact generally ignored by the city.

You wrote “Aside from all your pathetic attempts to degrade the community and our elected leaders, I think what actually irks me the most about your piece is that you’ve fabricated this falsely contentious conflict using words like “destroy” and “despite the lack of any mandate from her District 2 community or constituents” when describing the priorities of our community. If you’d engaged with our board at all in recent years, you’d know better. I applaud the Councilmember’s willingness to champion the issues our board is engaged on, but to suggest that this effort originated in her office and was borne of some malignant machination is just flat out wrong.”

There is too much wrong with this. No one is trying to degrade Midway or its leaders. The word destroy will not look so bad if this first change in the height limit leads to many more. The lack of a mandate is exactly correct. Other than some of you folks in the Midway area, only a small part of the district, there is no mandate. Campbell did not poll her entire district to see what they thought. And I repeat, everyone knows the idea did not start with Campbell, she is just the first of the long line of coastal council members who has championed this, despite what she said during her campaign.

A few final thoughts. Frank asked me to cover the Midway meetings in order to give them wider publicity, which I’ve been doing for the last three years. Other than the Beacon and an occasional media story, the group has had its widest exposure thanks to Frank right here in the OB Rag. And, this same council member you are championing has swallowed wholesale the idea of a Grand Central Station at the old SPAWARS site. How much did she consult with Midway about that major change to the area? Not at all.

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Avatar Paul Webb April 24, 2020 at 11:32 am

Let me start by saying that to say “ideally” the 30-foot height limit should have been discussed in the Midway community plan update is just laughable. ABSOLUTELY that would have been the proper mechanism for proposing such a drastic change in the character of the community. The community plans are supposed to be the templates for how neighborhoods will be developed.

Let me also say that the height limit was instituted for more than just coastal views. Back at the time of the initiative, there were proposals for creating a Miami-like community in OB, At about the same time, the Lynch and Appleyard study (“A Temporary Paradise”) sponsored by the Marston family opened a dialogue about how the city, particularly the Mission Valley area, would be developed. Many citizens, although clearly not all, strongly supported planning that would not result in massive and irreversible increases in density and intensity of use, and planning for more appropriate development policies that reflected the unique topography and resources of our region, Sadly, much of what was in that study was ignored.

Finally, let me also add that injecting slavery into this conversation is just reprehensible. There can be differences of opinion, but to introduce our national shame into a dialogue over land use policies is a truely weird form of syllogism that has no place in the discussion.

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Avatar Ol OB Hippie April 23, 2020 at 10:55 pm

Well, at least it can be said the OB Rag takes swipes at both Democrats and Republicans. I’m also wondering whether Jen Campbell is up on her Scottish history – the painting is of a famous Scottish charge.

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Avatar Cathy Kenton April 24, 2020 at 5:54 am

I am the Chair of the Midway-Pacific Highway Planning Group and take exception to your implication that this matter was simply swept under the rug via a virtual conference planning group meeting. The meeting was properly noticed, and the agenda was distributed to the growing list of community members and others that request agendas. While unfortunate that COVID-19 required this adjustment to routine procedures, as you know, changes to Prop D require a citywide vote, and short of a special election can only be considered every two years during a normal election cycle.

This proposal to modify Proposition D is nothing more than an effort to correct an unfortunate and arbitrary boundary that was established nearly 50 years ago. Midway should never have been part of the limitation. We are not a coastal community, and given the intent of Prop D, should never have been included.

This was not Councilmember Campbell’s idea; in fact, we struggled with this throughout the long community planning process. MPHCPG discussed the issue often during the extended plan update process. We ultimately did not address it in the plan since the restriction was the reality. During public hearings on the plan update in 2018, the Planning Commission brought up the 30′ height limitation on its own, and multiple Commissioners commented it should not apply to Midway. At Council Committee, it was brought up again by Councilmembers questioning why the height limit was applied to Midway.

This is not an effort to erode Prop D or any of its principals. The Midway community has always tried to be a good neighbor to our surrounding communities, and I do not understand how you feel this change will impact any of our neighbors.

Cathy Kenton
Chair
Midway-Pacific Highway Community Planning Group

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie April 27, 2020 at 1:11 pm

Cathy Kenton – thanks for responding. The point is that something this substantial and important for our communities should not have been handled during a period where the public cannot reasonably have access to any semi-governmental debate on it. You mention that the Planning C’mish brought the 30 foot ht limit on its own. Really. I believe you – they’ve been trying to knock it down for many a moon. The city establishment, the developers and planners have NEVER liked the 30 foot height limit and jump on any and every opportunity to undermine it. They – and now Campbell – are using the vote of a small, handful of people without really any mandate from the Midway area public to justify and legitimatize their efforts to get rid of it in an area that needs it. There is no exceptionalism to the Midway. It was part of the original plan and should be kept in it. Of course it is an effort to erode Prop D. They wish to make another exception to the rule, and pretty soon with all the exceptions, a dump truck can drive through it.

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie April 24, 2020 at 11:08 am

Jen Campbell wrote another OpEd for the U-T on 4/22 about the 30 foot ht limit: “One wrinkle, however, stands in the way of that progress. We believe Midway’s potential for greatness is hindered by a 30-foot height restriction that has left the area stuck in the past.

In 1972, San Diego voters approved a ballot measure that established a 30-foot height limit on all buildings west of Interstate 5. The idea was to protect the ocean views in neighborhoods such as Bay Park, La Jolla and Point Loma. Included in this, however, is the Midway-Pacific Highway community, home to no ocean view.”

Yet, this perhaps the view of someone not all that familiar with the struggle FOR the 30 foot limit. It wasn’t intended just to “protect the ocean views” – that was one of the purposes; the main reason was that the coast line would not be walled off by highrise apartments and hotels.

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Avatar Roy McMakin April 24, 2020 at 7:48 pm

Luxury Ocean View Condo Towers!

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Avatar Ricky Cervantes April 26, 2020 at 2:57 pm

The comment you paraphrase at the end is itself paraphrasing a poem by a Lutheran pastor about the Nazi’s rise to power. Its use in this context is disgusting and should be removed.

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie April 26, 2020 at 5:24 pm

I’m well aware of that famous quote. Because it is so famous, people can use it analogously without violating our hatred of the Nazis and the 6 million Jewish people they murdered. I think you’re over-reacting here. BTW, just curious, where are you at on the issue at hand?

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Avatar Ricky Cervantes April 26, 2020 at 5:53 pm

I disagree. I don’t think it should be used analogously in a discussion on height limits. A cautionary poem about remaining passive to the persecution of minorities is in no way appropriate in this context, despite how persecuted privileged community members in our coastal communities might feel. Read into that what you will. My issue is with the comment, your inclusion of it in your article, and the audacity to use it within this context.

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Avatar Geoff Page April 27, 2020 at 9:38 am

That famous quote has been used many, many times to express the danger of not standing up for rights. If it happens to someone else, ignore it at your peril because it may happen to you. In other words, we must act together if someone else’s rights are trampled because we are, if effect, also defending ourselves. The Nazis took a small piece and no one did anything, so they took another and another until it was almost too late to stop them. Developers have been attacking the 30-foot height limit since first passed and people have been defending it for as long. All that quote was saying, if you don’t defend Midway, OB, PB, MB will all be next.

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Avatar triggerfinger April 27, 2020 at 2:43 pm

The only real criticism I’ve heard of this plan is the precedent that it could extend into other areas.

Other than that large and looming fear, pretty much everyone agrees that the redevelopment should allow >30’.

The nearby planning groups should certainly opine on this though.

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Avatar Paul Webb April 28, 2020 at 9:45 am

Well, triggerfinger, I’ve come to believe that “pretty much everyone agrees” translates to “me and everyone I agree with agree.” Just the fact that there is debate on this site means that there are people paying attention to this issue have disagreements. You can’t make those kinds of generalizations as they just will not stand up.

I’m a professional urban planner with decades of experience in San Diego and southern California and a former elected member of the Peninsula Community Planning Board. Raising the height limit will irrevocably alter the character of the Midway community. We can debate whether that alteration will be a good thing or a bad thing, but there are valid criticisms of the plan other than precedent. Intensity of development will absolute increase. That goes without saying. No one would seek to change the plan otherwise.

Along with that increased intensity will come increased traffic congestion that will affect not only Midway but all the surrounding communities. One example – the Midway/Rosescrans/Sports arena intersections. It’s pretty much impossible to get around without having to pass through those already congested intersections. There isn’t any way to realistically improve those intersections to handle current traffic, much less future traffic that would inevitably result from increased development in Midway, especially given the proposed “grand central station” on the Spawars property.

As Geoff Page has pointed out, the vote by the Midway planning group vote occurred at a time and in a format where meaningful public comment was not possible. This should have happened at a regular public meeting (if we can ever have public, in-person meetings again) where all points of view can be aired. That is not what happened.

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sealintheSelkirks sealintheSelkirks April 28, 2020 at 11:22 am

Thanks Geoff, you understood the meaning of the re-written quote.

Ricky Cervantes: You are trying to distract from the meaning of the message by trying to use shame and guilt. You and your “persecuted privileged community members” crap. What a LOAD OF CRAP. It was COMPLETELY appropriate to this discussion because that is exactly what the politicians and their wealthy backers are trying to do; chip away at the foundation of the height restriction which benefits ALL the people of San Diego but not the persecuted privileged campaign-contributing grifters that want to line their pockets building another Miami Beach to the detriment of all who enjoy the beaches. It’s been the wealth builders and neighborhood destroyers wet dream ever since we voted it in!

This is a tried and true method of getting what they want because it has been used pretty much forever by the elite owners of this country.

What, you can’t visualize this wet dream that’s been in the making all these years? Ever walked down the street in Manhattan, or Waikiki, or Miami? As a born & raised beach kid who has walked those concrete canyons that block out the sky, I most certainly can see them in my head. More like a nightmare than a dream I’m afraid.

And then there is Jen Campbell’s comment about the “greatness” of the Midway district being blocked by that horrible 30 foot height limit. Another jab using subtle guilt at ‘those people’ to stop the “GREATNESS” of the new improved (for the financial benefit of whom I might ask?) towering buildings. And like I pointed out in my re-write of the quote, it is a game of dominoes where making an exception here and there changes the rules.

Sandy Eggo is NOT Miami Beach, not NYC, not Waikiki, and I’m guessing that the people that enjoy a day at the beach enjoy the open vistas that are not blocked by ugly concrete highrise. That’s what will happen, folks. Count on it. Starting with the Midway District.

Here’s a thought. How about turning the entire Midway District, which is laid over the original San Diego Riverbed, into one gigantic connected park all the way to the bay for everybody to visit. Why not? Better than the plans I’ve seen so far…

So let’s keep the height limit, and to do that there has to be continued (forever!) community involvement in EVERYTHING that the paid-for politicians try to pull off behind our backs. Call them out for their shenanigans, be actively supporting your community and not the bank accounts and power plays of those who would rip the guts out of your communities.

The saddest part is that politicians will say one thing and then do exactly the opposite once they get in office. There really isn’t a cure for this I don’t think. I have no answers other than stay engaged.

KEEP THE 30′ LIMIT! And, as an aside, completely ban STVRs too, while you’re at it!

sealintheSelkirks

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