Development and the Virtual Reality of Land Use – the Plan Hillcrest, as an Example

by on September 7, 2021 · 11 comments

in San Diego

The ‘interpretive marker‘ on the sidewalk for the Michels-Carey House in North Park. Photo by Christine Hernandez.

By Mat Wahlstrom

Labor Day is the only holiday on our calendar dedicated to celebrate the worker; yet it is those on the lower wage end that most likely had to work yesterday. For these people, it was turned into just another Monday, likely without extra pay to compensate, with maybe a “thank you for your service” at the checkout.

While this disconnect between official recognition versus actually getting a paid day off is still clear, it’s important to examine how the imperatives of capital similarly warp our understanding where the idea of something is proposed as a substitute for the thing itself. When in place of public benefits, we are asked to use our imagination and accept empty gestures instead.

This can be seen most plainly in the deliberations on land use for recreation and historic preservation, which are supposed to be protected under the California Environmental Quality Act.

A new fifty-year Parks Master Plan was recently approved by the San Diego city council over the objections of a broad coalition of advocates. As noted here, chief among the concerns with this new plan is a system of ‘points’ for things such as signage and benches to make up for deficits in actual park and open space.

Development impact fees (DIFs) are not allowed to be used to make up for existing deficits. And unlike other cities, there’s no DIF assessed on commercial development for parks. Yet we’re being pushed to allow DIFs allocated for park space diverted to mobility projects instead — as if a bike path were fungible with a playground.

Current city standards already allow developments to waive 100% of the DIFs by satisfying park standards on their own sites. Add in this new plan’s introduction of fees and the removal of language protecting parks from commercialization and privatization, and it’s hard not to see how national standards are being gutted to allow for private enrichment from adding density across the board.

‘interpretive marker‘ on the sidewalk

(Consider the ‘parklets’ that were first carved out from the public right of way and justified to address park space deficits, only to have COVID privatize them for business, which are now being made permanent.)

Likewise, historical resources are another factor of the quality of life in our neighborhoods that we are being asked to make do without.

Currently the city’s Plan Hillcrest scheme is underway. It takes pains to give emphasis to historic preservation, notably with a Hillcrest LGBTQ+ Historic Context Statement. But dig a little deeper, and what’s being proposed is the replacement of existing structures with public art and interpretive walks — plaques attached to the outside of high rises describing what they replaced.

The model for this form of ‘preservation’ is the Michels-Carey House in North Park. The same day that the developer learned the state had accepted the nomination of this property for historic designation, they demolished it after city offices had closed for a holiday weekend. But, they were able to escape penalties by working to install an ‘interpretive marker‘ on the sidewalk outside the garage of the high-end apartment complex built over it.

And in every neighborhood, it appears that not a month goes by without some structure with valid historic preservation criteria being lost to a wrecking ball rather than repurposed for community benefit.

Understanding what is being done to recreation and historic preservation makes it easier to recognize other virtualizations put in service to density:

  • Eliminating parking requirements that make units more affordable to construct, but the savings not passed on to buyers/renters and the burdens of cost of added density on infrastructure shifted to the public.
  • Upzoning without conditions that inflates land values, that creates profit without improvement, pricing out both existing and new affordable housing.
  • Incompatible projects that devalue nearby structures already on the ground, putting pressure on owners to either raise rents or convert to vacation rentals or cash out by selling to developers.
  • Allowing the payment of in-lieu fees for alleged affordable housing elsewhere rather than enforce providing actual units on-site actual projects.
  • City planning based on “transit priority corridors” that may be proposed by outside agencies in the next fourteen years, as the Blueprint San Diego scam calls for.
  • Designing around bicycling projections as viable mass transit.
  • Co-opting of the language of social justice — sloganeering such as “housing at all levels” and “all housing matters” — to protect the equity derived from a market gamed toward luxury real estate production.

But we cannot live in a virtual reality. So we need to recognize and challenge land use decisions based on arguments that require us to consent to fantasy.

We have no ‘reset’ button. We cannot survive governance by conjecture.

[Postscript: Today is the deadline for public comments on the Hillcrest LGBTQ+ Historic Context Statement Survey. Here’s the link for those who are interested in participating.]

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Page September 7, 2021 at 1:17 pm

Excellent piece, Mat. I’m putting my advice that everyone should read this to get more notice in the comment column.


Mat Wahlstrom September 7, 2021 at 1:44 pm

Thanks Geoff. Much appreciated!


Geoff Page September 7, 2021 at 1:48 pm

The appreciation is also here. This is exactly the kind of information that The Rag is for. Where else would a person look for it today.


Stu McGraw September 7, 2021 at 1:58 pm

Very intersting. Thank you.


Gail Friedt September 7, 2021 at 5:41 pm

What we don’t need more of are “historic designations” on place like the old Mission Hills library that now sits abandoned and could have been used to house people. Exactly what”community benefit” was achieved there? The core of Hillcrest is already full of abandoned buildings. What we need is housing and yes a few of those might, oh the horror, might be high rises. The businesses in Hillcrest need more neighbors to survive. Almost every new and exciting restaurant in the last few years has opened in Little Italy. And there are shops there including boutiques. They’ve either closed in Hillcrest or barely hanging on.


Mat Wahlstrom September 7, 2021 at 10:00 pm
Gail Friedt September 7, 2021 at 10:55 pm

I’m pro housing Mat. There’s a huge difference. I welcome more neighbors.


Mat Wahlstrom September 8, 2021 at 8:26 am

You’re pro-housing for investments, not for people — or else you and the YIMBY claque wouldn’t oppose affordability requirements or any other limit on what developers can build.

Likewise, you don’t care about the neighbors you already have — they’re not wealthy enough to support all the businesses that are obviously more important to you.

Trickle-down housing is still voodoo economics.


Frank Gormlie September 8, 2021 at 10:09 am

Hey Mat, I’m dying to know what the plaque says. Also, we need to distinguish between this awful “interpretive markers” and the great historical plaques on buildings in OB – where the buildings are still there! And thanks Mat for the appropriate and timely intro to your post. Nicely done.


Mat Wahlstrom September 8, 2021 at 10:50 am

Excellent distinction, Frank. Plaques that tell the story of the same building that they’re on serve the same function as wall labels for an artwork. Plaques on buildings that tell the story of what they replaced are grave markers.

I’ll have to get back to you on what it says exactly, but here’s a link to an article about the Michels-Carey House and the marker from the University Heights Community Association by Christine Hernandez, who also deserves the photo credit,


Mat Wahlstrom October 7, 2021 at 10:13 am

“Opinion: As a gay man, I am repulsed at the idea of making Hillcrest an LGBTQ+ Historic District” (no paywall)


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