Is Recent Court Decision on ‘Density Bonus’ in San Diego a Death Blow to Community Planning?

by on February 8, 2022 · 13 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

By Mat Wahlstrom

Last Wednesday, February 2, the Fourth Appellate Court of California certified as precedent its judgment on appeal of the Bankers Hill 150 v. City of San Diego lawsuit. The result, if left unchallenged, effectively strikes down all community plans throughout the state, along with the ability of cities or citizens to challenge whatever developers want to build, if projects include token and time-delimited ‘affordable’ units.

Going beyond consideration of the actual plan-centered merits argued by both plaintiffs and the city regarding just the 20-story 6th & Olive project, the court leapfrogged over both to invoke the state’s Density Bonus Law as trumping these deliberations and — at the urging of the Building Industry Association and the developer, Greystar — to establish its interpretation as precedent.

It’s such an earth-shattering reversal that the City of San Diego — which won — specifically asked the court *not* to go forward with it.

First approved in 1979 and modified several times since, the Density Bonus Law spells out a complex gamut of “incentives or concessions” governments must allow based on the mix of percentage levels of ‘affordable’ housing that is claimed to be provided. As each project requests different incentives or concessions, the approval process has heretofore been done on a case-by-case basis.

The 6th & Olive project replaced a naturally affordable two-story, 16-unit apartment building with a 223’ luxury/mixed-use tower of 204 dwelling units, of which 18 are deed restricted as affordable for 55 years. In exchange, the developer claimed several density bonus allowances, including zero setback from the street along Olive, 57 more units than zoned, and height above the 65’ overlay limit. And the city claimed that this was “consistent with the goals and policies of the General Plan and the Uptown Community Plan.”

The Bankers Hill 150 case was filed in part to answer the simple question of whether interpretations of guidelines per community plans, such as for setbacks, zoned density, height limits, etc., are objective or subjective.

And in fact, the city itself said they were only briefed on, that is argued their case on, plan interpretations not the Density Bonus Law.

But the appellate court gave only superficial attention to this question, instead using it as a pretext to get at what they really wanted to decide: “When a developer meets the requirements of the Density Bonus Law, a local government is obligated to permit increased building density, grant incentives, and waive any conflicting local development standards unless certain limited exceptions apply.” (Emphasis added.)

In other words, unless a “city can establish it would not result in identifiable and actual cost reductions to provide for affordable housing costs,” the appellate court would limit exceptions for every other criteria to just three: “that doing so (1) would have ‘a specific, adverse impact…upon public health and safety,’ (2) would have an adverse impact on any historic resource, or (3) would be contrary to state or federal law.”

(They also note recent changes removed ‘physical environment’ as an impact category from public health and safety, showing how the legislature has further whittled away local control.)

Going forward, the appellate court has affirmed any developer in the state claiming a density bonus on a project is free from *all* local planning constraints. And any municipality or community voice objecting to them bears a burden of proof under eviscerated terms.

What’s lost in the privileging of this one law are all the literally hundreds of other statutes governing general and community plans, the citizen structures empowered by them, and the mandate of the state to ensure orderly planning and land use.

No wonder the Building Industry Association pushed for this as precedent; and why San Diego and the other 478 members of the League of California Cities are against it.

There is a terrible truth revealed by this decision. It lays bare the stage machinery both sides have manipulated to parlay their pet schemes — but now would take public hands off the control levers.

Will this be the final tipping point against the developers’ regulatory capture of all three branches of state? Or will this be the final capitulation of the state to capital?

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Page February 8, 2022 at 1:11 pm

Very informative, Mat, good piece. I read about this some days ago but your article fleshed it out for me. I just hope there is the opportunity to appeal this decision and they do appeal it, if so.


Helen Rowe Allen (Dr/Ms/Esq) February 8, 2022 at 1:56 pm

Sloppy work, ruling by the court above, SHAME.


Mat Wahlstrom February 8, 2022 at 2:30 pm

Thanks, Geoff — that’s exactly why I wrote it. Both the U-T and VoSD inaccurately framed this as a density issue rather than a planning issue, and gave short shrift to the implications of the appellate court’s decision.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has suspected that this understanding of the consequences of the Density Bonus Law has been an open secret among developers and electeds. It certainly can be seen when public officials just go through the motions and feign concern in rote performances at land use hearings, only to sigh in resignation as they vote as they knew they were legally obligated all along.

If so, this makes a mockery of our supposedly open government and the citizens who have been duped into wasting their time for no higher purpose than to provide a veneer of legitimacy for a confidence game.


Kathryn Burton February 8, 2022 at 4:02 pm

We need an amendment to the California Constitution to protect local community control against the avarice of development.


Octavian April 24, 2022 at 12:38 pm

That’s basically how CEQA functions now


Kathryn Burton February 8, 2022 at 4:04 pm

Mat, have you seen this article? “Inside Game: California YIMBY, Scott Wiener, and Big Tech’s Troubling Housing Push – Housing Is A Human Right.” More relevant than ever for San Diego.


Mat Wahlstrom February 8, 2022 at 4:17 pm

Most definitely. An excellent introduction to YIMBY and the big money behind Big Real Estate.


Frank Gormlie February 8, 2022 at 4:43 pm

Thank you Mat for raising this important issue / case. Here’s the court’s final decision:
“… City Council made adequate findings that the evidence in the record demonstrates that the Project is consistent with the applicable policies found in the General Plan, Uptown Community Plan, and Land Development Code. Moreover, even if the Project is inconsistent with the standards set forth in those plans, the City was nevertheless compelled to approve the Project under the Density Bonus Law based on the record before us.”


Mat Wahlstrom February 8, 2022 at 6:08 pm

Most welcome. As you note, it’s right there in the double-spaced text, so again how both the U-T and VoSD missed the lede entirely is, charitably speaking, mystifying.


Lisa Mortensen February 13, 2022 at 1:56 pm

Thanks, Matt. At what point to we have government control that infringes on private property rights; are there any stated property rights anymore?

We, long time community residents of this City are being ignored. Why do we not have a voice anymore and how can that be legal in land use law in California? All the City does is name call the minute we ask for a seat at the table to understand what a developer is proposing and make suggestions. As prices go up up and away, why does the developer’s profit margin remain sacrosanct?

Unfortunately, even if we can get Todd out after one term, these land use decisions will be a permanent scare on this city and will be irreversible. Remember the Ray Huffman 6-packs in North Park? The community never recovered, high density, limited street parking and diminished values to those surrounding residents who paid their taxes and maintained their homes.


Mat Wahlstrom February 13, 2022 at 3:23 pm

Because if they ignore or tick-off an individual voter, politicians only lose one vote. But if they ignore or tick-off a developer, well, they lose the money they get from them to pay for lots of votes. And if this means helping Big Real Estate go on a smash-and-grab looting of our city, so be it.

It’s nothing personal — just the simple, cold calculus of self-interest.


Lisa Mortensen February 13, 2022 at 7:47 pm

I agree completely.


Mat Wahlstrom August 12, 2022 at 8:30 am

Now that they’re finally open for business, the masks are off about this project ever being about providing affordable housing:

“Developers and city officials Thursday celebrated the opening of 525 Olive, a $100.2 million luxury apartment building with panoramic views of Balboa Park, downtown and the bay.

At 20 stories in its elevated Bankers Hill location, the complex is the highest residential building in San Diego with rents starting at $2,440 per month [for a 533 sq ft studio], according to the Charleston, South Carolina-based real estate developer Greystar.”


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