Who’s Paying for the Plan Hillcrest Giveaway to Developers?

by on April 11, 2022 · 13 comments

in San Diego

By Mat Wahlstrom

Documents uncovered (as a result of prevailing in a lawsuit filed in 2021 in a California Public Records Act request) indicate the City of San Diego secretly partnered with major property owners to implement their chosen code changes and upzone (read: increase land values) not only for nine blocks in the historic Hillcrest core, but almost the entirety of Hillcrest and Medical Complex — and to use public funds to subsidize their efforts.

The result is the city’s current Plan Hillcrest project, which mandates these two neighborhoods absorb 80% of all new development in the six neighborhoods of Uptown.

Approved in November 2016 over public outcry and objections by Uptown Planners, the official community planning group, the current Uptown plan left unresolved the status of the area around the Hillcrest sign.

This included a proposed historic district for the Hillcrest core and the planned build-out for approximately 10,000 more units for all of Uptown — with Hillcrest accounting for almost two-thirds of this total. [See chart with city-provided numbers below.]

So instead the city punted.

They approved a delay presented by a group of major Hillcrest property owners, who organized under the name Gateway, to keep this core out and instead for the city to call for a specific plan to be drawn up for public input at a later date.

Gateway’s foremost goals were to eliminate height restrictions of any kind, to create an entirely new zone classification that would allow for 218 dwelling units per acre, and allowances for floor area ratios of 5.7 — that is, living units of only 200 square feet.

This was the last the general public or the board of Uptown Planners was informed about decisions regarding any specific plan for this area until November 2019, when Plan Hillcrest was first mentioned; and not until March 2020 were outsiders made aware that it would now apply to 400 acres instead of 11 acres. (For comparison, the entire Uptown planning area covers 2,700 acres.)

What exactly happened in the years between is still a mystery. What we know so far is the following:

In June 2017, Planning Director Jeff Murphy sent a letter [see attached — original is a link in an email inside this link] to The Atlantis Group, lead lobbyist for Gateway at the time, offering a “public/private partnership” with these property owners to accomplish an accompanying list of “goals.” (Although both a draft MOU with edits and a final MOU were dated April 2017.)

These goals adopt Gateway’s vision for development now being proposed under Plan Hillcrest. But in exchange, they assigned to the property owners the obligation to pay for providing consultants to the city and for the public outreach.

Yet in January 2019, Councilmember Chris Ward asked for $1M to “fund the outreach and development of the Gateway Specific Plan” in his FY2020 list of budget priorities, as “funding for this effort has not been provided.” Requests for information at the time about the origins of this ask and the results if any still remain unanswered; and a full release of records for the final cost is still pending.

Also in 2019, the city successfully applied for a “Local Early Action Planning” or LEAP grant under SB 2 of $1.5M to help fund Plan Hillcrest, as well as offset the city’s costs for current community plan updates, etc. However, Hillcrest is the only one of the six projects that earmarks money to reopen a plan rather than pay for a plan update.

Under the terms of this grant, the city is legally obligated to increase entitlements for development of approximately 14,000 units (page 11) in Uptown, 11,000 of them in the 400 acres in Plan Hillcrest.

Until the 2020 census figures are available, as of 2010, there were 23,000 existing housing units in all of Uptown.

Two weeks ago, another CPRA lawsuit was filed against the city, as it continues to refuse to identify who is paying the third-party contractors co-hosting the Plan Hillcrest public meetings, producing the presentation materials, leading the public outreach — and helping write the plan.

The need for the public to know the answers to these questions is increasingly critical.

Today, April 11, at midnight is the deadline for participation in the Plan Hillcrest ‘maptionnaire’ survey. This survey allows anyone anywhere in the world — including readers of the OB Rag — to make black box decisions on height and mobility, as the choices are presented without reference to any ‘build-out’ numbers or allowed densities that would entail.

I encourage everyone to at look at the survey to verify this for themselves. And if anyone is so inclined as to participate, there is at least the option to write in your own alternatives — even ‘none of the above.’

Until the city finally shows its cards, we need to stop playing their game.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Mat Wahlstrom April 11, 2022 at 10:55 am

The question in Hillcrest of what build-out numbers are legally required by having LEAP grant funding for planning has citywide implications, as money from this grant is being used for the Clairemont, College, Mira Mesa, and University community plan updates, as well as to help underwrite the project environmental impact report for Transity Priority Areas.


Helen Rowe Allen Dr/Ms/Esq April 11, 2022 at 11:07 am

Mat Wahlstrom has been watching and waiting for these answers for years. Today he has them. And So Do We


Mat Wahlstrom April 11, 2022 at 1:00 pm

Some, but not all. In addition to needing to know who is paying the third-party contractor running the show, still waiting to find out who authorized Jeff Murphy to send that offer letter and Memo of Understanding in the first place and what “public/private partnerships agreements” resulted?

And the biggest question of all is: what will happen once everything does become known? Will there be any consequences for electeds making deals with their donors to literally write their own rules? It’s a scandal that manifests what I wrote about pay-for-play upzoning in Los Angeles by an order of magnitude, https://obrag.org/2021/12/upzoning-the-developers-long-con-of-californians/.


Kate Callen April 11, 2022 at 11:28 am

The scale of corruption in this city is staggering. We are indebted to citizen-researchers like Mat and Neighbors for a Better San Diego for digging out the facts and putting them in plain sight. Now we have to start the necessary work to recruit candidates, marshal support, and vote out all incumbents in 2024. Because if they get re-elected, they will be emboldened to do far worse.


Mat Wahlstrom April 11, 2022 at 11:40 am

Absolutely agree — and thank you, Kate!


Chris April 11, 2022 at 3:24 pm

It is but it’s been that way for decades. I have two retired attorneys in my family for worked for the city of SD since the 80s up through about two years ago. Corruption was so common and normal it didn’t even register a blip on the shock radar. Even Mike Aguirre had some baggage. A friend of mine worked in the Mayor’s office when Sanders was Mayor and he had some colorful yet disturbing stories. He finally grew a conscience and quite. Corruption and San Diego go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Probably the same in many large cities.


Geoff Page April 12, 2022 at 12:29 pm

I think there are many cities like ours if there is a potential for making a lot of money. In San Diego, the valuables are land, life in this climate, and tourists. City bureaucrats are no match for people with the kind of money who exploit those valuables. I think there are many cities that don’t have out-sized valuables and would be less corrupt. But, would we want to live there?


Mat Wahlstrom April 12, 2022 at 3:27 pm

This is my concern: that the corruption has become so pervasive with each swindle unpunished, emboldening the perpetrators, that we despair of ever getting justice or even trying…


sealintheselkirks April 12, 2022 at 11:49 am

I don’t know if anyone has read Cipola’s Five Universal Laws of Human Stupidity but San Diego has definitely always had the bandits in control (just ask the native people!) mixed in with a mish-mash of stupid. And greedy which I think IS a form of stupid that isn’t truly recognized for just how massively destructive to a society they are.

So packing ’em in like sardines are they? That’s what these people do, and they own the politicians who write the regulations for them to be able to do it. Bribery is called ‘campaign funding’ but some of us have never been fooled. What it comes down to is that the wealthy always get their way. Which is why societies ruled by these types always, and I mean ALWAYS, collapse. That’s a historical reality.


The sociopaths and psychopaths are the turds in the toilet bowl floating to the top. An existential failing of our species I’m afraid.

And Chris, please never disparage peanut butter and chocolate again! Fat-filled turds in the potty water is much more appropriate. And yes you POS politicians, I’m talking about YOU.



Daniel Smith April 13, 2022 at 4:08 pm

Matt, this exact same thing is happening right now in the College Area! Word for word as you have written it! Please check out https://www.plancollegearea.org/ It is the same survey shoving two plans down our throats that we don’t want or need. It can also be taken as many times as you want and it doesn’t matter if you are a resident of the neighborhood, city, state, or even country! The survey ends May 1st, 2022 but the results will be announced April 27,2022. How does that work!?


Daniel Smith April 13, 2022 at 4:24 pm

Mat, not Matt, sorry. I was rage typing on my phone.


Mat Wahlstrom April 13, 2022 at 5:22 pm

No need to apologize, Daniel — rage over what’s happening is totally understandable. They’ve become lazy about even trying to pretend that the fix isn’t in and that these biased surveys represent genuine public input. No one likes to be patronized, especially when it involves decisions that impact where and how they live.


Pat April 16, 2022 at 8:32 am

I totally agree with you, Mat, and all the posters. It’s very worrisome to have a clique of a few people running the City of over a million. We need to vote out the strong mayor form of government. And, we the people need to stop voting for a smiling face, that seems to be “on the take” and catering to the developers who support their next election campaigns. Vote every incumbent OUT. And we need to do it in every election until they’re gone. Then we need to pay attention to the track record of the incoming candidates and ask them how they intend to make their promises happen. The current in all levels of politics make open ended promises, they have no was of keeping. Ask them how they plan to keep those promises they make. A dot to dot plan and don’t let them loose you in double speaking. Lot’s of words twisted so they don’t mean anything.


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