Promotional signs hanging from the awning of Hillcrest's Sambuca Italian Bistro pitch lobster on Tuesdays, discounted pasta plates on Wednesdays and 1-cent drinks (with purchase of any entrée) on Mondays. The restaurant occupies a high-profile location in the Hillcrest core near the southwest corner of University and Fourth avenues, sharing one of those abominations of urban planning, the mini strip mall, with a chain sandwich shop, a drycleaners and a small Asian-fusion eatery, all set back behind a small parking lot. To the west, on the other side of a public alleyway, is the University Avenue Orthopaedic Medical Group building, a squat and obscenely unattractive abandoned edifice. The medical building pretty much strips the block of any shred of vitality that the next-door restaurants might generate on the south side of University Avenue.
Across the street is a different story altogether. The Bread & Cie Bakery, Peet's Coffee and Hamburger Mary's restaurant and bar keep the north side energized with disposable-income-spending foot traffic all day long. Hamburger Mary's is an institution here, a gay-friendly joint that seems to be packed with patrons long into the evening almost every day of the week, with boisterous crowds living it up amid the thumping music.
On the north side, Hamburger Mary's links Hillcrest's commercial center with the last few storefronts to the west before University snakes into Mission Hills. Across the street, the medical building is an obstacle between the commercial center and another strip of businesses between Third and First avenues.
Bruce Leidenberger and Michael McPhee of the La Jolla Pacific Development Group want to equalize things and make a few bucks in the process. They've bought the parcels on either side of the alley in hopes of demolishing the strip mall and the medical building and replacing them with a 12-story, mixed-use building containing 96 condominiums, ground-floor commerce and five layers of public (subterranean) and private (above ground) parking.
The project's been in the works for three years, conceived as a 51-unit condo building replacing only the medical building. But it grew after a series of meetings with community and business representatives revealed a desire for additional public parking. Zoned for 80 units, the inclusion of four units priced for people making very low incomes bought the developers an additional 16 market-rate units.
The structure, which looks like it would feel right at home amongst the new condo towers in Little Italy, would be massive, dwarfing everything around it. The only buildings comparable in height and bulk nearby are Hillcrest's medical buildings a few blocks to the north and some brand new condo complexes to the south in Bankers Hill. While some of the neighborhood business interests are pacified by the developer's promise to provide the public parking they'd long yearned for, other community leaders are horrified by the hugeness of the thing-how it'll impact the immediate neighborhood and what it portends for the future.
The project's critics are circulating an electronic petition and organizing a show of force for July 18, when the City Council is scheduled to vote on it. So too are its supporters. The City Council will be asked to grapple with a formidable foe that'll be reappearing with increasing frequency: the struggle between the pressure to build infill housing in the city's urbanized areas and the backlash from citizens who say their neighborhoods weren't built for that kind of density.
It's the argument that arose as the city debated the City of Villages urban-planning concept a few years back: "Smart growth" means creating neighborhood clusters that encourage pedestrianism and stimulate public transportation. But what good is the idea if people can't leave their cars at home because the city has a woeful transit system and not nearly enough money to fix it?
The Hillcrest project is the kind of dense development along a transit corridor envisioned by the City of Villages, but the San Diego Trolley doesn't serve Uptown directly, only the buses that rumble noisily down University Avenue do-and people who can afford the prices these condos will fetch generally don't ride buses. Plenty of amenities are within walking distance of the site, but residents will hop into their cars when they want to leave Hillcrest, which will further burden the two-lane section of University this project would front. Already, traffic backs up in the intersections of Sixth and University, Fifth and University and Fourth and University. During the lunch hour last Friday, Hillcrest was crammed with cars; on Robinson Avenue, a line of eastbound autos stretched for four blocks.
"I don't disagree with you. There is a traffic problem there," said Leidenberger, the developer, noting, however, that while it's true that the project would certainly increase traffic, an environmental study determined that the "peak traffic counts and the cumulative traffic impact does not degrade the intersection rating, and the net new [average daily trips] created by the project is well below the city threshold of 1,000 ADTs.
"I'm not a traffic engineer," Leidenberger said. "These guys go to school to do this stuff."
City staff determined that the project would not require a full environmental review, just a document called a "mitigated negative declaration," which identifies environmental impacts in a more cursory way and proposes ways to avoid them. But on Tuesday, the city attorney's office sent a memo to the City Council saying the document lacks sufficient information in support of its conclusions. The memo recommends the council deny the project pending further environmental review.
In April, the San Diego Planning Commission certified the mitigated negative declaration when it voted to recommend approval of the development by the City Council. Planning Commissioner Carolyn Chase said she could have gone either way with this "smart growth" urban-infill project.
The question, Chase said, is, "How smart is it? Is it a village? Or does it ruin the village?" Chase leans ever so slightly toward the former.
The "rub," Chase said, is that "smart growth is supposed to mean transit-oriented development, but since the transit system is lousy, what we get is just more growth and, in this case, more parking-and if you go to the area, you have to agree that more parking will allow more business for local restaurants and businesses."
For Chase, big buildings aren't necessarily bad buildings. And this one, she said, is designed well enough so that it won't ruin the village. It was a close call when it came time to vote, but what swayed her is that it's replacing an empty shell on one of the parcels and will inject economic vitality-more people spending money and a few new places to spend it.
But economic revitalization doesn't overcome the traffic problems, said Steve Satz, a member of the Uptown Planners community group who said no to the project in an advisory vote last September. "I am not opposed to density in this area, and being from the Northeast right outside of Manhattan, I am also not opposed to high rises." But, he added, "the City Council promised us two years ago that there would be no further densification of Uptown until our public transportation issues had been addressed. We simply cannot have this area full of mid to high rises without proper planning."
If the City Council approves the project, Satz wants the public-parking component to be written in stone as a condition of approval. Otherwise, he said, it wouldn't be too difficult for the builder, citing burdensome costs, to downsize or eliminate the public parking.
Not to worry, says Leidenberger, the developer, who said that the public parking "is such a significant part of the project, we wouldn't be able to deviate from that when we submit our construction drawings to the city Building Department for our building permit."
Two weeks ago, CityBeat met with City Councilmember Toni Atkins at Peet's Coffee, directly across the street from the Sambuca restaurant. As she approached the coffeehouse, a group of three patrons sitting outside Bread & Cie greeted her and expressed their opposition to the development, and two patrons at Peet's did the same before a reporter could even start asking her questions.
"I think this sort of is the crux of what the community is dealing with," she said, "in terms of the types of development that you're starting to see in Hillcrest [and the rest of] Uptown."
Despite the Uptown Planners' 6-4 vote in favor of a finding that the project's bulk and scale takes it out of conformance with the Uptown Community Plan, Mary Wright, an Uptown project manager for the city, says it doesn't. "We feel that the project clearly conforms to the community plan," she said. And that's the way Atkins understands it, but she doesn't know which way she'll vote.
Atkins said residents and community leaders were sort of lulled by the lack of dense development throughout the 1990s. "The development occurred in the '70s and '80s," she said, "and then it sort of shut down. And now we're starting to see it come back, and now you're having the reaction from communities."
Atkins, like many others, would like to see the Uptown plan, which was last amended in 1988, updated again. "Given recent community input," she said, "we are pushing to work with the mayor's office and city staff to look at the community plan in Uptown because I think this discussion is just going to get louder and broader. You've seen it on a number of projects.
"This gets into the issue of deferred maintenance. It gets into the issue of infrastructure," Atkins added. "And what do you do on those issues, particularly when you've got a community plan that allows the density." The last time the city totaled up its deferred maintenance was in 2003, when the deficit was $372.5 million. Others have estimated the deficit to be closer to $2 billion. Mayoral spokesperson Fred Sainz said a new inventory would be taken soon.
Like Chase, Atkins is frustrated by the snail's pace of regional public-transit planning. "You're only going to get us out of the cars if we have a real transit system," she said, "and that's not today. It's not even tomorrow, or next year-because we have the barrier of regional leaders thinking it's OK to build roads versus putting the money into public transit."
But then there's the pressure on city officials to reach housing goals. According to a 2003 report by the city's Affordable Housing Task Force, San Diego needs roughly 8,400 new housing units annually to keep pace with population growth.
"I mean, 18 stories or six, and if you're going to do six, how do you move it around to get the [housing] numbers you're required to get, and that's a hard discussion to have, because it means that maybe we end up [increasing density in] Mission Hills, which nobody wants to do," Atkins said. "I don't."