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Hillcrest high-rise touted as model, but critics worry about community character

ByDavid Garrick- June 12, 2018

Supporters of a seven-story apartment building recently approved for central Hillcrest are calling it a model for solving San Diego’s housing crisis.

It will include 111 units built on less than an acre, it’s located near major roads such as state Route 163 and it’s within walking distance of high-paying jobs and amenities such as restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses.

Critics, however, call the project a “sunblocker” that is too dense and will damage community character, worsen traffic congestion and create a “tunnel effect” with other nearby high-rises.

The Planning Commission, which gave the project unanimous final approval two weeks ago, essentially decided the city’s need for more housing in ideal spots outweighs some drawbacks of the project’s design.

“What we have here is a trade-off,” Commissioner Bill Hofman said.

Commissioner Doug Austin agreed with Hofman that the positives outweigh the negatives.

“The need for housing in this area is acute,” he said. “I think it’s a perfect area -- it’s walkable and there are a lot of amenities there.”

Supporters have also touted that nine of the 111 units in the project – dubbed Hillcrest 111 by developer Greystar – are reserved for people with incomes classified as very low: less than $39,000 for a two-person household.

Those low-income units and some other characteristics of the project, such as its location near multiple bus routes, got the developer a density bonus allowing construction of 35 percent more units than zoning allows.

That additional density, however, is the primary concern of a small group of opponents who call themselves Uptown United and say their goal is preserving community character in the neighborhoods between Old Town and North Park.

“We do support affordable housing, but we don’t think that means throwing all design guidelines out the window,” Uptown United leader Tom Mullaney told the Planning Commission. “I think it’s a travesty.”

Mullaney says Hillcrest 111 could be so much better for the community with just a few tweaks, such as an outdoor area for pets, fewer housing units and wider sidewalks.

He says the bulk and scale of the project is particularly problematic where it borders Seventh Avenue, which is narrower than most of the major streets in San Diego where high-rises have been built.

City planning officials note that there are several other high-rise buildings in Hillcrest, including twin 15-story residential towers located approximately 1,000 feet south of where Hillcrest 111 will be built.

The project is planned for a parking lot at 635 Robinson Avenue that’s now used by AT&T employees. The site is three blocks west of SR-163 between University Avenue and Balboa Park.

It will be a 136,816-square-foot development with 4,800 square feet of ground-floor commercial space and 190 underground parking spaces. It will vary in height from six to seven stories, with the tallest point of the project being 84 feet above street level.

City officials have begun encouraging such projects in recent years with median home prices well over $500,000 and a typical two-bedroom apartment renting for about $2,000 a month.

An array of Hillcrest community leaders support the project.

Sharon Gehl of the Hillcrest Community Development Corporation told the Planning Commission the project will provide crucial housing near the community’s business district and its two hospitals, which employ hundreds of highly paid workers.

Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of the 1,200-member Hillcrest Business Association, said merchants need more customers who live nearby.

“We need housing in Hillcrest,” he said. “We do not see the kind of robust development of thriving neighborhoods like North Park, Little Italy or the East Village.”

Uptown United’s opposition to the project is also based on city officials not requiring the developer to conduct a comprehensive analysis of its potential effects on traffic and other environmental issues.

Everett Delano, an Escondido attorney representing the group, said by phone on Tuesday that no decision has been made about whether to file a lawsuit that could delay the project.

Vicki Granowitz, another member of the Planning Commission, noted that the developer must build new left-turn lanes at 7th and Robinson in both directions.

‘I think that’s going to make a big difference,”' said Granowitz, who lives in North Park.

A spokeswoman for the developer said ground will be broken on the project in about two months, with completion expected in summer 2020.


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