(888) 277-4253

Voice of San Diego: Stuck in the middle with University Heights

(This article originally appeared HERE in Voice of San Diego.)

The future look and feel of University Heights could come down to where the city decides to draw an imaginary line.

The historic mid-city neighborhood has long been split in two for the purposes of the city’s community plan areas, the large sections of the city that outline future growth at the local level.

Uptown, a community plan area that includes Hillcrest, Bankers Hill and Mission Hills, controls University Heights’ western edge. But its eastern areas fall in the Greater North Park planning area.

For years there’s been discussion over whether the neighborhood should be unified into a single planning area — or whether it should get its own — but the conversation heated up two weeks ago when representatives of the planning areas learned Mayor Bob Filner had chosen a side.

Filner’s administration has given the city’s development and planning staff instructions to redraw the boundary line of the Uptown planning area to include the entire University Heights neighborhood.

“[University Heights'] motivation is they want to be in one planning area,” said Vicki Granowitz, chair of the North Park Planning Committee. “We’ve offered to take on the smaller portion, but Uptown is where they’d prefer to be.”

“They have been very adamant about coming to Uptown,” said Leo Wilson, chair of the Uptown Planners. “We’ve said if they want to come in, we’ll take them. It’s a wonderful community, but it’s very difficult to plan for when your main street is divided like Berlin.”

But moving the invisible Uptown boundary from Park Boulevard a few blocks east to Texas Street could have citywide implications.

Each planning group is responsible for recommending to the city how it wants to handle issues like residential density in the coming years.

So far, Uptown has put together its community-wide recommendation largely by deferring to individual neighborhoods.

“We have more respect for neighborhood autonomy in Uptown,” Wilson said.

The current proposals for Uptown’s new community plan call for downzoning — or reducing density— in multiple areas.

“I think once Uptown Planners has all of this area, you will see more requests for downzoning,” Granowitz said.

Rhett Butler, a member of the Uptown Planners and the University Heights Community Association, supports unifying University Heights within Uptown and rejects the idea that it would make downzoning more likely.

“I think there are definitely factions of groups in University Heights that want downzoning, and I’m completely opposed to it,” he said.

He said the move is motivated by the fact that some Uptown neighborhoods have more in common with University Heights than North Park does.

“That group is dominated by people with the best interests of North Park in mind,” he said. “There are pretty strong personalities on all boards, but North Park with their new chair has an especially strong personality.”

But there is some evidence that Uptown could be more amenable to downzoning in University Heights.

In May, Chris Ward, a member of the Uptown Planners, and Kristin Harms, of the University Heights Historical Society, held a community forum to discuss outstanding land use issues with University Heights residents.

They surveyed attendees, and wrote up resident preferences in a memo. That survey found that residents favor lowering density in certain areas, or keeping density as-is in areas where the city wants it raised.

Indeed, there may be more support for plans to maintain current density. The University Heights Community Association voted to do just that two months ago.

But the survey conducted at the forum recommended downzones for portions of University Heights already in the Uptown area. Based on the survey, the Uptown Planners last month adopted many of those suggestions.

If the planning group votes to downzone the western edge of El Cajon Boulevard, for example, those plans would contradict the city’s general plan, its broad blueprint for future growth.

It would also fly in the face of many of the principles supported by Bill Fulton, the city’s newly hired planning director.

The new bus rapid transit line, a high-frequency bus service meant to mimic the convenience of rail transit, runs along El Cajon Boulevard, from College Area into downtown.

The general plan calls for concentrating new housing development along transit corridors, to reduce the city’s dependence on automobiles by fostering demand for transit, and to connect housing and work opportunities affordably. Downzoning there would mean less housing in precisely the place where the city envisions housing growth.

“Part of this process, at least arguably, is that there’s a group that takes the view that they don’t want higher density, and don’t like affordable housing,” said Omar Passons, a member of the North Park Planners Committee.

It’s possible the University Heights residents won’t push for decreased density, as Butler says, despite the concerns of the North Park planning group.

And even if they do, it might not matter, since city planners have final say on writing the community plan.

But if University Heights’ residents’ desire for decreased density does influence the new community plans, Filner will once again face the tension between two of his stated priorities: creating a sustainable urban area with viable transit opportunities, and supporting the wishes of neighborhoods.

But Granowitz hasn’t given up on persuading Filner that the Uptown boundary shouldn’t be redrawn.

“We still believe the mayor doesn’t have the full story,” she said. “Nobody has ever listened to us. We’re hoping the mayor will be open to being the first person to listen to the other side.”

I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.