Pacific Beach Town Council listens to opponent of city’s housing density plan

the Pacific Beach welcome sign
(Elizabeth Marie Himchak)

As the San Diego City Council considers allowing drastically higher housing density this autumn, one opponent seeking to rally support against the measure found some like-minded individuals in Pacific Beach.

Many of the estimated 50 attendees at the Pacific Beach Town Council’s July 19 meeting were already on board when Geoff Hueter, chair of Neighbors for a Better San Diego, gave his presentation.

He picked apart the various stipulations of Senate Bill 10 to demonstrate that if the state legislation is adopted within the city’s proposed Housing Action Package 2.0, the likely results would accomplish the opposite of the bill’s intentions.

“Often, the details can contradict outright what the purpose of something is,” Hueter said. “When that happens, we need to just say no, put it back on the drawing board and come up with another solution.”

Enacted in 2021 to address the state’s affordable housing crisis, SB 10 permits cities to bypass local zoning regulations as well as California Environmental Quality Act and other reviews to fast track projects. This would allow building up to 10 residential units on single-family lots near mass transit centers.

Under the San Diego proposal, properties located a mile from existing and future transit sites would meet the criteria, meaning almost half of the city’s housing stock would qualify, Hueter said.

The plan could see three-story buildings totaling 15,000 square feet with minimal setbacks and without allotments for parking on single-family parcels that average about 5,000 square feet in San Diego, according to Hueter.

“What’s the most expensive city in the United States?” Hueter asked. “It’s New York City. What’s the most expensive city in California? It’s San Francisco. If up-zoning and densification made housing affordable, those would be the two most affordable places I could name. It just doesn’t work that way.”

To meet current and future requirements under the state Regional Housing Needs Allocation, San Diego needs to identify sites for 108,000 new homes.

However, community plan updates have already determined locations for 175,000 more units, Hueter noted, with upcoming revisions from five communities to provide another estimated 150,000 to 200,000 units.

“We’re going to be at three times what our state requirement is,” Hueter said. “We don’t need another zoning change in order to create enough capacity to build more homes. We just need to build more homes.”

While the purpose of the city’s proposal is to flood the market with more housing supply to lower costs, Hueter claimed that developers and financiers will incorporate the potential for more units on each lot if the law passes, driving up the prices.

“This idea that this is going to promote ownership, it’s just not the way it’s going to work out,” he said. “So instead of a fixer-upper being $800,000 in Normal Heights, it’s $1.5 million because somebody’s already figured out that they’re going to be able to put one of these massive structures on it once SB 10 goes through. We’re actually pricing everybody out of being able to afford a home in San Diego.”

Since SB 10 is not mandatory, cities choose to opt in. Under SB 10 however, once adopted, cities cannot reverse that decision later, making the change permanent.

Hueter urged the audience to follow developments, to join upcoming rallies and protests, and to urge Councilmember Joe LaCava, who represents Pacific Beach, to vote against the measure.

“This was supposed to be a last resort for cities that couldn’t meet their housing requirements, not a first choice for a place like San Diego,” Hueter said.

If the legislation passes, Hueter said his organization is prepared to fight further, through the courts or by a ballot referendum.

“I can guarantee you we’ll prep for the lawsuit if the city wants to pass this because it’s not just the irreversibility but the fact that the state didn’t limit the scope of development,” he explained. “They needed to say what it was they were exempting from CEQA. There’s nothing to say that on one of these lots, you couldn’t put hundreds of people. How could they say that they exempted that from CEQA when they had no idea what it was?...The legal avenue is probably more of a slam dunk because the law itself is obviously flawed.”

In other topics, resident Patsy Kuczkowski asked whether any organization could assist in cleaning up the business district along Garnet Avenue.

“It’s gotten pretty grimy; gross,” Kuczkowski said. “I think a lot of us residents don’t even like to go down Garnet.”

PBTC member and PB Planning Board Chair Marcella Bothwell said the local business improvement district, Discover PB, is attempting to establish a maintenance improvement district. If there is a MAD, city crews can take on regular sidewalk power washings, bulk trash removal, graffiti abatement and more for an assessed fee on property tax bills of building owners.

The problem, according to Bothwell, is getting absentee property owners to approve levying the MAD fee upon themselves.

“The biggest hurdle for our community is the fact that many of these — not business owners, but the property owners — are like slumlords,” said PB Town Council President Charlie Nieto. “They’re far away and don’t really check up on how (their properties are) doing other than to collect their payments from the business owners. They don’t really care about the pride and historicity of the building.”

Bothwell also said the PB Library parking lot has been identified as a possible Safe Parking Lot program location, letting individuals living in vehicles stay overnight.

Karla Tirado, LaCava’s PB representative, asked attendees to suggest other locales in District 1 that are not necessarily in Pacific Beach.

“It’s in the back of our heads. It’s on the list. But at this point, I wouldn’t start worrying about it. It’s going to take awhile,” Bothwell said of the plan.