The Coastal Height Limit’s Legacy

The Coastal Height Limit’s Legacy

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Joshua Plumb builds sandcastles in front of the Capri by the Sea condominiums in Pacific Beach, where he stays with his family when visiting San Diego. The condo rises high above the height-restricted buildings along the coastline.

 

Since its early-’70s inception, San Diego’s coastal height limit has defined the look and feel of the city’s beach neighborhoods.

It’s praised for preserving ocean views and access, but in a city yearning to increase density to keep up with growth, it’s destined to draw continued scrutiny and development pressures.

Having celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2012, the coastal height limit has shaped San Diego’s beach neighborhoods, not only by eliminating the large, beach-blocking structures that inspired it, but by creating a uniform three-story townscape from Point Loma to La Jolla.

The citizen initiative, approved by more than 60 percent of city voters in 1972, restricts the height of all buildings west of I-5 to 30 feet. It withstood a battery of legal challenges and was finally put into effect in 1976.

It’s still popular in many of the affected communities — the OB Historical Society even held a celebration marking its anniversary — and with members of the planning boards in the coastal zone. The restriction has unmistakably succeeded in its explicit goal of maintaining ocean views.

But the law has its critics. Forty years in, it’s beginning to leave a distinct legacy.

Unobstructed Coasts

Support of a coastal height restriction began developing around the construction of the Capri by the Sea in Pacific Beach, a hotel with a broad footprint above a coastal bluff that towered more than 10 stories, and a condo development at 939 Coast Blvd. in La Jolla.

Those were the wake-up projects, according to Joe LaCava, chairman of the city of San Diego Community Planners Committee.

Now, the plan is hailed for preserving dramatic views and easy access to San Diego’s beaches. Miami’s skyscraper-dotted coastline is often cited as a cautionary tale of what might have been.

Rep. Scott Peters, who represents San Diego’s beach denizens, even wrote a column in a community newspaper five years ago crediting the height limit with preserving the city’s picturesque beach scenes, and proclaiming his dedication to defending it from any future threats.

“The city of San Diego has some of the most regulated coastal vistas and public access points in the United States,” he wrote. “Residents maintain a connection to the coast, even if they do not visit the beach, as it is clearly visible and a daily presence in the lives of many. It is not a walled-off and isolated place.”

Widespread access to the beach is worth whatever other costs are associated with it, said LaCava,

“The height limit hasn’t harmed anything near as much as people would like to believe, and the advantages it created were worthwhile,” he said.

The law has also created at least one positive, unintended consequence. Designers and architects often say limitations force creativity, and in this case that’s led to some of the city’s most distinct buildings built to satisfy the restriction, such as the Bird Rock home designed by architect Jonathan Segal, lemperle, which worked around the height limit by building a 2,000-square-foot subterranean level.

“In North Park, the best stuff is the old bungalows, but in the beaches, the best stuff is new,” said Howard Blackson, director of planning at Place Makers, a planning and design firm.

Housing Costs

Housing costs in the coastal zone (Point Loma, Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach and La Jolla) are among the city’s highest partly because of high demand. Allowing taller buildings would facilitate units and therefore push down housing costs.

Matthew Yglesias, in his book on high housing costs, “The Rent Is Too Damn High,” makes the case for axing height restrictions and other policies that temper density:

Counties, municipalities, states and everyone else involved in promulgating land-use regulations need to ease off on parking requirements, artificial constraints on lot size, height restrictions, etc. Very expensive urban areas need taller buildings. Their close-in suburbs need to urbanize, or may simply need smaller front lawns and fewer parking lots.

Although there hasn’t been a study that’s isolated the specific cost of San Diego’s height limit, there’s no question some of the region’s most expensive property exists within the coastal zone: The median price of a home in 2012 in those ZIP codes range from $650,000 in Ocean Beach to $1.3 million in La Jolla. The median sales price in the county through the first 11 months of 2012, meanwhile, was $205,000.

Of course, the beach communities are naturally valuable for the same reason they must adhere to a height restriction: They’re near the water.

It’d be unfair to claim the height limit gave beach properties their value, but basic supply and demand suggests more properties in the area would necessarily make living there more affordable.

“In [Pacific Beach] there’s so much demand, and the limit restricts what you can build, while the land value there wants you to go to a wood-frame podium with four to five stories,” said Blackson. “That’s what the money wants, but rules restrict you to townhouses or single-family detached, so you end up stacking in units that you can rent to every kid from Arizona.”

A Citizen Initiative

Because the coastal height limit was passed by citizen initiative, the City Council or relevant planning groups in the coastal zone can’t easily tweak the law.

Upping the limit to 35 feet, or exempting an area like the Sports Arena, can’t be done without the approval of San Diego voters.

That fundamental rigidity is one of the law’s emerging legacies.

“It’d be better if it wasn’t a hardline proposition, so you could tweak it without going to a vote of the people,” LaCava said. “It might extend too far in some areas and not far enough in others. If I could wave a magic wand, I’d say it’s a 34-foot limit to allow for architectural flexibility.”

Others question the wisdom of a uniform and arbitrary limit, rather than a range of story-based limits that create a varied townscape and recognize that the main street setting along Garnet Avenue has different demands than the area directly along the coast.

“You want to step down to the coast, because the coast we have, you have mesas and canyons above, and you want to keep mesas and canyons, that’s San Diego’s physical character,” Blackson said.

He’d prefer a restriction that allowed up to four stories on a main street setting, which would provide natural retail space on the ground floor and housing above.

But none of those changes can be made without voter approval. Instead of going through that expensive, uncertain process, developers instead have pushed for new interpretations of the letter of the law.

For that reason, threats to the law — real or perceived — have come in the form of changes to how the 30-foot limit is calculated or fears that updated community plans will lead to a weakened ordinance.

For instance, the 30-foot measurement had historically been measured 30 feet up from the lowest point on the property, according to Geoff Page, who sits on the Peninsula Community Planning Board. Now, he says, the city has revamped the municipal code in such a way that gives more leeway.

“Developers have never liked it,” he said. “They’ve always wanted to do something about it and they’ve done everything they can.”

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 and follow me on Twitter

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Andrew Keatts

Andrew Keatts

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.

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65 comments
Erik Bruvold
Erik Bruvold subscribermember

We are releasing a report later this month that will show what economics 101 predicts - that the advent of the height limit DRAMATICALLY shifted development away from the coast....whereas before the limit about 1 in every 4 new units added to the region occurred on the coast after the limit the proportion fell to one in 30 while the average age of structure in the area dramatically increased. Give it another 30 years and people will be seeing dilapidated housing stock - ESPECIALLY among the multi-family properties in the area. But hey, at least some of the commentators will have coastal view corridors....they will just have to ignore the slums they see in the foreground.

ErikBruvold
ErikBruvold

We are releasing a report later this month that will show what economics 101 predicts - that the advent of the height limit DRAMATICALLY shifted development away from the coast....whereas before the limit about 1 in every 4 new units added to the region occurred on the coast after the limit the proportion fell to one in 30 while the average age of structure in the area dramatically increased. Give it another 30 years and people will be seeing dilapidated housing stock - ESPECIALLY among the multi-family properties in the area. But hey, at least some of the commentators will have coastal view corridors....they will just have to ignore the slums they see in the foreground.

Bill Ingram
Bill Ingram subscriber

Woa, hold on there. The Development department has changed the way they measure the height of houses now. Apparently there is a datom line used from the front of the house to the back and if it is within 10 feet the building can go up another 30 feet. This means that older houses can be modified to about 40 feet, thus blocking views of homes . See house construction on Plum, between Newel and Macaulay. They are going up another 10 feet. (house is already @ 30). The contractors always try to get around what the people have voted for and the spirit of the law. If you give them even 1 inch, they will interpret that they can go as high as they want. Clasic example of Sunroads building by Montgomery field. The original height limit was 47 feet. Look how big it is now. Cynthia and Dan are right/

Chili Willy
Chili Willy

Woa, hold on there. The Development department has changed the way they measure the height of houses now. Apparently there is a datom line used from the front of the house to the back and if it is within 10 feet the building can go up another 30 feet. This means that older houses can be modified to about 40 feet, thus blocking views of homes . See house construction on Plum, between Newel and Macaulay. They are going up another 10 feet. (house is already @ 30). The contractors always try to get around what the people have voted for and the spirit of the law. If you give them even 1 inch, they will interpret that they can go as high as they want. Clasic example of Sunroads building by Montgomery field. The original height limit was 47 feet. Look how big it is now. Cynthia and Dan are right/

Geoff Page
Geoff Page subscribermember

ting grade. This meant that no part of the building would exceed 30 feet from grade. This needs to be investigated in better detail.

GeoffPage
GeoffPage

ting grade. This meant that no part of the building would exceed 30 feet from grade. This needs to be investigated in better detail.

Frances O'Neill Zimmerman
Frances O'Neill Zimmerman

The southern coast of Spain was utterly destroyed by helter-skelter unregulated building of tall apartment blocks; the once-exquisite beach outside the Hague, a La Jolla-like capital city of the Netherlands, is a shocking hodge-podge of high-rise apartments and honky-tonk development. We need to appreciate what we've got here, and protect it.

Erik Bruvold
Erik Bruvold subscribermember

I understand the value of the HL. But it is FAR preferable from an environmental standpoint to grow in the coastal zone than put the additional 600,000 to 800,000 people coming to the region by 2050 to the East of the County Water Authority line.

ErikBruvold
ErikBruvold

I understand the value of the HL. But it is FAR preferable from an environmental standpoint to grow in the coastal zone than put the additional 600,000 to 800,000 people coming to the region by 2050 to the East of the County Water Authority line.

Ed Martin
Ed Martin subscribermember

Things are different in PB. They aren't ideal, but they're not too bad, all things considered. Taller buildings, increased density, parking restrictions, and light rail are a solution looking for a problem. Enough is enough. Please find another community to 'fix'. How about Imperial Beach? Nice grid. Or Coronado? Perfect!

PB Observer
PB Observer

Things are different in PB. They aren't ideal, but they're not too bad, all things considered. Taller buildings, increased density, parking restrictions, and light rail are a solution looking for a problem. Enough is enough. Please find another community to 'fix'. How about Imperial Beach? Nice grid. Or Coronado? Perfect!

Cindy Conger
Cindy Conger subscriber

That's WHY Nat'l. Assoc. of REALTORS, named their Magazine, "On Common Ground" to promote what 'Smart Growth' was Supposed to be!

Wake Up San Diego
Wake Up San Diego

That's WHY Nat'l. Assoc. of REALTORS, named their Magazine, "On Common Ground" to promote what 'Smart Growth' was Supposed to be!

Cindy Conger
Cindy Conger subscriber

After watching 6 years of projects as Chair of a Planning board & many more after & before- wonderful 'creative designs' developed 'within the rules' or with only miniscule changes to the 'rules', there are some changes that could be made. It amazes me that certain architects continually come back and with nearly every 'project they design', have to try to 'make exceptions.' There is little respect gained for those who claims to be so great, require high costs for their designs, yet require 'exceptions' to so many of their projects-in every community.

Wake Up San Diego
Wake Up San Diego

After watching 6 years of projects as Chair of a Planning board & many more after & before- wonderful 'creative designs' developed 'within the rules' or with only miniscule changes to the 'rules', there are some changes that could be made. It amazes me that certain architects continually come back and with nearly every 'project they design', have to try to 'make exceptions.' There is little respect gained for those who claims to be so great, require high costs for their designs, yet require 'exceptions' to so many of their projects-in every community.

Cindy Conger
Cindy Conger subscriber

Refreshing comments, LibraryLover..so good to see that some are looking to preventing the mistakes of the Past by looking at 'what works' in other areas and 'what doesn't'!

Wake Up San Diego
Wake Up San Diego

Refreshing comments, LibraryLover..so good to see that some are looking to preventing the mistakes of the Past by looking at 'what works' in other areas and 'what doesn't'!

Cindy Conger
Cindy Conger subscriber

Some have said SD is worse than Chicago..or New York in corruption..

Wake Up San Diego
Wake Up San Diego

Some have said SD is worse than Chicago..or New York in corruption..

Cindy Conger
Cindy Conger subscriber

CBrewster..that might be worth looking into, but how would you like a multi-story building's many windows, looking into your 'private' backyard? of your single family house neighborhood? that you spent many years saving & working to move into? 'changing the rules' can be possible, but the 'neighbors' must be involved. Even NAR recognizes this..in their first publication of On Common Ground. They've seen 'what works' and 'what doesn't' and without the neighbors being involved, informed and active, there is no benefit to many of them, and lawyers love to spend your money, as well as theirs, don't they? A lose-lose proposition for everyone but our mult-lawyered San Diego.

Wake Up San Diego
Wake Up San Diego

CBrewster..that might be worth looking into, but how would you like a multi-story building's many windows, looking into your 'private' backyard? of your single family house neighborhood? that you spent many years saving & working to move into? 'changing the rules' can be possible, but the 'neighbors' must be involved. Even NAR recognizes this..in their first publication of On Common Ground. They've seen 'what works' and 'what doesn't' and without the neighbors being involved, informed and active, there is no benefit to many of them, and lawyers love to spend your money, as well as theirs, don't they? A lose-lose proposition for everyone but our mult-lawyered San Diego.

Cindy Conger
Cindy Conger subscriber

Transit? When the trolley is returned to OB & high speed transit down I-8, I-5, etc., then maybe you can reduce parking requirements. Otherwise, try parking in Newport Beach for an 'example' of what our beach areas will become.

Wake Up San Diego
Wake Up San Diego

Transit? When the trolley is returned to OB & high speed transit down I-8, I-5, etc., then maybe you can reduce parking requirements. Otherwise, try parking in Newport Beach for an 'example' of what our beach areas will become.

Cindy Conger
Cindy Conger subscriber

20-yr. Plans with the Airport, affecting 6 planning areas & from downtown to La Jolla coastal area residents, have been discussed only within the 'stakeholders'...the wealthy, developer, architect ones..(with No Public Input allowed), in their Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan, still yet to be Disclosed to the 6 areas...the Airport Authority refused to have a presentation to each (of Only 6 of 28-30 Planning areas in SD), showing the impacts of the expanded airport. An additional 50 flights/day was just the start...on the most dangerous major metropolitan airport in the world...with just one runway! Watch out Coastal areas, your World is about to be shaken!

Wake Up San Diego
Wake Up San Diego

20-yr. Plans with the Airport, affecting 6 planning areas & from downtown to La Jolla coastal area residents, have been discussed only within the 'stakeholders'...the wealthy, developer, architect ones..(with No Public Input allowed), in their Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan, still yet to be Disclosed to the 6 areas...the Airport Authority refused to have a presentation to each (of Only 6 of 28-30 Planning areas in SD), showing the impacts of the expanded airport. An additional 50 flights/day was just the start...on the most dangerous major metropolitan airport in the world...with just one runway! Watch out Coastal areas, your World is about to be shaken!

Cindy Conger
Cindy Conger subscriber

Incorrect Erik. Do you live in La Jolla or Rancho Santa Fe? Prices are higher there, but for different reasons. There is Only So Much Beach Property. Therefore, the true 'Supply & Demand' will Always keep prices higher and taxes higher. Why are there 'higher priced' properties, in east county? Values are different for people who have lived here for a long time and who have long given up other 'perks' to be able to afford to live 'at the beach'. Higher Density causes a host of very bad and irreparable problems, besides 'blocking views.' No parking requirements? When the transit is IN, then maybe there Can be a discussion. Until then, forget it.

Wake Up San Diego
Wake Up San Diego

Incorrect Erik. Do you live in La Jolla or Rancho Santa Fe? Prices are higher there, but for different reasons. There is Only So Much Beach Property. Therefore, the true 'Supply & Demand' will Always keep prices higher and taxes higher. Why are there 'higher priced' properties, in east county? Values are different for people who have lived here for a long time and who have long given up other 'perks' to be able to afford to live 'at the beach'. Higher Density causes a host of very bad and irreparable problems, besides 'blocking views.' No parking requirements? When the transit is IN, then maybe there Can be a discussion. Until then, forget it.

Cindy Conger
Cindy Conger subscriber

Agreed, from a 27-yr. REALTOR & Broker! Unlike FL, when you remove the Sun, even at the coasts, or maybe especially at the coasts, in San Diego, it becomes COLD between those hi-rise condos downtown. And windy! And folks from outside San Diego, who've transplanted here from East Coast or Mid-U.S. state haven't lived here long enough to 'know the lay of the land,' or why prices vary. What 'works' in other locations, does Not, here.

Wake Up San Diego
Wake Up San Diego

Agreed, from a 27-yr. REALTOR & Broker! Unlike FL, when you remove the Sun, even at the coasts, or maybe especially at the coasts, in San Diego, it becomes COLD between those hi-rise condos downtown. And windy! And folks from outside San Diego, who've transplanted here from East Coast or Mid-U.S. state haven't lived here long enough to 'know the lay of the land,' or why prices vary. What 'works' in other locations, does Not, here.

Cindy Conger
Cindy Conger subscriber

Exactly my point, toulon. Coastal areas will always be more expensive. Try to find something in NYCity on the coast, even the Carolinas or Panama City Beach FL, where there is No Industry, No business...and still high property coast, completely Walling Off Coastal Access for the public to the most beautiful beaches in the world..all a result of poor Planning and Redevelopment, and DENSITY. At least they stopped it when they learned how Redevelopment Raped their Local Services funds (property taxes).

Wake Up San Diego
Wake Up San Diego

Exactly my point, toulon. Coastal areas will always be more expensive. Try to find something in NYCity on the coast, even the Carolinas or Panama City Beach FL, where there is No Industry, No business...and still high property coast, completely Walling Off Coastal Access for the public to the most beautiful beaches in the world..all a result of poor Planning and Redevelopment, and DENSITY. At least they stopped it when they learned how Redevelopment Raped their Local Services funds (property taxes).

Cindy Conger
Cindy Conger subscriber

and where is the 'transit' to be? sandstone & crumbling granite..no no underground transit for San Diego...? You've already done the 'pay for parking' everywhere downtown, where there is No Height limits. How has that 'helped affordable housing?' And the traffic..10 times worse. Do you also want to be like NYC? Go back home..if you like that Density. Don't push it on others.

Wake Up San Diego
Wake Up San Diego

and where is the 'transit' to be? sandstone & crumbling granite..no no underground transit for San Diego...? You've already done the 'pay for parking' everywhere downtown, where there is No Height limits. How has that 'helped affordable housing?' And the traffic..10 times worse. Do you also want to be like NYC? Go back home..if you like that Density. Don't push it on others.

Don Wood
Don Wood subscriber

I get a chuckle when pro-development commentors use the term "smart growth". I sat on the City of San Diego's growth advisory committee that developed this city's first Transit Oriented Development Ordinances in the late 1980s, working with Peter Calthorpe before the term "smart growth" was coined. Smart growth was originally intended to promote locating density nearer transit centers, but has been misused by the building industry and its minions to justify all kinds of nonsense. You wouldn't get smart growth by removing height limited along out coastlines, you'd get stupid growth focused on making developers richer at the expense of public access and views. The term "smart growth" has been so misused that no longer has any meaning.

Don Wood
Don Wood

I get a chuckle when pro-development commentors use the term "smart growth". I sat on the City of San Diego's growth advisory committee that developed this city's first Transit Oriented Development Ordinances in the late 1980s, working with Peter Calthorpe before the term "smart growth" was coined. Smart growth was originally intended to promote locating density nearer transit centers, but has been misused by the building industry and its minions to justify all kinds of nonsense. You wouldn't get smart growth by removing height limited along out coastlines, you'd get stupid growth focused on making developers richer at the expense of public access and views. The term "smart growth" has been so misused that no longer has any meaning.

David Kissling
David Kissling subscriber

The problem with the Coastal Height Limit is that it applies for the entire 2.5 to 3 miles that stretch from I-5 to the Pacific Ocean. Outside of hoteliers and condo developers, there aren't many San Diegans who want to line our beaches with high rises. The zoning law and height limits should continue to prohibit that. But 5 story mid-rise buildings along east-west corridors (like Grand, Garnet and Sports Arena) are vital to adding the housing necessary to allow growth in the dense parts of the city, instead of continually expanding out in the suburbs. The Coastal Height Limit needs to be modified to allow dense mid-rise construction, not eliminated.

xtdave
xtdave

The problem with the Coastal Height Limit is that it applies for the entire 2.5 to 3 miles that stretch from I-5 to the Pacific Ocean. Outside of hoteliers and condo developers, there aren't many San Diegans who want to line our beaches with high rises. The zoning law and height limits should continue to prohibit that. But 5 story mid-rise buildings along east-west corridors (like Grand, Garnet and Sports Arena) are vital to adding the housing necessary to allow growth in the dense parts of the city, instead of continually expanding out in the suburbs. The Coastal Height Limit needs to be modified to allow dense mid-rise construction, not eliminated.

john eisenhart
john eisenhart subscriber

Js Tech : good point on being more efficient with horizontal land form. People desire to be on the ground not in the air.

mr architect
mr architect

Js Tech : good point on being more efficient with horizontal land form. People desire to be on the ground not in the air.

Judith Swink
Judith Swink subscriber

I agree with Chris Brewster that opposition to retaining the 30' height limit is based mostly in "desire to develop" and that both development and aesthetics need to be considered. I would not oppose an open conversation about modifications to the height limit in carefully defined areas, certainly E. Mission Bay Drive and the Sports Arena districts and perhaps also along some of the east-west commercial corridors but definitely not in Mission Beach and perhaps not in the 2-3 blocks just east of the coast. However, no exemptions can be granted legislatively but must be approved by a majority vote of the citizens of San Diego (City).

LibraryLover
LibraryLover

I agree with Chris Brewster that opposition to retaining the 30' height limit is based mostly in "desire to develop" and that both development and aesthetics need to be considered. I would not oppose an open conversation about modifications to the height limit in carefully defined areas, certainly E. Mission Bay Drive and the Sports Arena districts and perhaps also along some of the east-west commercial corridors but definitely not in Mission Beach and perhaps not in the 2-3 blocks just east of the coast. However, no exemptions can be granted legislatively but must be approved by a majority vote of the citizens of San Diego (City).

Michael Johnson
Michael Johnson subscribermember

I'm not saying there's no room for improvement, or that the beaches are perfect the way they are, but pretending that taller buildings will drive down the cost of residence there is just silly.

michaeljtoo
michaeljtoo

I'm not saying there's no room for improvement, or that the beaches are perfect the way they are, but pretending that taller buildings will drive down the cost of residence there is just silly.

Craig Nelson
Craig Nelson subscribermember

Some of us were riding through UCSD the other day and wondering why they are seemingly exempt from any type of building code. They seem to throw up a high-rise every 6 months , if Papa Doug proposed building a Four Seasons of the same size it would take 3 lifetimes to get it approved...

Craig Nelson
Craig Nelson

Some of us were riding through UCSD the other day and wondering why they are seemingly exempt from any type of building code. They seem to throw up a high-rise every 6 months , if Papa Doug proposed building a Four Seasons of the same size it would take 3 lifetimes to get it approved...

Pat Seaborg
Pat Seaborg subscribermember

This would make an exemption process more logical and predictable, while preserving the beach areas, which to my way of thinking are not equipped, infrastructure-wise, to be more dense than they are.

pcs
pcs

This would make an exemption process more logical and predictable, while preserving the beach areas, which to my way of thinking are not equipped, infrastructure-wise, to be more dense than they are.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

The best option, in my view, is to propose amending the law for low impact zones like those that would allow more density without substantial aesthetic repercussions.