How Small Developers Are Filling in the Urban Core

How Small Developers Are Filling in the Urban Core

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Developers Craig Abenilla and Mike Burnett at the You Are Here complex in Golden Hill.

Walking an investor through a potential project site a few years ago, Mike Burnett and Craig Abenilla explained their plan to leave the decrepit gas station structure in place, so they could incorporate it into their housing and commercial project.

“He took one look and said, ‘I’m out,” Burnett said.

But “You Are Here,” a mixed-use project on 25th Street in Golden Hill and the second project for Burnett and Abenilla’s Foundation for Form, went forward.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Photo by Sam Hodgson

The You Are Here complex in Golden Hill is built on the site of a dilapidated Texaco station.

Along with the pair’s first project across the street, which began as Burnett’s senior thesis at the Woodbury School of Architecture, the two modestly sized projects played an integral role revitalizing the southern end of Golden Hill’s commercial area.

Their third project, in North Park, was an easier sell.

At the old Post Office on Grim Avenue and Ray Street, they’re pursuing a similar idea. Again, they will incorporate the old building into the new project.

Like the others, it was designed with a young, urban renter in mind.

Its courtyard and each individual unit are meant to push residents together, not wall them off in seclusion.

“That was my driving force: How does space change people?” Burnett said.

“We’re designing for the 20 to 40, urban, energetic, go-getting lifestyle,” he said. “That’s who I think is most interesting.”

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Abenilla said there’s a tendency in San Diego to want as much space as possible, without regard for aesthetics.

“The mentality is so weird here,” he said. “We’re trying to change that mentality a bit.”

In doing, they’re part of a group of developers that’s having a lot of success on their own terms.

Young architects like them have joined established names like Lloyd Russell, Ted Smith and Jonathan Segal to pursue an identifiable urban-centric style and mentality.

“They’re creating the architecture that we all appreciate and understand as part of a San Diego vernacular,” said Howard Blackson, an urban planner and board member of the city’s nonprofit planning arm for downtown, Civic San Diego. “They’re good for San Diego.”

They tend to share a few characteristics.

Woodbury

For one, there are a lot of connections to Woodbury, a satellite campus of the Los Angeles architecture school that opened in Barrio Logan in 1998.

Segal teaches there, Smith runs a master’s program in real estate development for architects, and people like Burnett, architect-developer Andrew Malick and others graduated from there.

“The turning point was getting graduates from Woodbury out in the city doing work,” Segal said. “There’s a critical mass now. It’s not just me and Lloyd and Ted; it’s Mikey and Andrew and three to five other people. The ball is rolling.”

Architect-Developers

Another distinguishing feature of the group: It’s composed of architect-developers, not just architects or just developers. That means they work for themselves and usually own their projects. It affords them freedom to pursue the project they want.

“Every unit in ‘You Are Here’ is different,” Burnett said. “No one is going to do that except an architect-developer.”

Besides creative freedom, it also makes them nimble.

“Within our circle we’re all doing this because when you act as architect and developer, the intention is to get around the layers of bureaucracy within the construction industry that get in the way of what you want to build,” said Russell, who has built projects like the Centre Street Lofts in Hillcrest, The Station in South Park and collaborated with Smith on a number of buildings in Little Italy.

It also frees them from fear of litigation.

“If you’re an architect-developer, now suddenly you can innovate,” Smith said. “Because otherwise, the moment you do something that’s not the industry standard, you’re going to court.”

That means if they build a condo unit with a non-standard skylight because it looked cooler, and the new condo owner sued because the skylight sprung a leak, the developer would lose the lawsuit for having deviated from the industry standard. By designing, developing and owning their own project, they can just fix the leak if one of their renters has a problem.

And things do go wrong over the course of construction. If an unforeseen situation arises when there’s only one decision-maker, the process doesn’t come to a complete stop.

“It enables us to be fluid; it’s the key to our expediency,” Segal said. “Imagine if in heart surgery, a surgeon had to ask administration for clearance to make a decision when things went wrong.”

For the community, that means fewer delays, less time staring at a construction zone and less expensive housing once all’s said and done.

It also necessarily means smaller projects.

“Acting as architect-developer, there’s an inherent limitation of scale,” Russell said. “Once you get bigger, you have to divide responsibilities. A 500-unit project requires a team.”

Small Lots

That’s another shared characteristic: They build on small lots in already developed urban areas.

“I had a big developer say to me one time, ‘Oh, what you guys do is boutique development,’” Russell said.

Where Civic San Diego looks to develop an entire city block with a single project, these craft developers are finding smaller, sometimes oddly shaped parcels and designing them to fit within the existing urban fabric.

“If you go to USC and get a developer’s degree, the first thing they’ll teach you is ‘If you build small projects you’ll never get rich,’” Smith said. “The only ones who will build little projects are architects, because they understand urban issues.”

Investors and real estate professionals for years have been touting the importance of “infill development”—projects within already developed areas—to address the region’s housing shortage, since the availability of massive tracts of green field has mostly run out.

“Cities are about trade-offs,” Smith said. “So what do you want? A carbon footprint of a suburbanite versus a dense urbanite is something like 10-to-1.”

That’s a mindset Smith passed to Burnett at Woodbury. He said Smith taught him to make small urban incisions, not to revamp a whole block.

“He’s a hippie basically, he puts people first,” Burnett said. “He says: Don’t chase the neighborhood away. Look at it, find what’s cool about it and expand upon it.”

Russell said San Diego is beginning to build a reputation for these sorts of small, innovative housing projects.

“It’s filled a necessary niche,” he said. “For big builders, it’s not efficient to do 10 units, they have too much staff. So there’s a gap between single-family homes and large developments.”

Ministerial Projects

Crucially, these developers predominantly look to build as much as they can in a certain spot before they’re forced to enter the discretionary review process.

“By-right development,” as it’s called, means figuring out the threshold in any given area’s zoning that triggers a review by some combination of a community planning group, the citywide Planning Commission, a hearing officer or the City Council.

That process costs time and money, so these architect-developers avoid it altogether by building as much as the zoning will allow without crossing that threshold.

If a given lot allows you to build 24 units before the project must answer to the local planning group, build the 24 units and call it a day. Parking requirements, height limits and a number of other factors make interpreting the code more complicated, but that’s the basic idea.

“They say, ‘Why should we bang our heads against the wall in this unpredictable process, when we can just know the code better than anyone and get a lot out of it?” Blackson said.

Joe LaCava, chair of a group that advises and oversees community planning groups, said the idea is for community plans and zoning regulations to give clear, numeric guidelines about what the community wants from developers. If a project fits, there’s no need for review.

“Unfortunately what we’ve learned is what we thought the regulations would give us and what we get are different, and that’s where the tension comes in,” he said. “While some people think by-right planning is a way to exclude the community, it’s the community group that originally said what regulations would apply.”

Better, LaCava said, would be zoning that tells developers specifically what a community wants, rather than what it doesn’t want.

Doing it this way, combined with developing on small lots, means these “boutique developers” are settling at a sort-of medium density.

They’re not putting in one single-family home on an urban lot close to jobs, and they’re not building a mega-development that really pisses off the neighbors.

Smith said finding the right density within the code usually comes down to parking requirements.

“There’s a natural breaking point that happens when you build the biggest by-right project you can before you have to build a parking garage,” he said.

Zoning calls for providing a certain amount of parking based on the number of housing units or commercial square footage. Once you reach a certain number of needed spaces, you need to build a parking garage, drastically inflating the price of the whole project. Once you’ve added the garage, you need to build another 30 housing units to become profitable again.

That’s why Smith tells his students to find the point just before they need a parking garage, and build that many units.

“It makes for a great fabric,” Segal said. “It’s not monster-sized. It’s sized for a building that works, not some monster thing that kills a neighborhood.”

Russell is preparing to build one of his biggest projects yet in Bankers Hill, and will need to go before the Uptown Planners group for approval.

“I’m vacillating between heroic guy and the pensive developer, thinking it’s too big,” he said. “I’ve been warned that it’s a hassle, but I’m just hopeful they’ll appreciate good design.”

Even though there’s now a critical mass of these neighborhood-minded developers, they’re still outgunned by big projects by out-of-town developers.

But their numbers are increasing with each class from Smith’s program at Woodbury, and their expedited process means they make up for some of their projects’ smaller size by building more of them.

“We’re setting the standard now, giving other people an opportunity to embrace our ideas in their projects, and it will increase quality across the board,” Segal said.

“I think we’ll look back in a few years, and it could be really big. But stars have to align for that to work,” Russell said.

Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit that depends on you, our readers. Please donate to keep the service strong. Click here to find out more about our supporters and how we operate independently.


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.

  • 241 Posts
  • 15
    Followers

Show comments
Before you comment, read these simple guidelines on what is not allowed.

9 comments
chipsanders
chipsanders

A few observations about these projects: 1. They are fortresses of gentrification. They are designed to keep people out and make the people inside feel safe and isolated. Usually there is only one way in and out for the public, a fortress-like parking garage, bars on the windows, tall gates, cantilevered second floor entrances, etc. They are designed for a certain demographic (people who look like the architects) and not for the overall neighborhood. And they provide amenities for a certain type of person, the "most interesting" kind of person. 2. They retain the structure of old buildings (usually one wall) because the city regulations cut you all kinds of breaks if you do this. The same thing Jack in the Box did in North Park. 3. They build on small lots because they are cheap. They try to find lots that have been on the market for a long time and get a good price on them. 4. They build out these lots pretty much to their lot line and they almost always violate local codes and have to get variances. "By right development" sounds good, but it isn't what they actually do with these projects.

Glenn Younger
Glenn Younger

Transportation, parking, and neighborhood infrastructure are elements that are being missed by the Woodbury school developers. In the past that was left to cities to figure out and cities are just not doing that anymore. By avoiding going through the planning, zoning and community input it's possible to avoid the COST of infrastructure, but not the NEED for infrastructure. The scale, design and look of these projects are terrific. Beautiful increased density. But these projects become part of the neighborhood problem, instead of part of the solution, if transportation and other infrastructure needs are not managed by the owner/developer.

Glenn Younger
Glenn Younger subscribermember

Transportation, parking, and neighborhood infrastructure are elements that are being missed by the Woodbury school developers. In the past that was left to cities to figure out and cities are just not doing that anymore. By avoiding going through the planning, zoning and community input it's possible to avoid the COST of infrastructure, but not the NEED for infrastructure. The scale, design and look of these projects are terrific. Beautiful increased density. But these projects become part of the neighborhood problem, instead of part of the solution, if transportation and other infrastructure needs are not managed by the owner/developer.

Don Wood
Don Wood

There are a number of key principals that should be followed when considering new infill development projects. Scale: Does the proposed project fit into the existing neighborhood and complement the neighboring buildings, or does it stick out like a sore thumb? Is it built to a human scale, or sized up to fit some architect ego? Height: Does the proposed building fit into the existing neighborhood skyline, or would it jut up in a manner that would dwarf its neighbors? Proximity to local public transit: How far is the proposed project from an existing trolley line? Does its location encourage new residents to take transit instead of single passenger cars? If it's not near public transit, it will not be smart growth, or considered transit oriented development. Respect for its neighboring buildings: If the project is being built near an existing historic structure, does it's design reflect and complement the historic character of the neighborhood, or does it ignore that factor to feed the architect's egoistic vision of himself?

Don Wood
Don Wood subscriber

There are a number of key principals that should be followed when considering new infill development projects. Scale: Does the proposed project fit into the existing neighborhood and complement the neighboring buildings, or does it stick out like a sore thumb? Is it built to a human scale, or sized up to fit some architect ego? Height: Does the proposed building fit into the existing neighborhood skyline, or would it jut up in a manner that would dwarf its neighbors? Proximity to local public transit: How far is the proposed project from an existing trolley line? Does its location encourage new residents to take transit instead of single passenger cars? If it's not near public transit, it will not be smart growth, or considered transit oriented development. Respect for its neighboring buildings: If the project is being built near an existing historic structure, does it's design reflect and complement the historic character of the neighborhood, or does it ignore that factor to feed the architect's egoistic vision of himself?

Walter Chambers
Walter Chambers

Two things really stand out. First, Parking reform is badly needed if we want to see more small, incremental, infill development happen. Parking minimums kill good urban design. Secondly, and understandably, these guys are avoiding Planning Groups. CPG's need to take note, and make sure that their Community Plan Updates make it as simply and clear as possible to build great design that the community wants. Currently, Community Plans (and CPG's) make it as difficult as possible to get through the process and have good design - that isn't "designed by committee".

Walter Chambers
Walter Chambers subscribermember

Two things really stand out. First, Parking reform is badly needed if we want to see more small, incremental, infill development happen. Parking minimums kill good urban design. Secondly, and understandably, these guys are avoiding Planning Groups. CPG's need to take note, and make sure that their Community Plan Updates make it as simply and clear as possible to build great design that the community wants. Currently, Community Plans (and CPG's) make it as difficult as possible to get through the process and have good design - that isn't "designed by committee".

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann

"Zoning calls for providing a certain amount of parking based on the number of housing units or commercial square footage. Once you reach a certain number of needed spaces, you need to build a parking garage, drastically inflating the price of the whole project." It's a real shame how the city hijacks its own viability by restricting property rights and making it much more expensive to build anything than it needs to be (see the link below). And then when they realize that affordable housing isn't getting built, they compound the problem by trying to impose a "linkage fee" that would make it even *more* expensive to build! It's all quite comical.Streetsblog Capitol Hillhttp://dc.streetsblog.org/2013/09/16/apartment-blockers/Alan Durning is the executive director and founder of Sightline Institute, a think tank on sustainability issues in the Pacific Northwest. This article, originally posted on Sightline's blog, is #9 in their series, "Parking? Lots!" Have you ever watc...

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

"Zoning calls for providing a certain amount of parking based on the number of housing units or commercial square footage. Once you reach a certain number of needed spaces, you need to build a parking garage, drastically inflating the price of the whole project." It's a real shame how the city hijacks its own viability by restricting property rights and making it much more expensive to build anything than it needs to be (see the link below). And then when they realize that affordable housing isn't getting built, they compound the problem by trying to impose a "linkage fee" that would make it even *more* expensive to build! It's all quite comical.Streetsblog Capitol Hillhttp://dc.streetsblog.org/2013/09/16/apartment-blockers/Alan Durning is the executive director and founder of Sightline Institute, a think tank on sustainability issues in the Pacific Northwest. This article, originally posted on Sightline's blog, is #9 in their series, "Parking? Lots!" Have you ever watc...