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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.
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 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 email@example.com or 619.325.0529 and follow me on Twitter
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