Here are several readers’ thoughts on an ongoing discussion we’ve been having about the city of San Diego’s coastal height limit, which caps buildings west of Interstate 5 at 30 feet, and housing density.

Deirdre Lee:

This is a ridiculous conversation. That limit is about the quality of life in San Diego. It would not reduce housing costs for anyone; it would just make a lot of money for developers. Just give it up. It has worked fine. This is not an issue that needs to be worked on!

Gary Erbeck:

Re: waterfront height restrictions discussion; first do no harm.

You may be on the wrong track if affordable housing is your goal. Observation of other coastal cities does not support the thesis that increased density provides affordable housing. More blue water views just increase more expensive units. It does not follow that greater height limits create affordable housing.

Affordable housing is achievable via planned density linking housing with efficient work transportation. Go back to the “city of villages” concept once proposed by the San Diego Planning Department. The concept was dumped in 2003 due to city fiscal issues.

Sherilyn Watkins:

I am in favor of keeping the height restrictions in San Diego. I live in Point Loma, and do not want high-rise luxury condos here or anywhere else. The demand for coastal housing will always exist. If you want a beach house, buck up and pay for it. The height restrictions ensure that those of us who have homes on the coast will continue to have the lifestyle we paid for when we bought our homes here. We don’t pay sky-high prices to stare at luxury vacation condos blocking our view of the beautiful ocean. And we want to keep our “small beach community” feel. The California beach and surfing lifestyle is one I grew up in. I don’t care if tourists want to come and enjoy our beaches. Let them rent a small house near the beach, and let them experience our wonderful beach culture. Luxury high rises will be outrageously expensive if they are built here. Only the very wealthy would be able to afford them. If we build mega hotels and resorts, our quality of life will plummet! Then our wonderful and very special beach communities will go extinct, all to line the pockets of developers who couldn’t care less about the lifestyles of coastal home owners and those of us who grew up on the beaches here.

Doug Scott:

I believe there are a plethora of parking lots and brown field sites in the San Diego area which can accommodate our population growth for decades to come. In addition, new growth must be located along mass transit corridors.

The coastline vistas are one of the defining features of our region and cultural identity. They must not be compromised. Finally, it is pure naiveté for anyone to believe that developers, freed of coastal height restrictions, are suddenly going to start building high-rise affordable housing.

Michael Robertson:

One of the biggest negative impacts on housing costs is zoning rules. By designating some areas business-only or residential-only, there are artificial constraints which block the free market from operating.

This manifests itself by having areas where rental vacancies are a tiny 3 percent making it hard and costly to find housing, but at the same time there are areas with 35 percent or higher vacancy in office buildings. In this scenario (which is what we’re seeing in various parts of San Diego), politicians incorrectly identified the needs of society because there’s no way for them to know and made zones too large/small.

Not only was the original assessment wrong, but because rules don’t change they cannot be adapted. Thus you have large quiet underutilized commercial zones and jammed packed residential areas.

Politicians aren’t smarter than the free market. They have their biases about what types of houses people should live in or specific areas and those biases increase costs by underutilizing limited land resources.

Doug Diamond:

Andrew Keats and Scott Lewis have been in hot water recently for broaching the idea of holding down housing costs in San Diego by expanding densities, even along the coast. As a housing economist, I would say that the heat should be turned down, but not off.

They are right to link housing costs to restrictions on density, but should be more careful to consider the full range of implications. First, because San Diego is hemmed in on all sides by barriers to outward expansion, housing costs will remain under long-term upward pressure because they are what rations access to our “paradise.” One escape valve is to increase densities. But it should be recognized that the result will be a somewhat larger population, but not long-run housing costs being much lower. Costs will be lower at any point in time, but will eventually rise as the lower costs permit access by more folks.

Is a larger population all for the good? It is good for businesses in this area, both for demand for their products and services, and for access to employees at a little lower cost than if densities were lower (and housing costs higher). This is one reason the business sector is constantly banging the drum for more development.

But there is often limited upside for many of those who live here already. Their neighborhoods become more crowded, roads become more congested and the city life becomes a little more anonymous and, well, “big city.” At what point do the gains from being more cosmopolitan outweigh the losses? Some might say we are already past that point. Finally, anything that lowers housing costs also lowers home equity for the existing homeowners and landlords of San Diego.

At the micro-scale, densification, as in the case of the ubiquitous small apartment buildings in mid-city areas, is rarely an improvement to the aesthetics of an area (East Village being an exception!). It can be a detriment to the personality of an area. And high-rises on or near the oceanfront would likely change the vibe of the whole place. In any case, while densification may benefit the whole county (and definitely the business community), the burdens fall on specific areas getting the higher density (unless they are compensated with better public facilities).

The irony of the talk about densifying on the oceanfront (but not places like the Midway district) is that the main beneficiaries would be summer vacationers who get lower rents due to expanded supply. Given that most oceanfront units are held for vacation rentals or second homes, the effects on housing costs for San Diegans might be negligible, while the effects on views and blocking the sun would be borne by locals.

So I see the topic as one worth exploring, but only with a lens wide enough to take in all aspects of the debate.

Matt Adams:

The height limit and its effect on San Diego’s housing situation is but one of multiple regulatory impediments the industry faces to address our housing needs. While the market has struggled for years to find its footing during the depths of the recession, government continues to impose conditions that have increased the cost of construction. The optimism of a housing recovery must be tempered with the sobering truth the added cost of a series of environmental regulations soon to be imposed will easily outpace the very modest gains only recently made in home and land values. Global warming and storm water runoff mitigations alone will negatively impact future housing production, creating an artificial supply demand imbalance.

It is not a free market as government holds the keys to home production. They tell us where, when and how many homes can be built. The state’s global warming mandates adds thousands of dollars in construction costs to meet the energy requirements prescribed under AB 32 and SB 375 and the PUC goal of zero net energy homes by 2020 will add a minimum of $48,000 to the cost of home construction, according to a study commissioned by the Department of Energy. This, combined with lengthy processing times, infrastructure needs and community hesitation with increased densities, are major obstacles to San Diego’s goal of a city of villages. The San Diego Association of Governments predicts another one million people will call the San Diego region home by 2030 so it is vital that community plans are updated in order to responsibly and comprehensively plan for our future growth.

Want to spark discussion? Start a conversation by submitting a commentary at Fix San Diego.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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