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Lots of San Diegans are fighting city and developer attempts to fill their neighborhoods with more homes.
That’s not what’s going on in Ocean Beach right now.
Ocean Beach’s fight over its new community plan, which faces a Tuesday City Council vote, isn’t over density. It’s about the size of single-family homes.
In an attempt to simplify relatively complex planning jargon, many are lumping Ocean Beach in with density fights that are happening in Bay Park, Grantville and Uptown. U-T San Diego has covered the OB issue accurately, save a recent subheadline describing it as a density fight. Our Morning Report made the same error a few weeks ago. My boss was asked about density and Ocean Beach in a radio interview yesterday.
But the last remaining disagreement over Ocean Beach’s community plan isn’t actually about density — the amount of homes in a neighborhood — at all. The fight is about how big single family homes can be. In other words, it isn’t about whether we should let people replace a single family home with three apartments. It’s about whether people should be able to build a 2,000 square foot home instead of a 1,500 square foot one.
“There’s certainly a feeling that, if a community is complaining, it must be about density, because increasing density is generally speaking what the city is trying to do,” said Joe LaCava, head of an umbrella group for the city’s various community planning groups. “But OB, right now, is not a density issue.”
After years of slow progress, the city released a new OB community plan last fall. Because nothing happens quickly in the world of planning, it’s just now coming forward for a City Council vote. The plan maintains the area’s current residential density restrictions.
But the city’s Planning Commission took exception to some language in the plan that was added to make it more difficult for property owners to build large homes in the community.
OB’s development restrictions are set up so new homes in the area will be the sorts of small beach cottages you already see. But property owners can ask for special treatment — a “variance” in planning jargon — to build bigger homes. In recent years, the Planning Commission has made a habit of granting those requests.
So OB’s planning group added language saying those exceptions should be avoided to “the greatest extent possible.”
The Planning Commission wants the standard to be much more permissive, inserting language calling for a “case-by-case” evaluation. (Mayor Kevin Faulconer this week said he’ll side with the community).
But, again: this is about people asking for exceptions to build bigger single-family homes. It’s not about putting more homes in a given area.
“When you walk down the boardwalk in Mission Beach, you see much bulkier homes lining it,” said Gio Ingolia, co-chair of Ocean Beach’s planning group. “I enjoy Mission Beach, but we want our own style community. Here, we’ve kept a small-scale community. These are homes that keep families here. In Mission Beach those bigger homes are often summer rental properties.”
Pointing out that this fight isn’t about density isn’t to say it isn’t important. It just doesn’t fit snugly into the ongoing conversation about building more homes in the city in an attempt to eventually reducing housing prices.
In fact, the restrictions in this case probably have the effect of keeping housing in OB from getting even more expensive. That’s because the restriction mostly applies to property owners who, if granted the variance, would choose to demolish an old, small home to build a new, big one. There’s no increase in housing supply either way.
“You’re talking about people tearing down a single home and putting up a single home,” LaCava said. “So, you could say it’s preventing this upgrading of the community, or there’s an argument that you’re staving off gentrification, by maintaining what is relatively affordable rent — by some San Diego standards — rather than replacing it with a home that will have a high sales price or that would rent for a much higher price.”