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In front of 130 riled Bay Park and Linda Vista residents last week, James LaMattery issued a warning.
As the city prepares to allow more new homes to be built near a new trolley stop at Tecolote Drive – part of a $2 billion extension of the trolley from Old Town to UTC – it’s returning to a fight it lost nearly three years ago.
City planners then tried to allow more density and raise the 30-foot building height limit in Bay Park, at a planned trolley stop on Clairemont Drive. Residents flipped, politicians scrambled to appease them and the city conceded.
Now, the city has turned its attention one stop south, and LaMattery and area residents say they’re ready to renew the fight.
“They thought we’d be so busy in Bay Park, we wouldn’t have the back of Linda Vista,” LaMattery said last week, at a meeting organizing their plans of opposition. “They were wrong. They were wrong.”
This time around, the city isn’t alone.
The new trolley station is near the cluster of low-slung industrial and big-box retailers like Jerome’s Furniture and Toys ‘R’ Us. Those property owners have already brought on a developer to pursue a single project for the area – one that would build up to 1,700 new homes in buildings up to 90 feet tall.
Perry Dealy, a developer who has frequently worked with hotel-builder and former San Diego Union-Tribune owner Doug Manchester, is pushing the project.
The city hasn’t committed to anything, but the idea is that it’d write the project into the new development plans, which also includes the Linda Vista trolley station nearby. Altogether, the plan could make way for more than 3,000 new homes in the area served by two trolley stations.
Dealy said so far, neighbors are more concerned with building heights affecting their views than they are with density increases – but he thinks the property owners and the city have a chance to get the project he envisions written into the city’s development regulations.
“If we can convince the community that density can be a benefit and not a cost, we can succeed,” Dealy said. “This area deserves special treatment, for the good of the neighborhood, and for the entire transit system. It should be a no-brainer, for all the stuff that’s in the area.”
The 90-foot buildings would be limited to the corner of the property that’s farthest from nearby residences. Dealy said the project – which, since it includes multiple properties, can create the urban street grid needed for dense development but that is currently absent in the community – is exactly what the city’s new housing needs to look like.
“The days of subdivisions in the county – those days are gone. And that’s great,” Dealy said.
The city, though, isn’t ready to sign off on the whole project.
“At this point, we’re considering a range of options on that, and I don’t know if they line up with what Dealy is proposing,” said Tait Galloway, a program manager with the city. He said traffic and environmental studies would dictate the final proposal.
But the city finds itself stuck in a familiar position.
Years ago, it adopted a general plan that envisioned new homes near jobs and transit opportunities.
More recently, it adopted a Climate Action Plan with ambitious goals and the teeth to help make them reality: Half of city residents are expected to walk, bike or take transit to work by 2035, or else the city could be sued.
Yet city leaders have shown little interest in taking the unpopular positions required to hit that target.
Making good on that promise requires building more dense housing in transit-served areas, but so far the city hasn’t had the stomach to insist on such changes in the face of neighborhood opposition. In the fall, it adopted new community plans for Golden Hill, North Park and Uptown even though the city’s own analysis showed the new restrictions wouldn’t come close to shifting commuting behavior enough to hit those targets.
City planners say they got the message – they need to take their own climate plan seriously.
“As we took Golden Hill and North Park through, we heard it from (City Council members) on density and the Climate Action Plan, and we want to take that into consideration,” said Tom Tomlinson, assistant director of the city’s planning department. “We need to be more aggressive with density to achieve” the commuting goals in the climate plan.
In the past, there’s been an unspoken but widely understood pact with the city: The planning department doesn’t move forward with a new community plan unless it has the community’s support. That often means tempering opportunities for growth, but it helps shield elected officials from choosing between what planners says is best, and what the community says it would prefer.
That may no longer be the case.
“We are planning to go to City Council offering a range of options,” said Galloway. “That’s what we heard recently: They want the ability to look at different options to see what it would take to hit the (climate plan’s) objectives.”
The City Council could vote on changes to the area near Linda Vista’s two trolley stops next spring. The city is also redoing the community plan for Clairemont, including the new station area in Bay Park that was the site of the first showdown, but that won’t go to the City Council until summer 2019.
The residents that LaMattery has assembled in opposition, though, have their own set of plans.
They’ve printed signs opposing the change in hopes they’ll fill the front yards of nearby Overlook Heights, the neighborhood up the hill from the Linda Vista project area. They met again this week to organize a petition drive. They will ask Councilwoman Lorie Zapf to participate in a town hall over the issue – the Bay Park plan met its demise at a particularly boisterous town hall three years ago.
Next month, they’re also hoping to raise a balloon 90 feet in the air from Dealy’s project site – a display to give neighbors a sense of the height of a 90-foot building.
Since the first dispute in Bay Park, the group, which calls itself Raise the Balloon, has held together and now has turned its attention on the Linda Vista plan. Throughout the meeting, the crowd would break into cheers whenever someone stated outright opposition to the plan.
Bay Ho resident Marc Lemieux, for instance, got an especially warm reaction for one of his comments.
“(Zoning) is an implied contract between us and the city,” Lemieux said, to vigorous nods of approval that gave way to full on applause. “Now, they’re trying to say, ‘Well, we changed the rules on you.’ You bought here, you love it here and you shouldn’t be losing your view!”
The crowd isn’t solely focused on the neighborhood, however.
Lemieux, for instance, reminded the crowd it isn’t alone: People throughout the city oppose urbanization. He said the group needs to be focused on connecting with other groups to form a united front.
Likewise, after the crowd spent a few minutes focusing on the importance of making Zapf fear for her political life if she didn’t fight the plan, Overlook Heights resident Paul Kosen stood up to voice dissent.
“There’s a push to densify this whole city,” he said. “So what happens if we replace Lorie? It’s not just Lorie, it’s the whole City Council that’s trying this all over the city.”
LaMattery — who attached a flier for his real estate listings and his business card to a handout explaining the city’s community planning process – is well on his way.
“I’ve built a system now that could be replicated in other communities,” he said. “I’m talking to other community planning groups to say: If you want to activate a community, this is how you do it.”
Former Assemblyman Howard Wayne was also part of the crowd. He’s on the Linda Vista Planning Group and chair of the subcommittee created to work on the plan for the two trolley station areas.
“We don’t want high-rises,” he said. “We’ll fight as much as we can.”