City Backs Off Downtown Building Limits : Seeks Case-by-Case Ordinance After Developers, Landowners Complain

Times Staff Writer

The San Diego City Council, in part stung by criticism from Harbor View landowners and developers, backed off Tuesday from a proposal that would have imposed strict temporary construction limits on parts of downtown.

Instead, the council compromised and called for the drafting of an emergency ordinance that will give it the authority to review every project proposed for the next four to five months in an area of about 115 blocks that includes Harbor View, Cortez Hill and the so-called “central core,” defined as the blocks around and near the B Street corridor.

In that way, the council said, it will have the power to both protect the intent of a budding downtown land-use plan, now under consideration by a special committee headed by shopping center magnate Ernest Hahn, while also giving developers and property owners in the affected area a forum for their construction proposals.

50-Year Development Blueprint


The Hahn committee has been working about a year and a half on a plan that is supposed to serve as downtown’s development blueprint for the next 50 years. The committee has come up with a generalized conceptual plan, but a preliminary draft probably won’t be ready for another four or five months, with a final plan perhaps a year or more away. And that is the problem.

In the past few years, the Harbor View, Cortez Hill and central core areas have come under significant development pressure. The Planning Department says that about 15 development proposals are in the works or under construction in these areas, at least three of which would exceed height limits contemplated for Harbor View by the Hahn committee.

For the most part, these three areas of downtown have few land-use restrictions governing height, density and design.

As a result, Hahn, whose projects include Horton Plaza, and city planners are worried that the developments, should they go forward, will not only deviate from but undermine the comprehensive proposal--which will specifically address height, density and urban design--that is slowly wending its way to completion.


While the Hahn-led committee is analyzing all 1,200 acres of downtown, other major portions of downtown are already covered by tight city controls governing land use, building heights, density and many other urban-design considerations. Those areas include three redevelopment zones and Centre City East.

In response to concerns raised by council members last week during a workshop called to discuss the proposed downtown development, city planners proposed two one-year emergency ordinances aimed at Harbor View, Cortez Hill and the core. Both were considered by the council for the first time Tuesday.

Neither Ordinance Suited Council

The first called for a building-height limit of 50 feet in most of Harbor View, with exceptions of up to 120 feet, as well as for low density on Cortez Hill and a high density in the core. The second would have placed a blanket moratorium on the issuance of building permits.

But it was clear early that neither ordinance was suitable to the council. Led by Ron Roberts and Ed Struiksma, the council unanimously sent city planners back to the drawing board with instructions to bring back another emergency ordinance next week.

Although the precise instructions were a bit ambiguous even to the planners, both City Architect Mike Stepner and head downtown Planner Larry Monserrate said they will bring back an ordinance that uses as its guideline the basic land-use proposals contained in the Hahn committee’s conceptual plan.

What that means, for example, is that, although the building height limit in the Little Italy area of Harbor View will generally be 50 feet, the council will have the discretion to allow a development to exceed that limit, depending on factors such as location, design and the project’s overall compatibility with the Hahn committee concepts.

In other areas of Harbor View, such as the Ash Street office corridor, the general height limit will be 250 feet; on Cortez Hill the general density allowed will be moderate to high; in the core, heights and density will remain high.


The focal point of most discussion, however, was Harbor View, where a phalanx of developers and landowners castigated the council for even thinking of enacting a severe development restriction or, worse, a moratorium.

Gary Leeds, a property owner in Harbor View, said his partnership has owned land since 1964 on Cedar Street between Columbia and India streets, and has waited for the right time to develop. Now his partnership wants to construct a 15-story residential and commercial building, but finds it may not be able to under the 50-foot height restriction.

‘Rug Pulled Out’

“We feel like the rug is being pulled out from under us,” he said. “We’re not just going to build a glass box . . . but a magnet for Harbor View to bring in quality growth.”

Attorney Paul Peterson, representing a developer who wants to build a 20-story building on Ash between Union and Columbia streets, said he is a member of the Hahn committee and that, despite what Hahn told the council, he does not believe the committee would agree with the strict restrictions embodied in the two proposed ordinances. In fact, he said, the moratorium suggestion is much more severe than what the committee had recommended. (Hahn also told the council he opposes a moratorium.)

One developer said he was representing a firm that is building a 22-story hotel at 1646 Front St. and had already received a foundation permit from the city and begun pouring concrete. Councilman Roberts, upon learning the hotel is being built by the same developer who constructed the new Ramada Inn at 6th and K streets, left little doubt why he thinks some sort of controls are needed.

“If it looks half as bad as the other Ramada Inn (built without strict design or land-use controls) . . . it will look like a visual disaster,” Roberts said.

Steve Wood, representing the Italian Community Center in Harbor View, said his group supports the 50-foot height limit for the neighborhood.


In other downtown matters, the city manager’s office has endorsed the concept of building a City Hall complex at the east end of downtown on Broadway, as recommended by a city consultant, rather than rebuilding the existing complex.

The proposal, which envisions spending at least $241 million for the two-phase project, will be discussed by the council for the first time at a workshop Tuesday.