Taking Gaslamp Design to New Heights? Some Hope Not

San Diego County Business Editor

A dispute between city planners and Gaslamp Quarter property owners over height limits in the historic downtown district is fast approaching a City Council showdown, with the character of the zone's future development very much in the balance.

The crux of the issue lies in the 60-foot height limit--with an extra 15 feet allowable under certain conditions--that the city wants to keep in place for the 16 1/2-block district that straddles 5th Avenue from Broadway to Harbor Drive. Backers say the height limit is essential to preserve the character of the Gaslamp, where 81 of 90 buildings are 60 feet high or shorter.

The Centre City Development Corp., the city's redevelopment agency; the city Planning Department, and the Historical Site Board, a citizens advisory group on matters of historic preservation, all back the 60-foot limit.

"The issue is whether or not we are going to respect the historic character of the district and live up to our own policy direction," said senior city Planner Ron Buckley.

On the opposing side is the Gaslamp Quarter Council, a group that includes 200 business and property owners. The group has proposed an amendment to the ordinance that would allow certain projects to include "tower elements" of heights up to 125 feet, set back from the street to accommodate hotel, apartment or condominium development, said Craig Lee, executive director of the council.

Under terms of the Gaslamp Quarter Council proposal, the 60-foot limit would be observed in all new Gaslamp development except in projects south of Island Street and on parcels of half a block or more in size.

Lee said that taller heights are appropriate on 5th Avenue south of Island because the area contains few buildings of historical significance.

Hotels and residential towers would generate more foot traffic in the quarter, he added, bringing more business to Gaslamp shop owners while discouraging panhandlers and homeless people from congregating.

"We need flexibility to bring special projects into the quarter," Lee said.

The City Council is expected to vote next month on the proposed ordinance amendment. The opposing sides concede that some kind of amendment is needed because the existing law allows the city planning director to grant exemptions to the height limitations at his discretion, without specifying how much and under what circumstances.

The City Council's vote will directly affect three proposed projects that would exceed existing height limits. The farthest down the planning pipeline is the Brunswig Square Project, planned for the full block bounded by 5th and 6th avenues and J and K streets. Principals Ed Murphy, Michael Farres and architect Bruce Dammann hope to build a 300-room, 13-story hotel on the property.

The taller height is necessary, Dammann said, so the $28-million hotel project can compete in the "view-oriented" hotel market.

Another project, a 200-foot-high condominium tower, is being developed by Neil Senturia for property bounded by 4th and 5th avenues, the Santa Fe Railroad tracks and K Street. Senturia is also developing the twin-tower One Harbor Drive condo project for a site nearby.

Louis Wolfsheimer, a San Diego attorney who represents Senturia, said the Gaslamp area may die economically "unless we do something to attract more people to the quarter. . . . This property, located just across Harbor Drive from the 120-foot San Diego Convention Center (now under construction) needs some height to attract people to live down there. We think it might be the catalyst to get Gaslamp moving."

The owners of the 12-story Horton Park Plaza hotel on 5th Avenue at E Street, a 75-year-old building formerly known as the Jewelers' Exchange, have proposed building a second tower of equal height on an adjacent lot.

Lee argues that judicious exceptions to the height limit should be allowed if for no other reason than the fact that a handful of the historic buildings in the area, such as the Horton Park Plaza and the St. James Hotel, already exceed the cap.

Planner Buckley disagreed, saying the tall buildings in the Gaslamp are "historical aberrations" and should not be used to justify new construction of tall buildings.

"The district was created to preserve the unique character and scale of Gaslamp, and if you start making exceptions, you jeopardize that," he said.

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