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Developer of ‘poor door’ apartment building in San Diego threatens legal action over denial

Pinnacle Pacific Heights
An aerial view of the proposed Pinnacle Pacific Heights apartment complex.
(Civic San Diego)

Pinnacle International was looking to put low-income units in a separate building in East Village development

The developer of a San Diego apartment complex that drew criticism over its plan to separate low-income renters in a different building is threatening to sue over its denial.

Vancouver-based Pinnacle International sought to build a project in East Village called Pinnacle Pacific Heights that would have included a 32-story building for market-rate renters and an adjacent eight-story building for rent-restricted apartments. Low-income renters would not have access to a roof deck or pool on the market-rate side, and would have to enter the building in a separate entrance.

Public officials with the downtown planning agency, Civic San Diego, were critical of the project for separating two classes of renters. Board member Robert Robinson even called it “segregation at its finest.” Civic denied the project in July and again in October.

Pinnacle’s law firm, California-based Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis, sent a letter in November threatening to sue because it said Civic overstepped its authority. It wasn’t until this week that the board discussed the letter in a closed session.

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The letter was addressed to Civic President Andrew Phillips but also sent to the city attorney’s office and the City Council. The city attorney’s office said it is reviewing the letter and will be consulting with public officials. Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis did not respond to requests for comment by phone and email.

In its letter, the law firm said that Civic’s authority was limited mainly to design issues and by thwarting the project it violated the city’s municipal code; the density bonus program, which would have allowed Pinnacle to build more market-rate housing in exchange for including rent-restricted units; and the Housing Accountability Act, which encourages construction of affordable housing.

It further alleged that Civic did not make clear in its denial what aspect of its downtown design guidelines that Pinnacle had violated. “In short, the Board’s action was erroneous and violated various state and local laws,” the letter read.

A strict read of Civic’s authority is largely limited to design review, but it often squabbles with developers for not creating enough density in projects in an effort to create more housing. Ironically, Civic agreed to largely dissolve earlier last year, with almost all downtown development now being handled by the city. But projects that started with Civic before the change will continue with the agency.

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The city’s plans are largely designed to quickly approve projects as long as developers meet the required criteria. Though limited mostly to design discussions, Civic was often the final say in the approval of major projects.

With the agency’s role changing, it might limit public hearings on projects such as Pinnacle’s. In meetings at which the developer showed plans for Pacific Heights, it received a verbal lashing by members of Local 619 Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, who have feuded with Pinnacle for years.

Pinnacle’s plan for fulfilling its low-income housing requirements was a first of its kind in San Diego, although Civic staff acknowledged it was acceptable under the law. In San Diego, developers are able to get approval for denser development, called a FAR (floor area ratio) bonus, as long as they build low-income housing within one mile of a development.

The developer’s original plan called for taking the low-income housing requirements for three different projects and putting all the rent-restricted housing in one East Village building. The projects included a 38-story mixed-use building in the Colombia neighborhood, with 144 residential units and 301 hotel rooms; a 38-story tower in East Village with 431 residential units; and Pinnacle Pacific Heights, which would have 387 market-rate units.

Pinnacle’s original plan would have created 58 affordable housing units, but it still drew criticism from members of the public and elected officials.

It drew parallels to a New York City apartment called Extell that opened in 2016 with a separate entrance for low-income renters, nicknamed a “poor door,” the New York Post reported. Like Pinnacle Pacific Heights, low-income residents did not have access to many amenities.

“Does income determine a person’s value?” Jesse Garcia, a carpenters union member, asked at the July Civic meeting. “The people of San Diego deserve dignity and equality, regardless of income. Please say no to the poor door.”

Pinnacle’s legal counsel at the July meeting, David Dick, countered that the developer should be praised for its creation of subsidized housing, instead of many builders that just pay a fee instead.

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Molnar writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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