Why the IHO is a #FAIL for Uptown, Todd Gloria, and Everyone in Between

The third Interim Height Ordinances (IHO) was passed by City Council yesterday. As passed, the IHO represents a complete failure for Uptown and for everyone involved.

If you are not familiar with the IHO, here is a brief synopsis:  The IHO caps building heights at 65 feet in Hillcrest, and 50 feet in Mission Hills without discretionary review. Buildings Heights in Bankers Hill (Park West) are limited to 65 feet, but in Bankers Hill discretionary review is allowed for taller structures. The two Interim Height Ordinances have been in effect for nearly 6 years, and look to be in effect for a full decade before (if) the Uptown Community Plan is completed.

#FAIL for the Uptown Community:
When talking about the IHO, activists in Uptown almost always talked about Outcomes such as “community character” “human scale development”, “walkable neighborhoods”, etc. Somehow, building height came to represent these outcomes, when in reality building height has little to do with them. Just look around; There are a already plenty of examples of buildings under 65 feet in Uptown that harm community character, are not human scaled, and are auto-centric. Sadly, there is nothing in the IHO that requires or encourages buildings under 65 feet to produce the outcomes that the community wants. Tragically, the IHO, by eliminating discretionary review, removes any input the community might have had on the design of buildings.

#FAIL for the Planning Department:  
Why, over the past 6 years, was the Planning Department unable to come up with a building form proposal that addressed the communities concerns and which could have been seamlessly rolled into a future, completed Uptown Community Plan? It was supposed to. In fact, the first two IHOs were passed with a sunset provision for the specific purpose of putting pressure on the Planning Department to do just that, and they still failed. Instead, 6 years – soon to be nearly a decade – will have been wasted on an ordinance that, as admitted by department staff, has no basis in urban design or urban planning principles.

But the real #FAIL of the Planning Department is that it did not listen the community. Instead of proposing a solution that would address the real concerns of community character, walkability, and human scale, the Department lazily latched onto the public’s misperceptions about building heights, and completely ignored what the community was really saying. They turned a deaf ear to what the community was saying and ignored their needs.

#FAIL for the Uptown Community Planning Group (CPG):
Instead of working with the Community and the City to create a working ordinance that would encourage good development in Uptown, the Uptown CPG voted to do just the opposite. Because the IHO does not allow for discretionary review, the Uptown CPG willfully gave up its own voice, and forfeited the voice of the community. Until the completed Community Plan is in place, the CPG and the community has no say in the design of buildings in Hillcrest and Mission Hills. In other words, they cut off their nose to spite their face.

#FAIL for The City of San Diego:
The City of San Diego has created commissions, committees, and teams, comprised of citizens and professionals that are not politically motivated, to act in an advisory capacity on complex issues. The Planning Commission and the Code Monitoring Team are two such advisory boards. In the case of the IHO, both the Planning Commission and the Code Monitoring Team emphatically recommended against the IHO and offered recommendations to improve the ordinance and address the community’s desires. However, the City Council chose to ignore the recommendations of the Planning Commission and Code Monitoring Team. Which begs the question, why go through all the effort of getting professional, non-political advise if it is repeatedly ignored?

#FAIL for Todd Gloria, Interim Mayor, and District 3 Council Representative (including Uptown):
As early as late spring 2013, word on the street was that Councilmember Gloria would support the IHO as written. If true, that means that his mind was made up prior to the Code Monitoring Team review, prior to the Planning Commission review, and prior to City Council discussion. True or not, Gloria failed the Uptown Community in many ways:

By allowing a small group of activists set the agenda (and the law) for Uptown, Gloria ignored the voices of the entire community, including the 1,300 members of the Hillcrest Business Association who opposed the IHO. To add insult to injury, those voices have now been silenced due to the lack of discretionary review in the IHO. They have no more say.

Building Heights became a political issue, not a planning issue. As discussed above, the Outcomes that the community desired were ignored by Gloria in favor of political expediency. The Planning Commission and the Code Monitoring Team both recognized this issue, but Gloria chose, on more than one occasion, to ignore their recommendations. Had he listened to the Commission and the community, the desired outcomes could have been address with a much better solution.

Needless to say, 10 years of an interim planning ordinance has spooked developers, and nearly halted economic development in Uptown. Now Uptown can only sit by and watch as new development goes up in North Park, Little Italy, Golden Hill, Downtown, and Bankers Hill.

Mr. Gloria was in the perfect position to find a solution that worked for all parties. Instead he took the easy and politically expedient route. That is a major failure of Leadership.

Walter Chambers

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When the Streets Got Mean

Matt Johnson at Greater Greater Washington gives a brief history of the war on pedestrians, and how pedestrians lost. Today, when road diets, bike lanes, and crosswalks are proposed, opponents cry “War on Cars”. But is it really?

Before the car became king, streets were for all users. Pedestrians could just stride right out into the street. Traffic on the street, horses, streetcars, and motor cars moved at very slow speeds.

With a growing mass of automobiles, drivers tried to go faster. By 1923, according to the episode, over 17,000 people were being killed by cars each year. That was up from just 12,000 in 1920, a 47% increase. The outcry was loud. People held parades to memorialize the dead, and cities began to propose laws that would make it difficult to drive.

The issue came to a head in 1923, when Cincinnati voters put an initiative on the ballot to require that every car have a governor which would limit speeds. Car manufacturers realized that if it became too difficult to drive in cities, people wouldn’t buy cars and instead choose transit or other modes.

The car lobby responded by taking the approach that cars weren’t dangerous, people were. Drivers can be reckless, they said, but then so can pedestrians. However, Americans weren’t sold on the idea of a reckless pedestrian. The lobby began to use the word “jaywalking” as a way to coerce pedestrians to cross only at corners, mainly though peer pressure. Los Angeles passed the first anti-jaywalking law in 1924.

Walter Chambers

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The Not So Mean Streets

Making our streets more livable, more walkable, and more bike-friendly is not a zero-sum game. It’s not either/or, –  us vs. them. If we do it right, everyone benefits from Great Streets. Yes, cars benefit. Businesses benefit, people benefit, bikers benefit, our children benefit, and your quality of life goes up. 

Watch this very important video to see what the streets of San Diego could be.

Walter Chambers

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The Time to Choose is Upon Us

It is written and heard a lot these days that San Diegans want walkable, livable streets and neighborhoods. It’s almost PC to say it. But when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, it appears what we really want are walkable, livable neighborhoods — as long as it doesn’t interfere with driving and parking our cars.

Can’t we have both? Why can’t pedestrians and bicycles share the road equally with cars. Why can’t we have it all?

There are many reasons why we can’t have it all, but the main reason is that there just isn’t enough space. If every automobile, pedestrian, bicycle, and transit advocate got their way, all of our streets would be over 100 feet wide, which by the way, is already not good for pedestrians. 

The fact is, we have limited space, limited choices and limited funds, So we have to prioritize our choices and make tough decisions. To date all of our choices have favored private automobiles. Street design policies, mandatory parking requirements, environmental policies, etc, all put the car as the number one priority on our streets.

Streets designed primarily for cars seem "normal" these days.

We’ve gotten pretty use to that … so much so that it seems “normal”. Now, when we talk about reclaiming some of the public realm for people and bicycles by employing road diets and traffic calming, suddenly there are outcries about “the war on cars” and complaints about parking.

The cold, hard fact is that we have run out of room. For the first time ever we need to make hard choices about how to use limited space. The East Coast got to this point years ago, and subsequently is way ahead of us on issues of transportation and livable streets and neighborhoods. But California always seemed like a place where the land extended forever – that we would never run out of room.

How serious are we in San Diego about being a walkable, livable, bike-friendly city? Decision time has come. The State is suing SANDAG over its 2050 Plan; Climate Change is upon us; Bicycle advocates are breathing down our necks; and for some reason the younger generation doesn’t seem to want to drive that much.

Putting pedestrians and people first over cars is going to mean giving up the ability to jump in the car anytime we want and always finding free parking at our destination. But what we gain could be enormous: Safer streets with fewer injuries and fatalities; better and more social neighborhoods; more innovative, creative and productive workers; and more economically vital and vibrant neighborhoods.

The choice is ours: prioritize pedestrians, or prioritize cars. I’m sorry we can’t have both as our first priority. I once read that cars are happiest when there are no other cars around, and people are happiest when there are lots of other people around. Unfortunately, cars are not happy when there are lots of people around, and people are not happy when there are lots of cars around. 

It’s time to choose. Which do you choose for your future, your children’s future, and for future generations to come?  Which do you choose for yourself and San Diego? The time has come to make the choice.

I choose people.

Walter Chambers


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$200m for Bikes – Historic, at least for San Diego

San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the regional transportation organization, recently approved an historic $200 million for bicycle projects in the region. SANDAG hopes to complete 77 miles of new bicycle facilities within the next 10 years.

This is truly historic for San Diego, and a major step for bicycle transportation. It has been praised by nearly all local bicycle advocacy groups and alternative transportation groups. GSSD applauds this move too.

But let’s put SANDAG’s $200 million / 77 miles in 10 years in perspective:
Chicago has set a goal of 662 bicycle miles by 2020 (7 years) – an increase of over 400 miles of bike facilities.
New York City has added over 200 miles of new bike facilities in the last 3 years.
Minneapolis plans to add 240 miles of new bikeways in 20 years.
Portland approved $613 million for 662 miles over the next 20 years. 

So while San Diego should pat itself on the back for making a big leap (reletive to its past spending), let’s remember, we are still very, very far behind. Nothing short of a “Manhattan Project” for pedestrian, bicycle, and transit programs will bring us up to world-class status in 20 years. We do want world-class status – don’t we?

 Walter Chambers

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San Diego on the Threshold

Remember this day, September 27, 2013. It is the day that San Diego started to get serious about transforming her City streets. How serious? $200 million serious.

Today, the SANDAG Board of Directors approved $200 million for an Early Action Program for the design and construction of the Regional Bike Plan. The top priorities in this Early Action Plan are the Uptown and Mid-City Bike Corridors. Construction of these two alone could prove to be transformative for the entire city of San Diego.

Many challenges await, especially in Uptown, which has been gripped with an odd sort of anti-progressive fervor. The Uptown Planners, the Hillcrest Town Council, the Uptown Parking Board, and Mission Hills Heritage have all come out swinging against the proposed Uptown Bike Plan. This could be Uptown’s chance to shine and be a leader in San Diego. Let’s hope they don’t blow the $43.4 million set aside just for Uptown.

In stark contrast, North Park, The Blvd, and City Heights in Mid-City have all refreshingly embraced new bicycle infrastructure proposed by the Mid-City Bike Plan. In fact, North Park recently prioritized bike facilities on 30th Ave as a part of their Capital Improvement Program.

Nonetheless, this will take all the political strength and will that Todd Gloria, District 3 Council Representative, Council President, and Interim Mayor, can muster. There will be times when he will be unpopular if he fulfills his promises to move forward with world-class bicycle facilities. Just ask NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But just as in NYC, and other cities around the USA, the new bicycle facilities prove to be hugely popular once finished.

This is just a start. $200 million is a drop in the bucket compared to what other cities are spending. Yet, it is a very important start because the first steps are the hardest. The first steps have the power to transform.

Do it right. Do it Big. Make it World-class. That is the challenge SANDAG gave to San Diego today. 

Walter Chambers

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Sane voices on the Uptown IHO

Planning Commissioner Eric Naslund provides a most compelling and eloquent argument against the Uptown IHO (Interim Heigh Ordinance). Follow this link, select September 19th, and Skip to 3:29:10 in the video.

“You can in fact preserve and protect the important assets of your community, and you can allow and encourage reinvestment and improvements in your community simultaneously. And in fact great cities do this every single day.”

“It is not merely about the preservation of our grandparents voices, but it is about adding our voice in a meaningful way to that continuation of history and the dialogue over time. And we can’t do that with a gag over over someones mouth to make that happen.”

The Planning Commission voted to recommend to City Council that the Interim Height Ordinance be discretionary for all areas of Uptown, and to be co-terminus with the completion of the Uptown Community Plan update.

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The Impossible Dream

Have you read the San Diego General Plan? Of course you haven’t. Who would? So let me tell you -  it is filled with great ideas, good design, and a big vision for San Diego. Heck, it won the APA’s Nation Planning Excellence Award in 2010.

If San Diego followed its General Plan, the City really could be America’s Finest City. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to implement much of the General Plan because San Diego’s statutes and policies are in direct conflict with the walkable, livable, City of Villages vision called for in the General Plan.

There is a serious disconnect between Plan and Policy which needs to be fixed ASAP. I hope our Mayor and City Council will work with the Planning Department, Transportation Department, Development Services, and Land Use and Housing to correct San Diego’s policies so that the General Plan and City Policies work as one, and not against each other. It’s time to let The Dream come true.

Walter Chambers

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Frontage Fail or What Happened to Architecture?

I just returned from beautiful, exciting Prague, Czech Republic, where I had the opportunity to come face to face with Frank Gehry’s “Dancing Houses”.  Below is photo of the entire building – the view you are probably most familiar with.  

Dancing Houses, architect Frank Gehry

Here are two more photos taken from street level – a view you may not be familiar with. Photo one is of the entrance of the building next door. Photo two, taken approximately 15 feet from photo one, is the entry of Dancing Houses.

Enough said.

Walter Chambers


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San Diego’s future is being tried out in Uptown first

Uptown has been volunteered to be a leader in San Diego. They didn’t exactly ask to be, but challenges and changes coming to Uptown may very well influence the future of San Diego.

Two changes are coming to Uptown in the next two years. First, SANDAG has prioritized it’s Uptown Regional Bike Plan and is pushing forward to add great bicycle facilities in Uptown’s business districts. Secondly, Bike Share will become a reality in January 2014.

If Uptown embraces these changes and challenges, it will have a significant impact on the City. That may be asking a lot from simple bike lanes, but other cites that have already followed this path have experience a transformation.

Uptown’s biggest challenge may be its Community Plan update. Here too, Uptown has a chance to lead the City.

This proposed Transportation Policy for the Community Plan update could make Uptown not only a progressive leader for San Diego, but have a major impact on everything from neighborhood quality of life, to climate change.

Help Uptown become the visionary leaders they are capable of being.  Support the Uptown 21C Transportation Policy.
Sign a Petition of support here:  Uptown 21C Petition 

Why Uptown? I’m not sure. But San Diego’s future is being tried out in Uptown first. Can Uptown lead San Diego into a better, more livable, more sustainable, and economically successful future? It’s a responsibility not to be taken lightly.


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