San Diego voters to get chance in November to lift 30-foot height limit near sports arena
San Diego voters will get a chance in November to lift the city’s coastal 30-foot height limit for a relatively small swath of land that surrounds the aging sports arena property in the Midway District.
The City Council voted 7-2 on July 21 to place on the November ballot a proposal to lift the building height limit in a 1,300-acre area sandwiched among Interstate 5, Point Loma, Mission Bay Park and San Diego International Airport.
Rival developers are proposing contrasting visions for the future of San Diego’s 48-acre sports arena property in an area that city officials hope to transform into a thriving entertainment district with dense housing projects.
Two rival developers have proposed large housing projects and entertainment districts there that can’t happen with the nearly 50-year-old height limit in place, so the city’s ambitions for the area depend on whether voters approve the ballot measure.
Supporters say the measure makes sense because there are no views to protect around the arena, and the Midway District is an ideal spot for dense projects that would help solve San Diego’s housing crisis.
Dense projects make sense there, supporters say, because the area is centrally located near freeways, the airport, the city’s beach communities and the Old Town Transit Center.
The council approved a new development blueprint for the area in 2018 that would increase housing units from 2,000 to 11,000 and increase the population from 4,500 to 27,000.
Critics say the ballot measure could be the first step toward San Diego lifting the height limit in the rest of the coastal zone — La Jolla, Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, Mission Beach and Point Loma.
Council members Barbara Bry and Georgette Gómez voted against placing the measure on the ballot.
Bry said the proposal doesn’t adequately consider other development planned nearby. Gómez said she is concerned about potential conflicts between the ballot measure and recent city efforts to solicit development proposals that would violate the height limit.
Councilman Chris Ward, who voted in favor, said voters should have a chance to lift the height limit in one small area.
“It’s a proposal for a targeted, limited height removal,” he said. “It deserves to at least be placed before the voters.”
Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, who co-sponsored the measure with Councilman Chris Cate, said lifting the height limit would help transform the neighborhood.
“The Midway community has been asking for this change for several years,” said Campbell, whose District 2 includes the area. “They need to build up — not out — to achieve the desired green space. This community is in need of revitalization.”
Campbell emphasized that the measure wouldn’t eliminate height limits in the Midway area but would just take away the 30-foot cap approved by voters in 1972 for all San Diego neighborhoods west of Interstate 5.
If a simple majority of voters approve the measure, each property in the Midway area would be subject to whatever height limit the zoning allows — limits that now range from 30 feet to 100 feet.
Opponents of the measure say it is a ploy by developers to weaken the height limit, which they say has prevented San Diego from looking like Miami Beach or Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach, where high-rises line the shore.
“This proposal is the latest cynical attempt by developers to undermine the citizen’s initiative overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1972,” said Mat Wahlstrom of Rescue Hillcrest.
But most speakers during the July 21 council meeting expressed support.
“The slippery-slope argument made by communities along the coast is not valid,” said resident Seth Lemerman. “This is a vote to allow for more housing in an area primed for investment, allowing more San Diegans to have an affordable place to live.”