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‘I’m claiming victory’: Measure C is poised to lift the coastal height limit in the Midway District

Pechanga Arena San Diego in the Midway District seen from Presidio Park.
Pechanga Arena in the Midway District is seen from Presidio Park.
(Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diegans seemingly have agreed to end the moratorium on buildings taller than 30 feet in the 1,324-acre area that includes the sports arena.

San Diegans seemingly have agreed to end the moratorium on buildings taller than 30 feet in the Midway District — albeit by a much slimmer margin than when voters considered an identical measure two years ago.

More than a week after Election Day, the Measure C ballot proposal to strike the Midway-Pacific Highway Community Plan area from San Diego’s coastal height limit overlay zone appears headed for approval. As of the evening of Nov. 16, 51.13 percent of votes were in favor and 48.87 percent were opposed, according to the latest update from the San Diego County registrar of voters office.

Though some ballots remain uncounted, proponents of the measure consider the matter settled.

“I’m claiming victory,” said San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate, who spearheaded the effort to put the measure before voters. He didn’t think the proposal would win by the same margin as the 2020 initiative, Measure E, “but we were confident that folks were going to see the benefits and pass the measure,” Cate said.

The registrar of voters office estimated there are 15,000 ballots left to count in San Diego County. Only a portion of those apply to Measure C, as it was presented only to voters in the city of San Diego.

The results theoretically promise to usher in a new era for a neighborhood best known for its industrialized superblocks, congested thoroughfares and antiquated sports arena.

That’s because the 1,324-acre Midway District would, for the first time in 50 years, exist outside the city’s coastal zone, where new buildings taller than 30 feet are forbidden. The coastal territory, defined by Proposition D in 1972, extends in city limits from Interstate 5 to the water, with carve-outs for downtown, National City and parts of Mission Bay.

The change would open the door to towers up to 100 feet on some Midway District parcels, with developers allowed to go higher if they take advantage of density bonuses.

San Diego voters will once again decide whether the 1,324-acre area west of Interstate 5 should be home to buildings over 30 feet tall.

The city’s 48-acre sports arena property at 3220, 3240, 3250 and 3500 Sports Arena Blvd. is first in line for a major change. Earlier this year, City Council members selected the Midway Rising development team to redo the sports arena site with 4,250 apartment homes, a new 16,000-seat arena, a 200-room hotel and 20 acres of plaza and park space.

But the opposition has not conceded. The legality of Measure C already is being contested. In August, environmental activist group Save Our Access filed a civil action against the city in San Diego County Superior Court claiming that the measure violates the California Environmental Quality Act because the city did not sufficiently study all the impacts associated with removing the height limit.

Last year, the same group won a lawsuit invalidating Measure E, which also sought to change the city’s municipal code to exclude the Midway District from the coastal zone and was approved by 57 percent of voters.

“We filed a lawsuit that said the city had not done a proper [environmental impact report] after the judge ordered it. And the city went ahead and put [Measure C] on the ballot,” said John McNab, who runs Save Our Access and helped organize the opposition campaign. “We protested it being on the ballot because they didn’t provide the proper information.

“Yes, we fought the battle on the measure, but our focus has been on the law and the city following the law.”

The cloud of uncertainty likely will stall immediate investor interest, though it won’t be a roadblock for Dike Anyiwo, who chairs the Midway-Pacific Highway Community Planning Group.

“We won this election and so we have to operate under the premise that we’ve won,” Anyiwo said. “We will take that understanding and belief into this next year. If the courts come back and change the current trajectory, then so be it.

“For the sake of my sanity, my blood pressure, I refuse to be bogged down by [the lawsuit]. We won an election for the second time in a row, with a smaller outcome, but we still won. And now it’s time to do the work.”

Both camps agree that 2022’s more divided electorate on the building-height debate is a product of voters seeing the same ballot proposal twice.

“Voters are getting a second bite of the apple,” Cate said. “I think there’s an assumed skepticism that comes with seeing something a second time. Folks may not understand or know the nuances behind why [Measure C] was placed on the ballot again — because of a lawsuit.”

San Diegans also may have been paying more attention to the city’s efforts to select a development team to redo the sports arena real estate, as the process was thrust into the political spotlight after the previous effort ran afoul of the state Surplus Land Act.

Save Our Access also appeared to run a more organized campaign this go-around, with rallies in Pacific Beach and Mission Bay, all while on a limited budget.

As of Oct. 28, the Yes on C campaign had raised $675,263, whereas the opposition campaign, the Reform Local Government PAC, had raised $39,706.

“Everywhere people were educated, we won the vote,” McNab said, referencing his group’s successful push to win over voters in coastal communities but its inability to reach people in north city communities east of Interstate 5. “The places we could not get to are the only places that voted yes.”

“This could go on the ballot a third time,” he said. “And if it [does], the public will be so educated that I doubt [the city is] going to win a third vote.”


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