Back in June, a bunch of people got together in Bay Park to talk about our views as it relates to regulations around a height limit along Morena Blvd. In addition to enjoying a very tasty Jurata (a collaboration beer between Coronado Brewing and Cigar City in Tampa), lots of good came out of that trek. Here’s how it went down.The first thing I’d point out is that the goal of this little adventure wasn’t to change minds – it was to understand. You can quickly read the first part of this series here. Personally, I wanted to know from people in that immediate neighborhood what the scope of the concerns was. And I wanted to share why what happens in Bay Park really does matter to those of us who live in North Park or Hillcrest or other parts of the city. So, I hopped on my bike and headed out for the Bay Park section of Clairemont.
I had given a presentation that morning downtown for Hack for Change on Models for Community Based Public Leadership, so I wasn’t coming straight from North Park. This meant some slight navigational hurdles on my bike from C Street downtown, up Harbor Drive and ultimately to the bike lane pictured above. That bike lane is just colored paint, so not as safe as a cycle track (example here), but for those who have ridden that road, it’s quite a step up from the nothing that used to be there. Anyway, I felt my way through the streets – and that oh-so-confusing stretch of West Morena and Morena – and ended up at an intersection with a “no 60 feet” sign. Later, I passed a telephone pole with this on it.
This story may feel a little biased, but I’m trying to describe it as it happened. I’m not sure exactly what the objection is to housing that is affordable, but, well, free speech and all. Ultimately, I wound my way up to the actual Morena Blvd and was on my way to the rendezvous point – a convenience store near where some of the changes would be. I made it, then was joined on bike by fellow North Parker turned South Parker Jeff K., Bay Park activist Jeff Johnson, and a few other guys from the immediate community of Bay Park. It’s always fun to meet new people, and these guys were no exception. I wondered if Jeff J. (who I’ve only half- jokingly nicknamed pitchfork for his commitment to high-octane rabble rousing) had pre-conditioned these guys to view us North Parkers as harmful outsiders coming to cause trouble. If he did, they didn’t show it and were as hospitable to us as we could have hoped for.
The cool thing about riding bikes is that it feels like being 10 again. Even though we were here for a purpose, it was hard not to enjoy the nostalgia and emotional connection to those days when very little mattered. Our first stop on the tour de Bay Park was a guy named Josh’s front lawn. I don’t remember everyone’s names because it was a few months ago, but I remember when we got to the top of a hill and saw this
This is a view from Josh’s front lawn (I think). It’s a nice view. And I imagine it’s pretty awesome when Fourth of July rolls around. What was better than the view, in my opinion, is the conversation that happened next. There were several friends already on the lawn – all of whom opposed the height limit in very strong terms. One of the friends points out that they bought this house in part because of the view and the feel of the neighborhood at the time they bought. He pondered why he should simply let the city come in and change that character that he’d paid a handsome amount of money for. His across the street neighbor, who had built a second story on his own home just slightly down the hill, chimed in that neighbors on this hill were generally careful not to build in such a way as to screw the neighbors further away from the water.
I mentioned that when much of this area was farmland, the first residences had to change the character of the area – which probably ticked off more than a few farmers who had also purchased their land thinking they’d have free reign over the area. I also wanted to get at whether the issue was primarily the height limit leading to blocked views or were there other concerns as well. One member of the group pointed out that this was also about preventing Morena Blvd from getting so overrun with traffic that it was even more unsafe and unwieldy than it already was and preventing the city from building more homes in a drought-stricken region with limited water supply and a more than $4 Billion shortfall in stormwater and sewer facilities. Those two concerns unlock way more of a situation than I can faithfully cover here. I’ve written a bit about our infrastructure issues HERE, but suffice it to say that there are many, many things our city has failed to fix or maintain and we do have serious water shortage issues. (Aside: The state just voted on putting a multi-billion dollar water bond measure on the ballot and we finally got a new desalination plant to increase local water, so there’s much to consider on the water topic)
When I had a chance to respond, it occurred to me that this was one of those moments where your principles only matter if you stand by them in an uncomfortable situation, so I basically had two responses. First, Jeff’s demand that the city fix every inch of municipal water and sewer infrastructure before even beginning to relax housing restrictions is a red herring. The argument is misleading because that is not how any city (or individual family, for that matter) actually fixes major systems. We don’t buy our houses in cash up front because it is a bad use of our resources for something we expect to have for 30 years or more. And we wouldn’t do that with a sewer system because it is going to be used by people who aren’t born yet, so we spread out the cost so everyone who uses it pays a little. I leave the enterprise vs general fund conversation for another day. The other point I wanted to make was a harder one. Basically, I understand the concern about changing the neighborhood, but I think the city has a responsibility to all of its citizens and sometimes that means we need to have shared sacrifice. So I said that. There are never massive fires in North Park, but we still pay to help Rancho Bernardo out when fire season comes. And the only way San Diego is going to be even somewhat affordable is if every community takes on some of the increased housing supply we need to help bring the costs down. And honestly, building right next to a trolley is just good planning. We didn’t necessarily agree on these points, but I wanted to make the point that for us in other parts of the city, it isn’t just about coming in and trying to pee on some other community’s parade. It’s about looking at our individual neighborhoods as part of a larger city and region and figuring out how to share in the positives and negatives.
Then it was back on the bikes to head to Coronado Brewing Company to support San Diego’s most popular light manufacturing industry – craft beer!
We were joined by several people who skipped the bike tour and we nestled in to the back room for a fun, robust conversation. It was a little strange at first because usually these things happen more organically but because of the topic it started like a formal panel discussion. Fortunately, as the tasters of Mermaid Red and Islander IPA and Orange Avenue Wit started showing up everyone kind of relaxed into a mix of conversations.
The one thing that really stuck with me, other than how nice it was to have earnest conversations without screaming at one another, was this guy named Gerald who mentioned he was trying to work on a project that would help the neighbors have more control over the increase in homes and make it maybe slightly less than the city was calling for but still be a big increase. I wonder if that process is moving along. This whole thing happened during a local City Council election cycle, and one of the biggest disappointments for me was that neither candidate took this opportunity to tell a very plain truth – San Diego is growing from within and we need more housing in smarter places.
Post Script – Single family home ownership
A funny thing happened since I made that trip up to Bay Park – my wife and I made a substantial investment in a single family home on a quiet street in North Park. I still maintain that the 300 families of one section of a City Council District shouldn’t be able to control the outcome of something that impacts not only the other couple hundred thousand people in that district, but the rest of the city. And I believe that as much about my own neighborhood as about Bay Park or Hillcrest or anywhere else in San Diego. That said, as I stood on my own front lawn the day we closed I thought about Josh’s front lawn. I wondered how I’d react to learning that a high rise was going in at the end of my street (which, by the way, would probably be appropriate for University Ave).
I don’t know the answers to how I would react. I hope I’d maintain the same opinions I have now. I hope any fear I might have about whatever things I don’t want around my house wouldn’t override an effort to do our part for all of San Diego. I’d find it supremely personally hypocritical to say that someone else should accept change and then not do it myself. But until I’m in that position I suppose it’s hard to be certain. For now, I’ll be thankful that we had the good fortune to buy a new place. And even more thankful that I could take a Saturday, ride my bike across town to another neighborhood, and exchange some views with people who may not see things the same way but were decent about our disagreement.