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More high-rise housing, 50k new residents: San Diego planners unveil proposal to transform Hillcrest

The neighborhood’s new growth blueprint would add one-way streets, pedestrian promenades and an LGBTQ historic district


Photo by San Diego Magazine


Hillcrest would have dozens of 20- and 30-story buildings, more one-way streets, new public promenades and roughly 50,000 more residents under a new land-use proposal unveiled this month by San Diego planning officials.

The proposed update to Hillcrest’s blueprint for future growth would allow downtown-style high-rise housing along existing transportation corridors and on revamped versions of the neighborhood’s two large hospital campuses.

It also calls for celebrating the legacy of Hillcrest’s gay community — which continues to thrive after emerging in the 1970s — with a special historic district featuring public art, preserved buildings, plaques and other attractions.

The 20,000 new units of housing in Hillcrest could swell the population of Uptown — a wider area that also includes University Heights, Mission Hills and Bankers Hill — from today’s 51,000 to an estimated 113,500 by 2050.

The proposal, which residents can comment on through Nov. 17, focuses only on a 350-acre area that covers a large swath of central Hillcrest and small slivers of University Heights and Mission Hills near the hospitals.

City planners acknowledge the changes would make Hillcrest, a community north of downtown that dates back to the city’s early 1900s streetcar system, more urban, congested and noisy.

To help soften the impact, planners are proposing leafy promenades, pocket parks and ambitious transit proposals that don’t yet come with many details.

They include an aerial skyway connecting Hillcrest to Mission Valley, a streetcar system connected to Logan Heights and Golden Hill and a commuter rail line that would connect to much of the rest of the region.

The plan also calls for transforming some two-way streets into one-way streets to ease congestion, including University and Robinson avenues — two of the three busiest streets in Hillcrest, along with Washington Street.

Community leaders are praising the plan for being aggressive in addressing the city’s housing crisis, but they’re also saying it feels rushed and overly ambitious.

“We knew the plan would add a lot more housing, but this is even more than we expected,” said Stu McGraw, chair of the Uptown Community Planning Group and leader of that group’s subcommittee focused on this proposal. “It’s surprising, and we have a lot of questions.”

While opposition was expected from residents who believe dense housing destroys neighborhood character, McGraw said that even residents who are particularly enthusiastic about adding density to Hillcrest are concerned.

He said that’s primarily because the proposal doesn’t adequately address Hillcrest’s lack of libraries, parks and other community amenities, a problem that will only grow with 50,000 more residents.

Residents frequently complain that San Diego’s Uptown neighborhoods don’t have enough parkland and green space. While a new library branch opened in Mission Hills four years ago, residents say the University Heights branch must be expanded.

McGraw said the transportation proposals, which would be crucial to keeping Hillcrest livable with so many more people, are particularly disappointing.

“There is nothing concrete, just these pie-in-the-sky ideas,” McGraw said Thursday.

He also said community leaders feel like the process is a bit rushed. The proposal has been under discussion for more than three years, but the city is only allowing a few weeks for comments.

City officials say feedback can be submitted through Nov. 17 to on what they are calling a first draft of the proposal.

“This feedback will be considered for the second draft,” according to the city’s website.

“The second draft will then be available for further feedback in early 2024, which will again be updated based on further feedback before it is presented to the City Council for adoption by summer 2024.”

City officials have called the new effort a partial “do-over” of a 2016 update to the growth blueprint for Uptown. That effort has been criticized for not increasing housing capacity despite San Diego’s ongoing housing crisis.

Instead of re-doing the whole update just a few years later, city officials decided to tackle only Hillcrest, because they say it’s the area most ripe for denser housing.

If the proposal is approved, it will be the first time the city has approved an increase in density for the area since 1988. And the proposal takes a bold approach to adding more density.

The maximum density now allowed is 109 dwelling units per acre, which typically allows for buildings of 10 to 12 stories.

The proposal would double that to 218 units per acre in some areas and nearly triple it in some limited spots to 290 units per acre. That means buildings of 20 and even 30 stories could be built in Hillcrest.

The proposal would also make preserving single-family homes a lower priority and change city policy on whether developers should seek to have new projects blend in visually with their surroundings.

Preserving single-family homes would no longer be a priority in Hillcrest unless the homes contribute to the area’s historic character. And buffers between single-family areas and business districts would no longer be a priority, the proposal says.

The proposal calls for several efforts to boost walkability, including pedestrian promenades on Normal Street, University Avenue and Robinson Avenue.

The Normal Street promenade would run between University Avenue and Washington Street, the University Avenue promenade would run between Sixth Avenue and Park Boulevard, and the Robinson Avenue promenade would run between First and Seventh avenues.

The plan also aims to encourage cycling by calling for more bicycle lanes on many streets.

The proposal also suggests the hospitals and other large employers provide their workers with discounted transit passes, charge them for parking and provide on-site showers to make cycling a more realistic option.

City planners say the LGBTQ+ cultural district would be the first comprehensive effort to recognize and protect Hillcrest’s legacy as the center of San Diego’s gay community.

The district would include much of University Avenue, Fifth Avenue south of Washington Street and bits of Normal and Harvey Milk streets.

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