San Diego apartment renters doomed by conversions

Condo crunch

Former Del Mar Mayor Tom Pearson remarked, to my complete chagrin, that my testimony had  convinced him to support the conversion.
  • Former Del Mar Mayor Tom Pearson remarked, to my complete chagrin, that my testimony had convinced him to support the conversion.
  • Image by John Maher

I testified recently before the San Diego Regional Coast Commission, in behalf of some Mission Beach friends. Their 6-unit apartment complex. Far Horizon, is being yanked from under them for conversion to condominiums. First the Commission has to approve the conversion.

Gary Weber, city planner: "Conversions have only become an issue in the last year.”

Gary Weber, city planner: "Conversions have only become an issue in the last year.”

I told the commissioners why it was a bad idea to let the units sell. I cited building and health code violations, inconsistencies with the Mission Beach Precise Plan, and deviations in spirit from the Coast Commission’s proposed general plan. I mentioned the pest problem, faulty wiring, inadequate heating and soundproofing — the sorts of things a tenant knows but a prospective buyer might not. I questioned whether the building, designed for apartment living, would be adequate as a condo/home. 1 particularly focused on the socio-economic upheaval created when selective development and high prices drive certain cultural and income groups out of the community. Many families have been forced to leave, and the elementary school is closed; few children are left in Mission Beach.

When I finished speaking. City councilman and former Del Mar Mayor Tom Pearson remarked, to my complete chagrin, that my testimony had pretty much convinced him to support the conversion. He agreed with the landlord’s Coronado attorney, Don Worley, that beach ticky-tacky looks a lot better as a condo, due to the restoring effects of “pride in ownership.” Commissioner Leslie Parker added that, as he saw it, “there are two clear choices; If we don’t approve the conversion, the building stays the same.” So much for criticism of the landlord’s responsibilities. “If we do approve the conversion, it’s going to look better.”

Nobody mentioned the cultural/economic impact, although it is a clearly stated concern of the Coastal Zone Conservation Act of 1972, approved publicly as Proposition 20. The Regional Coast Commissions are charged to uphold this act. The very first sentence of the Coast Act, section 27001, states that “the California coastal zone is a distinct and valuable resource belonging to all the people.” (emphasis by the Conservation Commission). It further provides, in section 27302(b), for the “orderly, balanced utilization and preservation ... of all living and non-living coastal zone resources.” In a San Diego decision involving a South Bay Chicano community threatened by industrialization, these resources have been interpreted to mean people; construction denied. And the preliminary version of the Coastal Plan, scheduled for presentation to the Governor and Legislature this Fall, states that coastal development serving the public, such as resorts, hotels and rental housing, should have priority over developments that are essentially private, such as" typical residential development. All of this is intended to guarantee broad public access to the coastline experience. Yet the main impediment to the Far Horizon conversion, according to our local commissioners, is the lack of landscaping, the looks.

They assume this will be resolved by Pride in Ownership, as though Pride in Ownership were a commodity, a fixture purchased along with a condominium’s plumbing and parking stall. Pride in Ownership: a prime ingredient in “home” magazines such as Leisure Living and House Beautiful. It’s behind the sale of condos from National City to Mission Gorge to the Del Mar sloughs. Condominiums are an accessible slice of American property lire, where pride grows out of ownership in the same way that money comes from responsibility.

Yet, somehow, pride in ownership hasn’t affected the current landlord. A Bay area ophthalmologist, he maintains a second-floor apartment for his personal holiday use, and knows how the building looks.

Despite the assertions of his attorney, who also represents Larry Lawrence, owner of the Del Coronado hotel, pride in ownership fails to answer other important queries.

Such as: is it an apartment, or is it a condominium? There’s a big difference, bigger than rent vs. mortgage. While legally all a condominium owner buys is the air space, he also expects a certain kind of lifestyle — look again at the magazines or marketing literature — largely inconsistent with the design of an apartment building. The two structures reflect essentially different purposes, one transient, one private.

On the other hand, in the eyes of he City Planning Department, and other kindred agencies, there is no difference between a condo and an apartment — they’re all “multi-unit structures.” So fine is the distinction that even finding out how many conversions have been made is something like finding out why you have to close your eyes when you sneeze. Perhaps the distinction is simply one of marketing nomenclature; after all, if you want to call your Clairemont business “La Jolla Flapdoodle,” you can do it. Saying makes it so.

It’s up to CoastWatch, a Sierra Club equivalent, and related citizens’ organizations to notice these incompatibilities and act on them. That’s why CoastWatch is involved with Far Horizon — incompatibilities: between promotion and the product, between private profit and public good. Bearing in mind that condominium development has potentially damaging impact on any community, CoastWatch attorneys look into every case before the Commission.

According to Stan Eller, CoastWatch attorney, many condominium developments don’t support their weight in the community, despite heavy tax levies. Ultimately, fundamental transportation, protection and utilities services are funded by the existing community.

For example, it is estimated that a new development planned by Tamarack Investors Limited II for Carlsbad will generate an additional 300 vehicle trips per day on Tamarack Avenue, already well over capacity. Carlsbad Mayor Robert Frazee says there is no money or intent to widen the street for some time, if ever. To compound the problem. Tamarack Avenue is the popular route for children going to the beach, despite inadequate sidewalks and vehicle traffic saturation.

Concerned about the children, Carlsbad Community Cause, a group originally organized to fight the proposed SDG&E refinery, is now resisting the Tamarack development. Joan Jackson, Community Cause spokesman, asserts that the land is not ready for development until adequate facilities are provided for the present residents and children. Premature development not only adds to the danger — last year a school-crossing guard was struck and killed on Tamarack — but also sets a precedent leading.it is feared, to wide-scale development. The Tamarack project calls for over 50% landscaping. Yet even a project this thoughtful, duplicated without limit, is visually monotonous.

Condominium developers do make their projects attractive — nay, persuasive — to government agencies and the buying public.

To appease the Coastal Commission, Tamarack Investors is offering trees, 50 per building, around 2 per occupant. While that's enough to satisfy the Commission, it's got all the aesthetic appeal of a body count. Local residents don't measure the quality of their environment in statistics.

Unlike the Commission, the public must be persuaded on the basis of real quality; buyers like to plunk down money for something they can be proud of. Still, a bit of hyperbole never hurt sales. Ergo, Tamarack Investors claims the Commission’s jurisdiction is mitigated by low hills which intervene between the proposed development and the beach. This won’t stop them from calling the site something like others similarly detached yet lyrically christened — “Lighthouse Hill” (near the Escondido freeway), “Mission Bay Condominiums” (east of I-5, in Morena), or “La Costa” (near San Marcos).

The Commission should be interested in the decline of condominium sales. Recorded facts of First American Title indicate that by late 1974, over 8,000 of San Diego’s 17,000 condominiums remained unsold.

Yet there is a rental unit shortage which, coupled with the record of conversions which have failed, should carry weight against conversion support. The conspicuous Top of the Beach, for example, stood vacant over North Mission for nearly a year, with inadequate parking and zero landscaping. Another, what Richard Spaulding of the Daily Transcript calls “spectacular,” example of conversion failure is “Le Rondolet” on Shelter Island, a luxury apartment complex converted over a year ago to condos. Faced with impossibly high prices and unsold units, Le Rondolet has gone back to renting, an interesting legal situation.

The business and the beauty of condominiums can still suffer for no lack of pride, but exposing the failures won’t help the tenants of Far Horizon. They want to stay on the beach. Far Horizon may not be a great apartment, and surely a worse condominium, but it is cheap.

The final vote isn’t in, but conversion resistance will probably fail with the Coastal Commission because the commissioners aren’t obligated to an interest in fair play and “total community.” They’re interested in covered garbage and 30% landscaping.

Perhaps the tenants’ hope is in appeal to other agencies which must have something to do with conversions.

The conversion has to pass the City Planning Department, right? No, because the impact of conversions isn’t considered great enough to worry about, yet. According to Gary Weber, city planner, “we ought to be dealing with it, but conversions have only become an issue in the last year.” He points out that some cities limit conversions to protect the rights of tenants who, forced out with no alternatives, wind up “floundering in the market looking for a place to live.” San Diego is now experiencing a rental unit shortage and “condominium saturation,” with attendant socio/economic problems as costs rise. To date, the city council hasn’t taken action.

The building Inspector ought to be interested in Far Horizon’s failure to meet building codes. But the Building Department has nothing to do with conversions — no requirements, no permits, no inspections. According to one supervisor, “we just stay out of it.” The liabilities become the responsibility of the new owner.

What about the California State Department of Real Estate? Sorry, “we only process the reports.” These reports, the so-called “CC, & R” for Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions, are public notification that certain legal requirements have been met. The department acts as an enforcement agency only if its own terms of filing aren’t observed.

The title companies? They do up the forms. But according to Mrs. Ling, of Title Insurance and Trust, they’re supposed to protect the innocent buyer, too. Not, however, from faulty wiring or leaky gas heaters, but from contractual hazards.

The Regional Coast Commission wants the place to look better, the Planning Department and Building Inspector are only concerned with new construction — eventually, the Far Horizon apartments will be condominiums. Several of my friends — teachers, a Navy lifer, a waitress with a B.A., proud people with just enough to get by — will be forced out. To be replaced by tenants who can afford to buy their pride.

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