Residents in Mission Beach are accusing a La Jolla–based developer of using outdated maps and other tricks to try and skirt local planning laws and to avoid building a community park. They claim that doing so jeopardizes the future of development in Mission Beach and threatens to tarnish the character of the beach community.
The developer is La Jolla–based McKellar McGowan. The project proposes transforming the 2.23-acre former Mission Beach Elementary School site — which the firm purchased from the San Diego Unified School District for $18.5 million in 2013 — into a 63-unit multi-family residential development.
On April 11, the two-year dispute played out in front of San Diego’s city council. After four hours of debate, residents suffered defeat when councilmembers voted to ignore their complaints and approve the proposal.
Mission Beach residents now say a lawsuit will likely follow.
The elementary school was built in 1925. In 1950, the district added a kindergarten program, auditorium, and cafeteria on six adjoining lots south of the main campus, along Santa Barbara Place. In 1952, according to records from the San Diego County Assessor’s Office, the southern property was added to the pre-existing property to the north, resulting in a combined 2.23 acres.
In 1973, San Diego Unified School District closed the school down. During the following 40 years the campus was used as administrative offices and housed an adult-education program.
Then, in 2012, school-district officials announced they were selling the property in order to raise funds. As a condition under the sale of public land, other public agencies, including the City of San Diego, were allowed a chance to purchase the land before any private companies. Yet, despite former mayor Bob Filner’s attempts to buy the land and turn it into a park, the funds were not available and the sale moved to include private developers. In May 2013, McKellar McGowan announced they were the winning bid of $18.5 million.
Tensions between developer and the Mission Beach Precise Planning Board, the group in charge of reviewing new projects in Mission Beach, mounted.
In November 2013, one month before McKellar McGowan closed escrow, the group blasted preliminary plans to close public alleys, combine and reconfigure lots, all while setting aside only 1500 square feet of park land. The planning board rejected the proposal, citing several issues that violated the Mission Beach Planned District Ordinance.
For residents and planning-group members, Mission Beach’s Planned District Ordinance is sacrosanct. Ratified in 1979, the ordinance adds more teeth and a stronger bite to land-use plans. For example, it established standard lot sizes of 30 feet by 80 feet and set maximum height limits. Most guidelines and restrictions had been in place since the Mission Beach community was developed in the early 1900s. The purpose of the ordinance, according to the city’s municipal code, was to “preserve and enhance the cultural, aesthetic or economic value of neighborhoods having special importance due to their historical significance or because of their being part of older, established communities and neighborhoods.”
In Mission Beach, that has meant adhering to strict guidelines in regards to density, height, lot size, traffic, and park land.
The absence of community parks in Mission Beach has always been a touchy subject for residents. According to a City of San Diego planning document, population and density levels dictate that Mission Beach should have 13 acres of park land. Currently, Mission Beach has zero — city planners and others don’t factor in the beach and bay areas due to high use by tourists.
Residents had urged the city to purchase the former elementary school in order to turn it into a park before it was sold to private developers. But, after the sale was finalized, they were pleased to learn that city staff rejected the proposed 1500-square-foot park and required one ten times the size, .35 acres, to be built in its place.
“While [the pocket park] is a start at providing population-based park requirements on site, based on the concept drawing, staff anticipates recommending .35 acres, or 15,250 square feet, of population-based park land,” reads the December staff report.
Local planners lobbied McKellar McGowan to build a .35-acre park under a large ficus tree on the six adjoining lots located at the southern portion of the property, where a kindergarten class and auditorium once was.
The developer had different plans. Using a zoning map from before the opening of the kindergarten in 1950, McKellar McGowan discovered that the six-lot parcel was zoned residential. In May 2014 they informed the Mission Beach Precise Planning Board that they were going to split the development into two projects. Doing so exempted city-council review for the smaller project and reduced the size of the park.
The new plans called for turning the six-lot parcel into 12 residential units called Santa Barbara Place Residences, with no park requirement. The northern parcels, referred to as the Mission Beach Residences, would have 51 units and would include a .19-acre pocket park, which would run parallel to Mission Beach Boulevard. Instead of standard-sized lots, the proposal would reconfigure lots, turn public alleys private in order to make room for triplexes and quadplexes on site, amounting to a total of 63 multi-family units.
Lobbyists, including San Diego’s former development services director Marcela Escobar-Eck’s firm, Atlantis Group, lobbied city officials to approve the project.
In January 2016, planning commissioners dismissed the residents’ concerns, and commissioner James Whalen accused residents of “sandbagging.” In the end, the board unanimously approved the development as two separate projects.
Residents say council needs to act and force the developer to abide by the Planned District Ordinance.
Dennis Lynch was a pupil in the first year of kindergarten at Mission Beach Elementary. For the better part of 35 years, he has reviewed building proposals for the Mission Beach Precise Planning Board. Lynch disagrees that the school was ever two separate parcels and feels as if splitting the two using an erroneous map is a direct affront to the community.
“By moving forward with this plan the developer has essentially told the community that they, nor anyone else, need to abide by the tenets in the Planned District Ordinance,” says Lynch. “This is a classic example of a developer trying to stick it to the community all for the hopes of maximizing profits. It is incredibly serious. We never have had an attack on our Planned District Ordinance such as this. In the past, people have accepted our rules. If council ignores this then a precedent will be set in Mission Beach, and elsewhere, for that matter. It will tell developers and investors that our planning guidelines, our community groups, can be discredited and ignored.
“This project is unlike the vast majority of projects I’ve seen in my 30-some-odd years reviewing projects in Mission Beach,” says Lynch. “In no uncertain terms is this an assault on our Planned District Ordinance and an assault on our community. The project is less a residential development and more akin to a bunch of mini-hotels. It will have an impact on parking and traffic, let alone park space.”
In response to the planning commission’s approval, residents formed the Mission Beach Citizens for Responsible Development. The group held a fundraiser and raised enough money to hire a land-use attorney should the city council reject their appeal.
Christa Starr is overseeing the nonprofit.
“This project, with large lot sizes and extra large buildings, threatens the character of Mission Beach. I’ve built two mixed-use buildings and I’ve had to abide by the planning rules just like everyone else. I am not sure how the city thinks the developer shouldn’t have to do the same.
Chris McKellar, of McKellar McGowan, denies claims that his firm intentionally tried to split the properties in order to maximize profits.
“We thought it was all one parcel when we purchased the property,” says McKellar. “It was not good news for us to discover that it was actually two separate parcels. We thought we would have 61 units on the northern portion of the project but instead we had to reduce it to 51.
As for forming a second LLC to act as builder, McKellar said, “There’s only one developer but there’s two properties and two community planning designations. Because of that we decided to have two entities to complete the two projects. We processed them together from an environmental standpoint.”
McKellar says he understands that residents want a park at the southern end of the property but says their design allows for a better opportunity for the community.
“We really like the park design. It’s not going to be some expansive lawn tucked away from the law enforcement and the street like some community members had wanted. It’s going to be more interactive, with exercise equipment, shaded areas, something different and useful for everyone, something that encompasses the character of Mission Beach.”