By Jennifer Van Grove
Bumping up against the San Diego River and San Diego Bay — and even built on former tidal wetlands — San Diego’s Midway District is literally rooted in its connection to water. However, the neighborhood’s status as a coastal community, enshrined in law for 50 years, is far from a settled matter.
Tuesday, city of San Diego voters will, with Measure C, once again decide whether the Midway District belongs in what’s known as San Diego’s Coastal Height Limit Overlay Zone.
The zone is a broad area that essentially encompasses everything west of Interstate 5 within city limits, with some exceptions, as defined by Proposition D in 1972. The citizens initiative has kept building heights in coastal neighborhoods in check — at 30 feet or less.
If approved by a majority of voters, Measure C would strike the entirety of the Midway-Pacific Highway Community Plan area from the coastal zone in the city’s municipal code.
The change would lift the building-height limits for the district, allowing towers up to 100 feet on some parcels, based on city zoning restrictions. Developers could potentially build even higher if they take advantage of available density bonuses.
The results will have an immediate impact on the 1,324-acre town just north of San Diego’s airport that some believe has been marred by mediocrity because of its coastal designation.
Approval, for instance, opens the door to a new sports arena and redevelopment of the acres of asphalt that surround the facility. Conversely, rejection of the measure seemingly crushes the prospects of, or least massively condenses, the proposal promising to introduce 4,250 apartment homes and erect a new arena on the 48-acre property.
It’s no wonder then that Measure C’s biggest supporter is the Midway Rising development team, which was selected by the city earlier this year to redo the sports arena real estate.
Together with its affordable housing partner, Chelsea Investment Corporation, the group has contributed $635,000 to the campaign pushing for approval.
So ... is it coastal?
Germane to the case for or against the ballot measure is a simple question with a complex answer. Is the Midway District a coastal community?
Sandwiched between the San Diego River and the airport, the city’s Midway District took shape in the 1920s with the development of the Naval Training Center and Marine Corps Recruit Debut. The aviation industry followed suit.
Today, it’s a middling neighborhood dominated by strip malls, warehouses and military bases.
The area’s main thoroughfares, Rosecrans and Midway Drive, are notoriously difficult to navigate by car, if not impossible by foot or bike. And save for a marina at MCRD, which is not open to the public, the community is absent any direct beach or bay access.
“When I think of the coast, I think of La Jolla, Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, areas where you can essentially walk to the water and enjoy the coast. This does not qualify as such,” said San Diego City Councilmember Chris Cate, who is championing the effort to lift the height limit in the Midway District. “It’s a pocket neighborhood that happens to be west of (Interstate 5) that is lumped in here with other coastal neighborhoods that are subject to this height limit.”
Those who oppose the measure maintain the opposite, arguing that the district is closer to beaches and bays than parts of La Jolla.
“San Diego Bay flows into the district (through the channel that separates MCRD from Liberty Station),” said John McNab, who runs the Save Our Access nonprofit and is helping to fund the opposition campaign. McNab’s nonprofit also successfully sued the city to invalidate a 2020 ballot measure that sought to do the same thing as Measure C. “You have a coastal park, (Liberty Station NTC Park), within a few 100 yards of the district. You go from the district to the freeway to the river to Mission Bay Park. You cannot get any closer to the coast.”
There is also the San Diego River Bikeway, which ferries cyclists along the San Diego River within the district. And ocean views will certainly be built into the community if the height limit is lifted, opponents note.
“As you go vertical, you will be able to view the coastline. It’s 4,000 yards from the beach,” said Mandy Havlik, who is a member of the Peninsula Community Planning Board and ran for the City Council office that includes the Midway District.
There are also existing bay views from public rights of away along the Pacific Highway stretch of the community at Kettner Boulevard, Redwood, Palm and Olive streets, as referenced in the recently updated community plan, which was adopted in 2018. The document, a blueprint for what’s possible in the region, also stresses the importance of creating pedestrian and bike connections to San Diego Bay by way of Lytton Street, Barnett Avenue and Rosecrans.
“I can say unequivocally, Midway is absolutely not a coastal neighborhood. You can see that we’re bounded by dirt and soil ... . We have the 5 freeway and the 8 freeway as two of our boundaries,” said Dike Anyiwo, who chairs the Midway-Pacific Highway Community Planning Group and lives in one of the few residential communities in the neighborhood. “I understand that the language of Prop D from 50 years ago was loose enough to include us in the territory that they defined for that ballot measure. But, be realistic, there’s no way anyone who understands what the beach is will look at Midway and say, oh that is a coast neighborhood.”
Proposition D’s passage
On Nov. 7, 1972, with 63 percent of votes in the affirmative for Proposition D, San Diegans dropped the hammer on buildings over 30 feet in a newly defined coastal zone, extending from the water to Interstate 5 in city limits. There are, however, carve-outs for downtown, National City and parts of Mission Bay.
The ordinance predates the state’s coastal zone, established by the California Coastal Act of 1976. The city’s coastal zone, the Coastal Height Limit Overlay Zone, covers a wider swath of territory from Del Mar to the border. The entirety of the Midway District is west of Interstate 5 and thus subject to San Diego’s Coastal Height Limit Overlay Zone. Only MCRD and portions of the Pacific Highway corridor are encumbered by the California Coastal Act, which has different regulations.
Alex Leondis, who helped author Proposition D, previously told the Union-Tribune that the Midway District’s inclusion in the city’s coastal zone was no accident — even though the boundary was drawn at the freeway for the sake of simplicity.
A broad boundary
Michael Stepner, a former city architect who joined the city’s planning department in 1971, recalls that the group’s primary goal for drawing the westernmost boundary at the freeway was to scare local officials into taking action to prevent beachfront condo towers.
“There were discussions about 939 Coast Boulevard (in La Jolla) and Capri by the Sea (in Pacific Beach), two multistory residential buildings. People felt they were too big; it was referred to as the ‘Miami Beaching’ of San Diego,” he said. “(The group) drew (the boundary) so broadly to show that they would get people who were concerned. But the belief was that they could never justify going all the way to I-5, because it included Midway and some of the other areas that really are nowhere near the coast.”
Nobody believed that Proposition D would be upheld in court, Stepner said. Instead, the city, expecting a legal victory, formed what turned out to be a short-lived committee to address coastal building heights and establish design guidelines.
Five decades later, San Diegans can take a second look at the boundary.
Aiming for action
“If you boil down what this measure really is seeking to achieve, it’s to speed up the process by which we get from today to the future vision,” Anyiwo said. “I think we have to be honest and realistic about where we stand today. There is this community plan that was recently updated and all we’re trying to do is get to the part of the story where the community plan is a thing. Because right now, it’s been four years since the community plan was updated and we’ve seen effectively zero change.”
That plan envisions a series of villages with a mix of uses that engineer a vibrant, walkable neighborhood with 30 acres of new parks and a bay-to-bay trail. The idea is to create balance in a region where industrialized superblocks suffocate the quality of life.
Today, Midway is home to approximately 4,600 people who reside in 1,982 housing units, only 12 of which are single-family homes. A large number of residents are concentrated in two communities, the Orchard Senior Living Apartments on Hancock Street and the Gateway Village military housing complex on Mendonca Drive.
There are 658 apartments being developed by Fairfield Residential atthe former postal complex between Midway Drive and Barnett Avenue.
But 4,250 more apartment homes at the sports arena site, including 2,000 deed-restricted units for low-income families, hang in the balance.
Still, even if voters agree to move Midway out of the coastal zone, there is no certainty.
Earlier this year, McNab’s environmental activist group Save Our Access filed a civil action against the city in San Diego Superior Court contesting the legality of Measure C. The lawsuit claims the measure is in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act because the city did not properly study all of the impacts associated with removing the height limit.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Save Our Access already won a lawsuit invalidating a previous initiative, Measure E. The 2020 ballot proposal was approved by 57 percent of voters but deemed illegal by the court last year. The City Attorney’s Office is appealing the ruling.