By Frank Gormlie / OB Rag
Photos by Meredith Lane
With a 9 to zip vote, the San Diego City Council approved the Ocean Beach Community Plan Update, yesterday, the 29th of July and in the middle of the afternoon. Immediately, the 150 plus OBceans jumped to their feet with whoops of delight and sustained applause that went on for minutes.
It was an emotional day for OB, with the Council vote culminating a very long process of updating the community’s urban design blueprint, a blueprint that will significantly affect OB for the next 20 to 30 years.
After a staff report recommending approval, and after those who opposed the Plan or aspects of it testified and after those who testified in support of it, District 2 Councilman Ed Harris made the motion to approve it. Councilwoman-elect for District 2 Lorie Zapf seconded it. Without much debate, in light of the overwhelming presentation of the Plan’s advocates and as they looked out over the Council Chambers to see a ‘sea of blue’, the Council then voted unanimously to approve it.
The Council vote was an explicit rejection of the recommendations of the San Diego Planning Commission.
Harris called the Plan about “putting lifestyle and community above profit” when he made his motion. He also said:
“It’s my firm belief that the San Diego Planning Commission got it wrong. And we need to right it today.”
Zapf said she’s compared OB to other beach cities in Southern California and found the others too dense. She said:
“I think OB is the last authentic beach town in all Southern California.”
Todd Gloria, Council President, said he was “proud to support Harris’ motion” and he hoped that OB would appreciate and support the plan updates for other communities – like his own.” This statement was met with hearty applause.
(Apparently, it was a winning day for OB as Lifeguards from the Ocean Beach Shredlocks team took the championship title on Tuesday’s Lifeguard Relay Race.)
The day began for Ocean Beach with an assembly of blue-shirted people downstairs and outside City Hall. Organizers had asked OBceans to wear blue for the Council meeting, and blue T-shirts with the words “keep the OBcean attitude” were everywhere.
Friends were hugging each other and strangers were being welcomed. Channel 10 showed up and began interviewing some of the organizers. A few minutes before 2pm people starting filing into the line in front of the metal detector.
Once settled in, President Gloria asked for the staff report. Planning Director William Fulton began his brief presentation, explaining that only a handful of issues remained unresolved with the California Coastal Commission, and he felt they could be addressed once the Community Plan was approved. Fulton then turned it over to Teresa Millette – the chief city planner for OB – who gave an overview of the Plan to the Council.
Gloria then invited public comment – and the “opposition” speakers rose to speak one-by-one. Property-owner Debbie Applebee was first, calling out this writer as editor for describing what was occurring on the 5100 block of West Point Loma as “gentrification”. She then gave her definition – a much nicer description that Gormlie’s harsh one. Applebee complained that only 16% of OB residents own homes.
She then recounted how she had encountered a “hawker” at the OB Farmers Market who was giving out false information about the Plan and the Petition. She called the OB Planning Board an “advisory group to a special interest group”. “Homeowners are underrepresented,” she claimed, saying she only wants to build her home on West Pt Loma. Applebee called for the Council to strike section 4.7.9 from the OB Community Plan.
Section 4.7.9 has been the focal point of controversy ever since the San Diego Planning Commission voted to change it during their hearing on the Plan in late May. The Commission wanted to delete language referring to OB’s floor-area-ration of 0.7, and wanted to insert more watered down text.
For nearly 40 years, the OB Planning Board has operated with that floor-area-ratio, ever since its inception in 1976.
But as Councilman Harris declared, the Planning Commission “got it wrong”.
Next up was David Stebbins who called his 3-story home on West Pt Loma “ground zero for this debate”, stating that he supported the Plan and was “only opposed to 4.7.9”. Stebbins asserted without proof that “there’s a lot of bad information out there.” He said he had submitted 107 letters from property owners opposed to the Plan.
After Stebbins came property-owner Al Cox, who immediately faulted the OB Rag for calling him “a greedy developer” for building his 3-story next to Stebbins’ house, and renting it out as a vacation rental at hundreds of dollars a night.
A couple more speakers said they opposed the Plan, including Barb Nelson who complained that people who signed the petition were signing it based on the cover sheet, which she said had “nothing” about the controversy over 4.7.9. (Editor: the Petition explicitly cited both the language of the Plan for that section as well as the language the Planning Commission wanted to insert.) Mark Rose also opposed it but for the wrong reason, stating he was “opposed to variances” – which is exactly what Stebbins and Cox wish to keep alive.
Gloria then opened the floor for those who favored the OB Plan. One by one, advocaters got up – each with a different area to cover. This writer was first, and I described the history of the making the OB Planning Board back in the mid-1970s and all the various plans produced over the years by the City.
Turning to the 1975 Precise Plan eventually approved by the then San Diego City Council, I described how on page 18, the Plan called for a floor-area-ratio for most of Ocean Beach of 0.7. I said that the Plan including the election of a planning committee was approved by then-Mayor Pete Wilson, “a die-hard Republican as you know”, and a full City Council, reading the names of the then-Council members, which included Floyd Morrow and Maureen O’Connor.
Following was Mindy Pellesier, one of the key-organizers of the campaign in support of the OB Plan. Her steady words citing the lengthy update process and how the Planning Commission had made bad decisions concerning OB over the last few years, and how OB was supposed to be unique and different brought tears to some eyes in the room.
Gio Ingolia – co-chair of the Update process committee as well as one of the key organizers – and Pete Ruscitti – current OB Planning Board chair – both gave stunning responses to Stebbins’ accusations about what was going on, what the history and issues were actually, using maps they had prepared to make their points. Ruscitti got it exactly right. The grounds, he said, that the Planning Commission used to approve variances for the few properties on West Pt Loma apply to hundreds of properties throughout OB, therefore the variances are not for “unique” and “exceptional” circumstances – which they by law are supposed to be.
Next up was John Ambert, current vice-chair of the OB Planning Board, who said that there was 3 reasons for the Council to support the OB Plan: “OB is classic California”, the floor-area-ratio has a profound effect on neighborhood character, and a higher FAR would result in the loss of OB’s people, the heart and sole of the community. He used the “G-word”, gentrification to describe what was happening in northwest OB. The displacement of people caused will “single-handlely unravel the social fabric of OB.”
Gretchen Newsom – the head of the OB Town Council – followed Ambert and in one of the more emotionally-charged speeches, cited all the community groups that have come out in support of the OB Plan. As she announced the group’s name and its leadership, people in the audience affiliated with the group would rise and stay standing.
The OB Planning Board; the OB Woman’s Club, Friends of the OB Library, the OB Historical Society, the OB Mainstreet Association, the OB CDC, the OB Community Foundation, the OB Rag, the OB Town Council, and finally just about everyone in the room was standing.
“We’re not a special interest group,” Newsom said with a quiver in her voice, “We are Ocean Beach.” Thunderous applause ripped through the Chambers. This writer got tears.
Jane Gawronski – current OB planner – then stood at the podium. She explained that she’s a property-owner of several plots in OB and she and her husband Tom – also on the Planning Board – have developed several of them, and have never asked for any variances. “This is not about renters vs. property owners,” she said. Gawronski then cited a New York Times article from 2006, which named funky Ocean Beach “as the last authentic beach community in California.”
Craig Klein got up and stated un-categorically that “everyone who purchased a lot on West Pt Loma knew there was a .7 FAR that restricted development.” Then he said:
“The .7 FAR truly is sacred.”
This was the end of public comment, and Todd Gloria then stated:
“Today is indeed a historic day when the editor of the OB Rag invokes the name of Pete Wilson.”
This was one of the more funnier moments of the afternoon, as there had been several disparaging remarks about the OB Rag or its editor, and every time there would be applause for the OB Rag, one man consistently would let out a loud “Boooo!”
Once the Council had made their unanimous vote and once the applause had died down, Ed Harris – now beloved by OB planners, came down and mingled with the crowd, as it filtered out to the streets below.
A large group of blue-shirted people were last seen heading to a local watering hole, The Local – which is not coincidentally owned by the owner of an OB bar-restaurant, Wonderland.
And indeed, OBceans felt this day that they were in their wonderland.