This is Part 1 of a 2-part series that OB Rag and San Diego Free Press are running this week, where both parts are loosely based on a talk by Frank Gormlie at the February 21, 2013 OB Historical Society monthly meeting. The issues and history raised are even more poignant today as once again, OB’s community plan is being challenged by powerful forces. The focus of the talk and this post is the history of the making of the Ocean Beach Planning Board during the middle of the 1970’s, in which Gormlie was intimately involved.
His record here is by far the most thorough, comprehensive and complete account of the crucial five year period – 1972- 1976 – during which a grassroots opposition arose in OB that defeated a developer-driven community plan, and helped push the City into authorizing the first democratically-elected neighborhood planning committee in San Diego’s history.
By Frank Gormlie / OB Rag
I have a story, and it’s a story about urban planning in Ocean Beach during the mid-1970’s – and how community planning came to be here in OB. It is a story about how a crisis of over-development encrusted the village of OB – and then it’s a story about how OBceans responded to that crisis – a crisis that affected much of coastal of San Diego and of the rest of the Southern California.
It is a great and wonderful story about how a small village rebelled against a top-down blueprint for OB, a blueprint that would have benefited the elite who drew it up. It’s a story how the small village blocked a plan that would have literally paved the way for the community to be redeveloped into a San Diego version of Miami Beach.
It’s the story of how Ocean Beach saved itself, and how the small, seaside community led the way within the great city of San Diego and in the great state of California in actually forming the very first neighborhood planning committee that was democratically-elected.
And finally, it is a story about how the successes of grassroots activists in Ocean Beach revolutionized urban planning for the citizens and residents of not only Ocean Beach, but throughout San Diego and the state.
In hindsight, if we look over the modern era of urban development in Ocean Beach, we can see that the stage had been set by economic forces unleashed after World War II on and around the Peninsula – the point of land that juts out into the Pacific, a tongue of earth that OB is intrinsically bound to.
With the stage set, a significant power struggle was played out – between the local Point Loma establishment elite and the populace of OB all over the issue of community development.
The Forties and Fifties around the Peninsula
Looking back to the late Forties and Fifties, it’s plain to see that there definitely was a lot going on. Down the center of Point Loma, some of the first housing tracts were being constructed, housing subpar compared with the more well-to-do and high-end homes dotting the Peninsula. Sections of Point Loma have always been a upper middle-class bedroom community for the City.
Over on the other side of the Peninsula, in Ocean Beach, we’d find by contrast a neighborhood that had its beginnings as a cheap beach resort. The small, narrow bungalows that had been built since OB’s inception were considered seasonal structures. Yet they provided the bedrock for the neighborhood when the demands of World War II forced the building of new housing at the beach.
The early years of the war had seen a building frenzy across Point Loma, as countless two-story and cheap barrack-type structures were quickly thrown up to provide housing for all the sailors, marines and the thousands of aircraft workers and their families who poured into town during the war. The Peninsula was covered with these inexpensive military housing, most of which were quickly torn down once the war ended. (A few remain, many opposite and close to Point Loma High School and down the street along Voltaire.)
After the war, there was a flow of money that created another huge building boom around the Peninsula. Just to the north of the Point, we would see the dredging of Mission Bay, and the creation of the largest aquatic park on the West Coast.
And over on the east side of Point Loma on the bay, you had the newly-created Shelter Island, built up from mud flats that now cradled hotels, restaurants, and boat yards.
You’d see the building of high-rise hotels in Mission Beach, PB, La Jolla, Mission Bay and even Point Loma. And, you’d see new freeways and the first Mission Valley mall being constructed.
The Hey-Day of the Building Industry – No Restrictions
During the period of the Fifties and into the Sixties, while in the midst of this building boom, we can see that it really was the hey-day of the building industry. Especially at the coast. A boom time for apartments. For instance from 1967 to 1973 throughout the city of San Diego, only 31 single family houses were built, while during the same period developers constructed 1,610 multi-family units.
In Ocean Beach, apartment construction was going full tilt. Developers were installing two-story boxes, with as little landscaping and parking as possible. Many of the old beach “shacks” were torn down and replaced with the boxes – and builders squeezed into every available inch of space on their lots.
The apartment builders were able to do this because at that time, there was no FAR – floor area ratio; there were no setback requirements, no height limits, no parking requirements, no bans on curb cuts. There were no restrictions; no 30 foot height limit, no Coastal Commission, no NIMBY planning committees to deal with.
Developers, contractors and the captains of the building industry owned San Diego and its politicians. Clearly, they had many friends downtown in City Hall and within the professional staff and bureaucrats. And everybody knew now was a time where a lot of money could be made at the coast. A coast that was much more fragile than developers and planning bureaucrats knew.
It was a time of unbridled construction – and OBceans were paying for it and the community’s very character – that of a small beach town – was at stake. It was as if the damsel Ocean Beach was caught and tied to the railroad track by the thin-mustachioed Mr. Developer. And down the track comes the roaring engine of the building industry – the cause of the unbridled construction – bearing down on the damsel in distress. Who was going to save her?
The Effects of Unbridled Construction
In OB, there were immediate consequences and long-term consequences of this building boom, this boom of unbridled apartment construction going down in Ocean Beach. There were huge increases in density as the population of the community swelled with all the new apartments.
The concurrent effects of this new congestion were visible. Parking was less available, as developers cut curbs when they poured their new mini-lots for their apartments, which meant there was less space for public parking out on the streets. Traffic was tighter and less manageable. Despite the “walk-ability” of the community, most residents still had to go to work or school outside OB, especially with the dismal nature of San Diego’s mass transit. So, all the new residents had cars. This also meant more pollution.
With more people, there were new strains on the old infrastructure of the community. The roads, the streets, the street lights, bridges and the ancient sewer were being challenged daily. The old public schools were so crammed, they had to move in mobile classrooms. The recreation centers were straining their resources, already inadequate.
Very importantly, access to the beaches and cliffs, both in terms of physical ability and visually, by the public was being restricted by some of the new construction. With no height or setback restrictions, people’s ability to reach or even see the Pacific Ocean became a huge issue, as fences, walls and large structures walled off the public from a natural resource held in trust for all.
In general, the quality of life at the beach was going down – in Ocean Beach and other parts of the coast – and it was clearly visibly being felt by many residents by time the late Sixties and early Seventies rolled around. By then, OB was becoming face to face with a crisis – a crisis in urban planning crisis, a crisis of the quality of life for its residents, and a crisis of identification and character for the community.
The Pen,Inc Era
One group that stepped into the planning vacuum and tried to take advantage of the haphazard building boom in OB and Point Loma, was an organization of the local elite of Point Loma, called Peninsulans, Inc, or simply Pen, Inc.
Pen, Inc., a non-profit, was the offspring of the business-oriented Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, and was formed in the mid-Sixties to map out a urban design plan for the Peninsula Proper and its communities – Point Loma, Loma Portal, Midway, and Ocean Beach.
Pen. Inc, was designated by the City to be the “citizen’s committee” that had the authority to sit down and make plans with the City planning department. By 1968, the Peninsula Community Plan was the product of this arrangement.
But who was Pen Inc, exactly? Generally, it was an elite club made up of large property and business owners, apartment developers, contractors, real estate people, insurance agents, lawyers, bank officials. They had breakfast meetings every two weeks at 7:30 am, and required membership fees to join.
Most of original thirty-members of Pen Inc have names that many now would not recognize. But they included Point Loman Helen Fane, the Chair of Pen Inc who in the early Seventies was appointed to the San Diego Planning Commission; it included a major restaurant owner – who owned the Bali Hai on Shelter Island; it included Gene DeFalco, the owner of a series of high-end large markets, one in Point Loma; it included a developer who owned several large apartment buildings in eastern OB.
Also on the original roster of the group was Charles “Chuck” Baldwin, another apartment developer, who owned the multi-unit complex at what was then called Collier Park West; the roster included Pen Inc’s secretary, a vocal leader of a militant ‘born again’ Campus Crusade for Christ, who owned income-producing property at the foot of Saratoga. A lawyer Ross Tharp was also in it. Tharp had been the legal adviser of Pen Inc for years, then was appointed to the Superior Court bench. It included another developer, Jack Crowningshield, who with his wife, Gloria, owned Peninsula Realty.
A sub-committee of Pen Inc focused on drawing up the plans for Ocean Beach. The document that they finalized with city planning staff was called “The Ocean Beach Precise Plan“.
Of the 15 members of this sub-committee, only 3 actually lived in OB. The vast majority of them owned property in OB that would become more valuable if their blueprint became implemented, and in fact, three-four’s of these members or their spouses owned income-producing property in Ocean Beach.
- The plan called for high-rise buildings at the coast;
- it authorized 4 to 5 story apartments;
- it planned for the razing of cheap rentals west of Abbott Street, and the area redeveloped as a tourist-oriented waterfront with nightclubs and hotels;
- It pictured a marina being built in OB;
- the plan predicted a 35% population increase;
- It called for a paved road to be developed through Robb Field;
- It favored one-way streets criss-crossing OB;
- the creation of a Newport Street mall.
Even thought the first public hearing of the Precise Plan was in October of 1971, local activists obtained draft copies that summer. And when they read the plan – they were horrified and outraged.
The Opposition Forms
Once the word got out, opposition to Pen Inc’s Precise Plan for OB formed early. Local activists organized a community town-hall type of meeting in August of 1971 to spread the info about the existence of the Plan, with the idea people would do something.
Now, if we step back from this for just a moment, we can consider the historical context of this growing conflict building between local OB activists and the Peninsulans, Inc.
This was the early 1970’s, and the Vietnam war was still raging – and so was its opposition, both around the country and in OB too. Many OB residents were against the war, and many leaders of San Diego’s anti-war movement lived in OB.
The early Sixties surf and college town that OB had become then morphed into San Diego’s Haight-Ashbury, the San Francisco center of hippiedom. With the counter-culture taking hold, activism and grassroots youthful energy were in the air.
There had been some recent and serious signs of youthful dissatisfaction with the status quo in OB, the police vs youth skirmishes on Easter Day and Labor Day 1968; the Jetty Battle of the summer of 1970, and the more recent full-scale Collier Park riot in late March 1971 – which had started out as an anti-war rally and march. There was a questioning of authority, whether it be of the President of the United States, or City Hall.
With this as context, then, the first modern day townhall meeting in Ocean Beach was held in the late summer of 1971. It was organized by activists from 3 main groups, the OB Ecology Action – veterans of the Jetty confrontation, the OB Rag – with a new staff assembled after the Collier Park Riot, and thirdly, the Save OB Committee – a network of local civic activists.
During this August meeting, it was decided to form some kind of opposition to the Pen Inc plan. Organizers wanted to substantiate their opposition with a broad community mandate, based on a poll or survey of the neighborhood’s residents. And they wanted a type of legitimacy for an organized opposition to Pen Inc. Activists named their coalition the OB Planning Organization (OBPO) and set out on their survey of the community.
OBPO began its survey, with a dedicated core of a dozen or so activists, and went door-to-door, up and down the hills and the flatlands throughout OB and parts of Point Loma, asking questions on urban planning, density and population increase, whether high-rise buildings should be prohibited, on a building moratorium, and other issues raised by the Precise Plan. Surveys were given to 8500 households in the area, and by the end of the survey, there was a return of 2,805 of those polled – a stunning and empowering 33% return rate.
Pen Inc Precise Plan Goes Public
In the meantime, events were moving ahead. In October 1971, the public hearings on the Precise Plan were held and there was dissent, but unorganized. The City continued its march towards having the Planning Commission approve the Pen Inc plan. The Pen Inc’s steamroller seemed unstoppable. Yet, the opposition hadn’t even been heard from.
During the Fall of 1971, this began to change, as activists mounted a campaign against the Pen Inc Precise Plan. To focus the campaign, it was decided that until a new community plan was universally drawn up, all new construction had to take a halt under the calls by the groups for a building moratorium in Ocean Beach until OB had a community plan.
Monthly the OB Rag opened up broadsides against the Plan and Pen Inc, educating the community about the crisis; meanwhile OBPO continued to collect and analysis its surveys, while the Committee to Save OB circulated the petition calling for a building moratorium.
By Spring of 1972, the massive survey was finally completed, and the results were presented to the community in an April 5th, 1972, town hall meeting. The survey results were substantial and impressive.
Here are some of the poll results:
- 90.4% favored the small-town character of OB;
- 83.9% favored the use of down zoning to control population growth;
- 90% believed high-rise buildings should be prohibited (this was before the 30 foot height limit had been installed);
- 60% felt apartments should be limited to two stories;
- 87.3% favored a moratorium on new building construction until a community plan was approved by a majority of the residents;
- 75% wanted more neighborhood parks;
- 88% wanted the results of the survey to play a major role in determining a community plan.
Flushed with this backing and support for their primary thrust, the activists of OBPO now were in a position to move politically against the Precise Plan. Survey results were sent out to all the politicians who represented the OB area and activists turned up the heat.
On April 16th, 1972, 600 people turned out for a “Stop the Apartments” concert at a local activist house on the cliffs. Hundreds signed the petition calling for a building moratorium.
With the overwhelming numbers in the survey in opposition to the Pen Inc plan, with thousands signing a petition calling for a building moratorium, the political pressure was just too great. By early May 1972, the City Planning Department had canceled or postponed all meetings or workshops on the Precise Plan.
The community and its activists and their supporters breathed a sigh of relief. The crisis was at least stopped temporarily. Ocean Beach had awoken, its residents had successfully responded to the threatened onslaught of development, and the City and Pen Inc had backed off.
At least by now – the Spring of 1972 – the worst was over.
With the City apparently temporarily abandoning its idea of moving the Pen Inc document forward, there was a lull of about 6 or 7 months, as activists stopped gathering signatures and calls for the moratorium quieted down. The OB Rag had expanded and was giving more attention to the Vietnam war. In fact, there was a large anti-war demonstration downtown in early January ’73 with a substantial contingent from OB.
NEXT: The Twists and Turns of the OB Plan