Lots of San Diegans are fighting city and developer attempts to fill their neighborhoods with more homes.

That’s not what’s going on in Ocean Beach right now.

Ocean Beach’s fight over its new community plan, which faces a Tuesday City Council vote, isn’t over density. It’s about the size of single-family homes.

In an attempt to simplify relatively complex planning jargon, many are lumping Ocean Beach in with density fights that are happening in Bay Park, Grantville and Uptown. U-T San Diego has covered the OB issue accurately, save a recent subheadline describing it as a density fight. Our Morning Report made the same error a few weeks ago. My boss was asked about density and Ocean Beach in a radio interview yesterday.

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But the last remaining disagreement over Ocean Beach’s community plan isn’t actually about density — the amount of homes in a neighborhood — at all. The fight is about how big single family homes can be. In other words, it isn’t about whether we should let people replace a single family home with three apartments. It’s about whether people should be able to build a 2,000 square foot home instead of a 1,500 square foot one.

“There’s certainly a feeling that, if a community is complaining, it must be about density, because increasing density is generally speaking what the city is trying to do,” said Joe LaCava, head of an umbrella group for the city’s various community planning groups. “But OB, right now, is not a density issue.”

After years of slow progress, the city released a new OB community plan last fall. Because nothing happens quickly in the world of planning, it’s just now coming forward for a City Council vote. The plan maintains the area’s current residential density restrictions.

But the city’s Planning Commission took exception to some language in the plan that was added to make it more difficult for property owners to build large homes in the community.

OB’s development restrictions are set up so new homes in the area will be the sorts of small beach cottages you already see. But property owners can ask for special treatment — a “variance” in planning jargon — to build bigger homes. In recent years, the Planning Commission has made a habit of granting those requests.

So OB’s planning group added language saying those exceptions should be avoided to “the greatest extent possible.”

The Planning Commission wants the standard to be much more permissive, inserting language calling for a “case-by-case” evaluation. (Mayor Kevin Faulconer this week said he’ll side with the community).

But, again: this is about people asking for exceptions to build bigger single-family homes. It’s not about putting more homes in a given area.

“When you walk down the boardwalk in Mission Beach, you see much bulkier homes lining it,” said Gio Ingolia, co-chair of Ocean Beach’s planning group. “I enjoy Mission Beach, but we want our own style community. Here, we’ve kept a small-scale community. These are homes that keep families here. In Mission Beach those bigger homes are often summer rental properties.”

Pointing out that this fight isn’t about density isn’t to say it isn’t important. It just doesn’t fit snugly into the ongoing conversation about building more homes in the city in an attempt to eventually reducing housing prices.

In fact, the restrictions in this case probably have the effect of keeping housing in OB from getting even more expensive. That’s because the restriction mostly applies to property owners who, if granted the variance, would choose to demolish an old, small home to build a new, big one. There’s no increase in housing supply either way.

“You’re talking about people tearing down a single home and putting up a single home,” LaCava said. “So, you could say it’s preventing this upgrading of the community, or there’s an argument that you’re staving off gentrification, by maintaining what is relatively affordable rent — by some San Diego standards — rather than replacing it with a home that will have a high sales price or that would rent for a much higher price.”

    This article relates to: Community Plans, Government, News

    Written by Andrew Keatts

    I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.


    @echo5juliet yes it's size of building not number of units. Big difference. City planners want a bit more freedom to offer variances.

    Frank Lang
    Frank Lang subscribermember

    I live in a small OB cottage that was built in 1913 and has remained pretty much unchanged. Across the street, somebody tore down a similar cottage and built a giant "single family" concrete box that looks like a dentists' office complex. It dominates the block and is butt-ugly. All the neighbors hate it, but apparently the owners don't care. I have resigned myself to the reality that this is the future of Ocean Beach.

    Monica Johnson
    Monica Johnson subscribermember

    I used to live in beach communities, Redondo Beach and Balboa Island with a moderate income. Ocean Beach is a throwback to these areas. They are fast disappearing. All we can ask is, use caution when making changes.

    timc subscriber

    These type of size restrictions can actually increase the prices in a community in the long run. Many people find the walkable friendly front yard oriented appearance of OB's general community a great tradeoff with having to suffer from a smaller bedroom and indoor living area. The desirability of the overall environment can and often does drive higher per square indoor foot valuations in many communities. (SF, LJ Covenant, East Village NYC among others)

    Similar past fights with the development oriented interest saved Ocean Beach from becoming a series of large square buildings with cement parking stalls in front. During those fights the development focused interest held that you could never make money in OB because of these restrictions. Low and behold they learned to live within them and make money much to the benefit of the entire community.

    Ocean Beaches unique character has more than ever started to attract tourism and general interest because it is different than most "improved" beach communities in California. It's funky charm does and will continue to create increased demand from people who would rather have a little more outdoor space around them at the expense of some indoor space. And most certainly we do have the climate for it! Yes, it is not for everyone and the vast middle mass who prefer large pink stucco air conditioned boxes on cookie cutter lots probably wont go for it, but a lot of well educated productive people will, and pay extra for it.

    And yes it is easier for builders to make money in the short run without the restrictions but in a very real sense it is money thrown away in the long run.

    JLDodd subscriber

    OB in the past has had some different "active zoning restrictions". I remember when a motorcycle gang dynamited an under-construction Winchells Donut Shop in the 60s IIRC. Winchells gave up their fight to build after that…jim dodd

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    In Mission Beach, many of the lots are 25' wide by 50' deep (1250 sq. ft. lot) - much like in OB - and others are 30' x 80' (2400 sq. ft.). There are required setbacks from the lot lines which limit the actual buildable area. The 30' height limit also affects buildable area since 3 stories is the upper limit as is true in OB. Some lots have been consolidated, enabling somewhat bulkier buildings, but the streets, courts, places and boardwalk place limitations on the extent to which consolidation can occur.

    FARs in place in Mission Beach range between 0.9-1.2 FAR depending on various factors defined in the MB Precise Plan (from which I've gotten the information in this post). 

    Many newer buildings are bulkier but the visual impact is at least partly based in the differences in lot orientation from those in OB. In Mission Beach, going north & south, there is a single main street and two secondary streets, with Places, Courts and alleys providing the east-west linkages. In Ocean Beach, the streets are perpendicular as well as parallel to the beach, many of them (except in the older sections) are fairly wide, and this creates a far more open, less dense impression of OB.

    A lot of the differences between OB & MB lie in the history of their development. The community of Mission Beach didn't develop in the same ways that Ocean Beach did but more as a "vacation/beach" community, subdivided by a single developer, which evolved over time into a residential community while retaining that vacation/beach element. Mission Beach continues to be the coastal beach of choice for most visitors from other parts of San Diego County and beyond whereas Ocean Beach attracts more locals and others who appreciate OB's particular charms. Overall, both are beach communities which have their own distinctive characters and share some similarities but, beyond certain points, can't really be used as examples for each other.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    Many people don't understand the huge difference between height limits in Bay Park and the 30' coastal zone height limit which applies in most City of San Diego communities west of I-5 (there are some areas excepted such as downtown). 

    Height limits in communities east of I-5 were adopted by a simple majority vote of City Council and can be modified or removed the same way. The 30' height limit along the coast exists because of a voter-adopted initiative measure in 1972 by a 63% majority and can be modified only through another City-wide vote.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    Rules - schmules! You can build whatever size beach house you want.


    Mitt Romney


    @voiceofsandiego sounds like a F.A.R. Issue and O.B has small lots 25 feet wide instead of the 50 feet ya typically C . Yep FloorArea Ratio