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    When I say “density,” I picture a place like Little Italy.

    Photo by Mario Covic
    Photo by Mario Covic
    Little Italy

    It’s a mix of townhouses, walk-up flats, small shops, churches, markets and restaurants. I can walk and bike around or drive my car when I want. I envision bumping into friends, enjoying our new Waterfront Park, drinking craft beer and eating from a variety of restaurants with a smile on my face.

    But when I say “density” to my mom, who lives in a country ranch house and rides horses, she pictures downtown towers filled with people, an outright oppression of her outdoor lifestyle.

    Image via Shutterstock
    Image via Shutterstock
    Hong Kong housing

    And to my granny, “density” means the Huffman six-packs looming over her North Park bungalow. These are the hastily built eight-or-so-unit apartment complexes on single family lots throughout Mid-City. Granny’s still bitter.


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    Photo courtesy of Howard Blackson
    Photo courtesy of Howard Blackson
    Huffman housing

    You can measure the density of all of those things, because that’s all density is: a measurement of how many homes fit within an acre. That’s it. And that’s all it should be.

    My mom’s ranchettes could be between one home per 20 acres or four homes per acre. My granny’s bungalow is between eight and 14 homes an acre, depending on whether she builds a secondary apartment or “granny flat” in her backyard. The townhouses and condos in Little Italy are between 20 and 60 homes per acre, and downtown’s towers are 80 or more homes per acre.

    That’s how we use the word “density” to measure different types of homes.

    fix san diego opinion

    But “density” can’t do more than that. It doesn’t tell us what we need to know to make decisions about the places we want to live, and it misinforms the discussions we have about our future.

    Our city needs all kinds of other restrictions aside from density allowances to create different places, like Sabre Springs, North Park, Little Italy or downtown. We have to add in restrictions for height, setbacks, parking and how the property can be used. These many requirements are what make a zoning ordinance an unwieldy tome, perfect for bedtime reading.

    Focusing on density alone skews the market for building homes.

    Community groups will demand the city’s planning department keep densities artificially low in the hope it will keep new housing away. These lower densities intended to stop growth actually push developers toward building just enough very expensive homes to make their profits. These larger, more expensive units aren’t appropriate for our older streetcar neighborhoods.

    And high density itself doesn’t make for better development. Density doesn’t tell us anything about context.

    We know people cling to low-density dreams in an attempt to stop construction of new buildings that don’t fit their neighborhood. But this creates an unintended consequence: a different type of building goes up that conflicts with the community’s character anyway.

    Neighborhood-scaled, modest, well-designed density is almost impossible to achieve because of all the other restrictions we have that are out of sync with the area being developed.

    San Diego is now open for business and dreams of being a corporate hub, but housing for middle management is hard to find and build.

    LISTEN: San Diego’s Unique Density Dilemma

    Instead of addressing the issue head on — creating new requirements that would allow us to build a variety of housing types — we continue to rely on density measurements and traditional zoning and hope for the best.

    So far that’s produced luxury towers, Huffman six-packs and large tracks of bland apartments in Kearny Mesa and Mira Mesa. The 50-year history of doing it this way has led to mistrust in our neighborhoods between developers, locals, City Hall and planning professionals.

    Density and land use zoning were borne of old insurance companies’ discriminatory “redlining” practices against minorities in the 1930s. Companies outlined certain areas in red on maps. Homes within these areas couldn’t buy insurance, and became the neighborhoods where marginalized minorities were allowed to live.

    Having insurance allowed homes to become larger and more expensive, which came to mean lower densities in those neighborhoods. While these discriminatory policies have stopped, our current zoning and density maps reflect and propagate old redlining practices to this day.

    We need better tools to discuss how we build anything new in San Diego.

    I have long advocated for development restrictions called “place-based codes” or “form-based codes” to replace the outdated zoning codes we use today. They’re better because they understand that the type of place we want matters more than arbitrary metrics.

    We should allow the market to set how much retail, residential or office space there is on a given street. We should protect our valued historic neighborhoods. We should control how buildings transition from new to old. We should understand how to transition between different types of buildings to maintain and cultivate a community’s character. New development restrictions can do those things.

    But focusing a conversation on “density” can’t. Remember, it’s just a number.

    Howard Blackson is an urban designer in San Diego. Blackson’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

      This article relates to: Fix San Diego, Land Use, Neighborhood Growth, News, Opinion

      Written by Catherine Green

      Catherine Green is deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handles daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects. You can contact her directly at catherine.green@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. Follow her on Twitter: @c_s_green.

      22 comments
      Walt Brewer
      Walt Brewer subscribermember

      Like Smart Growth, Place Codes trivializes the principal purpose for communities----produce goods and services. Preferably, with national economy in shambles, superior innovative ones attractive in the global market place.

      At least Smart Growth initial intent was energy/emissions reduction primarily through transportation savings in more compact, aka dense, arrangement of facilities. Mass transit expectations have failed as motor vehicles prove superior. But there is hope for savings in facilities design and arrangement.

      We can’t afford blue sky hedonic enclaves, nor apparently afford related housing.

      With provisions to prevent extremes, how about letting communities decide how to be productive and meet defined environmental goals?

      Richard Ross
      Richard Ross subscribermember

      Blacksons commentary in some ways reminds me of an observers statement about another writers piece......"Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." When addressing California and specifically San Diego he could have simply referenced sustainability. That concludes that this city is not the "place"for increase in population "density"and it's corollary increase in housing structures.

      winnebago
      winnebago subscriber

      @Richard Ross I'm assuming you're referring to San Diego's lack of water.


      San Diego isn't the only city affected by climate change.  Aquifers are draining rapidly all over the country.  Places from Phoenix, to Texas, to Minnesota, to Atlanta have faced water shortages.  New York and Miami will be flooded in the near future.  So where can we grow?


      Not building houses doesn't solve these problem, it just makes housing expensive.  In fact, building transit oriented and walkable communities may contribute to the solution.

      Richard Ross
      Richard Ross subscribermember

      Winnebago you are partially correct. A lack of water is a major part of the problem, but it is more complicated than that. Infinite population growth is unsustainable.

      That is particularly true here in San Diego. Obviously developers don't like the thought of stopping housing construction. The resulting positive side of more expensive housing is it would slow growth.

      Water is needed not only in the construction of housing and then for residents to drink and bath.....but more importantly it's needed for crops to put food on the table.

      The answer to your question where can we grow? Is we have to stop growing.

      Michael Robertson
      Michael Robertson subscribermember

      Zoning is anti freedom and shows the folly of central planning. San Diego is an example of the negative repercussions of this socialist approach. Enormous swaths of land in San Diego have high vacancy rates in office buildings while virtually no vacancy in housing. This pushes rents and housing costs sky high. Politicians are the biggest cause of expensive hosting and those dictating how others may use their land are most responsible.

      People who own land should be able to build on it a they see fit. Maybe multi-use is ideal? Maybe micro residences? Maybe luxurious condos? I don't know but those who profess to know, like this author, don't know nearly as well as the operators in the free market who risk their own capital to build something that people want. If they don't build what people want they will lose money. This factor is what intrinsically links them to citizens needs much better than politicians.

      peggyo
      peggyo subscriber

      @Michael Robertson Anti freedom, really? This 'freedom' gives us things like the Huffman six packs. SD is a perfect example of this 'freedom' run wild. I live in a neighborhood with no sidewalks. Everyone here gets to walk in the middle of the street....thanks to your 'freedom'.

      Michael Robertson
      Michael Robertson subscribermember

      @peggyo @Michael Robertson Yes, when the government dictates what people can do with their property that is anti-freedom.


      Sidewalks are built by the government not individual property owners. The government has eminent domain they can use to take people's land to put in sidewalks if they believe that is important. I'm not sure what that has to do with people being able to build what they desire on their property.

      Derek Hofmann
      Derek Hofmann subscribermember

      Huffman six packs are a bad example of freedom because it was the city requirement to build parking for every dwelling unit that made them one of the few viable ways to build. In other words, they're an example of an unintended consequence of taking away freedoms.

      peggyo
      peggyo subscriber

      @Derek Hofmann They are the perfect example. No law mandates 'ugly'. They did the cheapest thing they could get away with.


      Michael Robertson
      Michael Robertson subscribermember

      @peggyo @Michael Robertson There's no constitutional right for anti-ugly. Besides what one person thinks is ugly another might think is beautiful and vice versa. 


      If someone wants a cheap house that is "ugly" to you, why isn't that their right? Why do you think some people get to decide what others can do simply because they determine it is not aesthetically pleasing? Maybe people think your home or car is ugly? Should you not be able to own them? 


      There's no such thing as "unfettered" capitalism. For capitalism to function there must be property laws, contract laws, police and courts. One of the key tenets of property laws is that you can't harm others property. If you do, you must compensate them for it. There are mountains of laws where people can seek redress if they are harmed. 


      Companies have been bankrupted or paid hundreds of millions for even imaginary harm that people convinced courts were created (think silicon breast implants/Dow or erin brockovich/PGE). There are plenty of laws to protect people from harm. 



      Derek Hofmann
      Derek Hofmann subscribermember

      @peggyo Huffman six-packs are a result of two factors:

      1. A law requiring developers to provide parking for every dwelling unit, and

      2. An absence of laws prohibiting Huffman six-packs.

      Eliminating either of these two factors would have prevented Huffman six-packs from being built.

      Someone who values freedom and traditional, organic, bottom-up planning would prevent Huffman six-packs by removing factor #1. Someone (perhaps a lawyer or a Socialist) who values a large legal code and supports giving the government more power would remove factor #2 by creating an elaborate law that defines the Huffman six-pack and then outlaws that specific combination of characteristics.

      Of course doing that won't prevent someone else from designing another building style that's also ugly but complies with the law, so it just isn't a very effective solution in the long run. In the end we would have more laws on the books that don't really solve anything, and less freedom.

      Greg Martin
      Greg Martin subscriber

      Density can be quite useful, but the type of density matters quite a lot.  Four or five stories of mixed use is excellent, as is common in Europe and the UK.  It would be an excellent fit for the street widths in San Diego and would support more walking, biking, and higher frequency transit.  High-rises and the deservedly despised Hoffman flats are a much poorer option.


      North Park seems to be much more open to that approach than the closed-minded Uptown/Hillcrest.

      Dave P.
      Dave P. subscriber

      Density and land use zoning were borne of old insurance companies’ discriminatory “redlining” practices against minorities in the 1930s. Companies outlined certain areas in red on maps. Homes within these areas couldn’t buy insurance, and became the neighborhoods where marginalized minorities were allowed to live.

      Having insurance allowed homes to become larger and more expensive, which came to mean lower densities in those neighborhoods. While these discriminatory policies have stopped, our current zoning and density maps reflect and propagate old redlining practices to this day."


      I'm sure "redlining" did occur. However, anyone with any knowledge of planning and zoning history knows that "density and land use zoning" were NOT born of these onerous practices. I can only assume they were made to prejudice the reader against land use controls.


      In fact, zoning existing in New York City in the 1910s. And the Supreme Court heard the first case on zoning in 1926 (Ambler Realty v City of Euclid).



      Derek Hofmann
      Derek Hofmann subscribermember

      United States v. City of Parma, Ohio (1980) found that zoning laws force minorities out of white neighborhoods.

      Derek Hofmann
      Derek Hofmann subscribermember

      @Dave P. "Parma's passage and application of four land-use ordinances which impose height, parking and voter-approval limitations on housing developments" was discriminatory, just like what we do right here in San Diego.

      Dave P.
      Dave P. subscriber

      @Derek Hofmann @Dave P. Not the same. Let's look at parking as an example. Parma required more parking for a multi-family unit than for a single-family unit. That's not true for San Diego.

      Derek Hofmann
      Derek Hofmann subscribermember

      @Dave P. In both cases, the city requires more parking than what the market wants. Therefore, the requirements arbitrarily raise the price of housing which, in turn, pushes minorities out of the area.

      Dave Gatzke
      Dave Gatzke subscriber

      @Dave P. Perhaps Howard's point was not precisely worded, zoning was a practice that existed prior to redlining. However, the widespread adoption of zoning coincided with FHA redlining practices and major federal investment in the Interstate Highway System that lead to the post-war building boom.

      Bill Bradshaw
      Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

      I hesitate to comment on this issue, because I have zero expertise to offer, and since I know nothing of Mr. Blackson he could be a kook (or developer in disguise), although Wikipedia doesn’t indicate that.  Blackson’s tome makes sense to me, but the devil is in the implementation.  It’s obvious that what we’re doing now isn’t very effective.