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North Park Had One Density Makeover, it Doesn't Need Another

North Park became dramatically more dense with the demolition of single-family homes and the construction of Huffman-style apartments decades ago. The neighborhood doesn’t need a second round of increased density and further loss of irreplaceable historic resources.

As a 30-year resident of North Park and president of the North Park Historical Society, I have seen a significant rise in desirability and property values in the community over the last 15 years. North Park has become a place where people want to live and the place where businesses want a presence.

North Park’s rare historic character has contributed to the ongoing restoration of commercial and residential housing stock and the surging real estate values. In essence, North Park is a unique small village within a large city. It’s a neighborhood that’s walkable, appealing and authentic.

The changes proposed in the January 2016 draft of the North Park Community Plan put our neighborhood’s small historic village character at risk due. While I expected the updated plan to present proposals for higher density along the major transit corridors, I do not support plans for increasing density across major sections of North Park.

There are two especially troubling aspects of the plan. First, the proposed Pedestrian-Oriented Infill Development Density Bonus program and its related permitting process would create more problems than it would solve. Second, the proposed building height increases to 100 feet along Park Boulevard, El Cajon Boulevard and parts of University Avenue could be problematic, especially along the western part of University Avenue.

The program is designed to promote the redevelopment of so-called Huffman-style six- and eight-unit apartment complexes between Lincoln and Howard avenues and from Florida to Boundary streets. Those complexes are named after developer Ray Huffman who, beginning in the early 1960s bought up single-family homes, primarily in the University Heights subdivision north of University Avenue, demolished them and put up apartments.

Huffman and his many imitators capitalized on the need for inexpensive housing, especially as baby boomers became young adults. The University Heights subdivision had fairly large lots with alleys that made them ideal for a six- or eight-unit complex with parking in front and off the alley. Hundreds of homes were demolished and replaced by Huffman-style apartments in the ’60s and ’70s.

While commonly disparaged for their lack of style and because so many Craftsman and Spanish Revival homes were demolished, the Huffman-style apartments probably now represent the bulk of lower-cost housing in the North Park area. Unless the majority of units in the projects developed under the density bonus program were dedicated to low-income housing there would likely be a net decrease in the number of affordable units.

The Huffman-style apartments, almost uniformly two-story structures, are also not out of scale with the remaining single-family homes in the area. The proposed density program would allow for significantly increased density on the land, which would result in a structure much higher than the surrounding buildings, going from two stories to probably, at minimum, three or four.

Even with design guidelines calling for stepping back the third (and higher) floors from the street side, the back side of the building would present a massive structure to residents on the other side of the alley. The south side of the redeveloped Post Office building on North Park Way gives a good example of the result. While the side facing North Park Way is varied in height, the back side is massive.

Increased allowable building heights will also impact the character of the surrounding neighborhoods. For example, the updated community plan calls for a 100-foot height limit from Florida Street to 28th Street along University Avenue. This would be similar to having a series of buildings like the towering San Diego County Credit Union building at 32nd Street and University Avenue along that segment of the street.

While a major transit corridor, University Avenue is a fairly narrow street. If the buildings were constructed to 100 feet, University Avenue would look like a canyon and houses to the north and south would be facing a wall.

I have participated in dozens of walking tours over the past eight years and met many people at street fairs, the historical society’s car show and at book events. People love the architecture of the homes in the neighborhood, the fascinating history of North Park as a streetcar suburb and the role the North Park water tower played in the development of the area.

No one has ever said they would like North Park to be the next Little Italy or East Village. The density of North Park dramatically increased with the demolition of single-family homes to allow the construction of the Huffman-style apartments decades ago. I am opposed to North Park being subjected to a second round of increased densification and further loss of irreplaceable historic resources.

Stephen Hon is a North Park resident and the president of the North Park Historical Society. Hon’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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