Downtown’s planning agency might be on it’s way out, but that hasn’t stopped it from reviewing new projects.
Civic San Diego will eventually be stripped of its power, as the result of a lawsuit that was settled in late March. Most of its functions will be transferred to the city of San Diego. An exact timetable has not been set for when Civic will sunset but, according to the court agreement, it will likely be in mid-May or early June.
On Wednesday, Civic’s design review committee heard two apartment projects proposed for downtown.
Developer Liberty National Corp. was behind both projects, a nine-story apartment building and changes to a planned 39-story complex. The San Diego-based company has been at Civic the last two months with four projects being reviewed.
It had previously been in front of the committee for a 40-story tower in March and another 40-story building in February. No representatives from the company were at the Civic meeting, only architects hired by the company. Calls to Liberty National CEO Mark Schmidt were not returned.
Liberty National’s projects would equal more than 1,600 apartments downtown. The projects would be allowed to proceed based on an agreement under the lawsuit settlement that would grandfather in certain projects already approved by Civic.
Andrew Phillips, president of Civic San Diego, said he did not think Liberty National had any intention to get projects heard at the agency before it dissolves, noting many of its complexes had been in the works for years.
Still, business as usual at Civic was a concern to Steve Coopersmith, an attorney for former Civic member Murtaza Baxamusa, who sued the agency, saying it lacked meaningful oversight and was too tight with developers. Under the settlement, which still must be approved by the City Council, Civic will give up its role as downtown’s planning agency.
“We remain concerned,” Coopersmith said Wednesday. “We hope the city has oversight of the projects that Civic San Diego is doing — even prior to the settlement (being approved).”
Liberty National Corp. was represented at Wednesday’s meeting by architect Bob Lisauskas of Baltimore-based CallisonRTKL, although he was unable to answer certain financial questions by the committee without the developer present.
Lisauskas said the nine-story building at 1060 C Street took design cues from the adjacent historic YWCA building (now used as a single room occupancy) and will fit into the fabric of the community. The proposed structure would be 85-feet tall, have 72 apartments and include nine parking spots on site and 66 off-site parking spots at a nearby proposed building that Liberty National is also putting through the Civic process.
Concern was raised over the project by an attorney representing owners of apartment buildings next door. The blue buildings were built in 1920 and have 29 studio apartments. Attorney Julie Hamilton said the buildings would be in a “canyon” between two planned Liberty National proposed projects and cover the older apartments in shadow for roughly six months of the year.
Brad Richter, vice president of planning for Civic, said the area where the old apartments are is zoned to have some of the highest density possible downtown, and it’s inevitable this will happen as the city continues to grow vertically.
“This maximizes the density consistent with the community plan,” he said.
The second project from Liberty National was a 39-story apartment complex near the intersection of First Avenue and Beech Street. The plan was approved in 2017, but it sought an amendment to increase the complex to 429 apartments, up from 364.
The design of the building was praised by committee members but the committee also found fault with the proposal because it puts 15 very-low income units off site, possibly in its proposed building at 1060 C Street.
Committee member Robert Robinson said he did not like the idea of new, high-end buildings popping up without including subsidized housing in the same structure.
“Every time we get to one of these nice buildings, it’s always the developer wanting to shift people that have nothing out of these sites,” he said. “To me, that’s a form of discrimination.”
Both projects are on former parking lots and must be approved by the full Civic San Diego board.