Cardiff-by-the-Sea’s100th birthday gave us a chance to not only celebrate what our unique beach town is but also a chance to think about our past and future. A century ago, our town was little more than a train stop with the Mercantile Building (now home to Patagonia), sitting elegantly at the corner of Chesterfield and San Elijo Avenue. Fifty years later, the town was transformed by the automobile as asphalt parking lots and strip malls became the dominant feature.
Recently, we were given the opportunity to again redefine our town and ask ourselves what we want our town to be like in another 50 years. A general outline was provided — the Cardiff Specific Plan, which would put an emphasis on people and walking rather than on cars and driving.
However, strong opposition to any changes has effectively ended any move away from our current over-reliance on the automobile. An opportunity to make changes for the better has been missed and it is likely that the current plan, as proposed, will have unintended consequences that may realize the very things the community tried to prevent.
The proposals contained in the original plan were fairly simple: Move the front of buildings to the sidewalk and allow people to live on the second floor above offices or retailers, a concept also known as “mixed-use.” Provisions for allowing three stories, if a building included affordable housing, set off alarm bells.
Fear of losing the town’s individuality led to angry recriminations and a hardened position began to emerge; no new buildings would be allowed. The zoning would become even more restrictive, primarily through large setbacks (the distance a building must be from property lines).
The general view that new developments bring negative changes is understandable. But, the problem is that usually these bad buildings are the result of bad zoning regulations. Sadly, in addition to rejecting the bad ideas contained in the plan, the good ideas were also rejected. Now we must consider what will be the unintended consequences of this “no growth” approach.
First, it will promote larger developments, the very thing the community sought to restrict. Second, the new zoning regulations will be challenged and it is likely that every building will ask for and require a variance of some sort.
Larger developments over underground parking will generally be the only viable solution given the large setbacks and overly burdensome parking requirements. Smaller properties, in addition to requiring variances, will be built as an extrusion of the zoning setbacks. What would have been preferable would be to have no setbacks, but to limit buildings to a certain size or footprint so that there would be more variation and creativity in the architectural form.
By prohibiting mixed-use we are also condemning ourselves to an increasingly homogenous town where only the wealthy can afford to live. Low-density apartments offer young people working in our local businesses a housing option. Seniors who no longer need or want a house could walk to what they need. Small business owners could have the opportunity to live above their shops.
There already are numerous examples of mixed-use already in Cardiff such as above the Pipe’s Café, or next to Patagonia and Besta Wan. Nothing is lost for having people be able to live in apartments in Cardiff and they wouldn’t need to drive their cars. The fear of wholesale conversion of Cardiff into a residential area is overblown.
Lastly, anyone who has walked or biked in Cardiff knows that it is a difficult effort that could, and should, be improved. Keeping 20-foot setbacks and cars parking strip mall style across the front will only continue a dysfunctional condition.
Despite the mistake that has been made, we should all be working towards making Cardiff a better place. A safer crossing from north of Birmingham to the commercial district is needed now. Bike routes into and out of Cardiff better connecting us to downtown Encinitas, Solana Beach and the isolated homes east of the 5 should be pursued. And we should demand a better connection to the beaches.
Now more than ever we need to get away from the car, focus locally, and work for a future that is healthier and more environmentally aware.
Filed Under: Community Commentary