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San Diego Bankers Hill high-rise sets statewide precedent on density bonus law

The high-rise apartment building at 6th Avenue and Olive Street is seen here across from Balboa Park, Feb. 4, 2022.
Andrew Bowen
The high-rise apartment building at Sixth Avenue and Olive Street is seen here across from Balboa Park on Feb. 4, 2022.

A high-rise apartment building under construction in Bankers Hill is likely to set a statewide legal precedent confirming the validity of California's affordable housing density bonus law.

The 20-story, 204-unit project at Sixth Avenue and Olive Street won unanimous approval from the San Diego City Council in 2019.

A group called Bankers Hill 150 and the Bankers Hill/Park West Community Association sued the city and developer Greystar in an effort to block construction, arguing that the building was too dense, too tall, and would cast shadows on Balboa Park.

After a loss at the San Diego Superior Court, the groups took their case to the Fourth District Court of Appeal. A three-judge panel ruled against them in January, and last week decided to make that decision a published opinion. That means that, if the decision is finalized, all trial courts across the state will be bound by it.

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At issue in the case is the state's density bonus law, which can grant developers relief from regulations on density, height, setbacks and parking if they include low-income affordable housing in their projects.

The Bankers Hill project, which is a joint venture between Greystar and the adjacent St. Paul's Cathedral, made use of the law by including 18 apartments with affordable rents for households earning up to 50% of the county's median income. That could be, for example, a single parent with one child earning up to $48,500.

Heather Riley, the attorney who represented Greystar, said she hoped that the ruling would send a message that cities and counties cannot arbitrarily reject density bonus projects or require them to be redesigned.

RELATED: Bankers Hill project a test case for San Diego's new affordable housing incentives

"When opponents (of housing projects) come forward and say 'It's too big, it's too much, we don't want it here,' the state density bonus law says that those projects, if they meet the requirements, need to be approved," Riley said. "This case hopefully gives those local agencies the ability to stand firm in their decision to approve those projects."

Riley said the project's opponents now had until March 14 to seek review by the California Supreme Court.

The building is expected to be complete and ready for move-ins in April.

San Diego Bankers Hill high-rise sets statewide precedent on density bonus law