The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has made little, if any, progress on redeveloping its field office on Normal Street in Hillcrest, five years after residents and state lawmakers asked the department to rebuild the site with housing.
The slow pace has frustrated housing advocates who see the nearly three-acre site as a golden opportunity to give hundreds of San Diegans a chance to live affordably in one of the city's most walkable neighborhoods.
"The DMV property is probably one of the finest sites possible for affordable housing, not just in Hillcrest but in the city," said Stephen Russell, executive director of the San Diego Housing Federation. "It's really a lost opportunity every day that goes by that we are just looking at asphalt."
Attempts to redevelop the Hillcrest DMV date back to at least 2007, when former state Senator Christine Kehoe authored legislation to build a mixed-use project on the site. That effort collapsed in 2012.
Then in 2018 the DMV proposed a one-story office building with a surface parking lot and a 7-foot wrought iron fence around the perimeter. The design was universally panned, and the DMV was asked to start over and incorporate housing into the project.
Assemblymember Chris Ward, whose district includes Hillcrest, said he met last year with the DMV and Department of General Services (DGS), which manages state property, to get an update on the project. He said the DMV pledged to assess what it would need in a new facility, given that many of its services have moved online.
But Ward said a follow-up meeting last month revealed the DMV's assessment still hasn't happened. When contacted by KPBS, both the DMV and DGS suggested it was the other department that had to move the project into the next phase.
"I just don’t feel a lot has been done over the last year, certainly not to my satisfaction," Ward said. "So, I do intend to up my levels of communication and really press this. And if this comes in the form of legislation that needs to be introduced in January when I get back to Sacramento, so be it."
City Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, whose district also includes Hillcrest, said he supports Ward's efforts to move the project forward.
"While new apartments are rising across Hillcrest, the dated DMV property is stuck in 1960 when it was built," Whitburn said. "The community is eager to see a modern redevelopment at this site that will address today’s needs for affordable housing."
The push to revive the DMV office's redevelopment comes amid a flurry of activity in the surrounding area of eastern Hillcrest. Two new mid-rise apartment buildings are going up to the property's east.
And SANDAG, the county's transportation planning agency, is less than a year away from breaking ground on the Normal Street Promenade, which will add wider sidewalks, trees, seating and protected bike lanes right in front of the DMV property.
The San Diego City Planning Department is also working on a sweeping effort to rezone Hillcrest for higher density housing.
Staff conducted an online survey last year, asking residents what scale of development they would support in the area. The survey found the most popular concept for the Normal Street corridor was also the highest density option, which would allow buildings of up to 20 stories.
Russell, who lives only three blocks from the DMV property, said a project of that scale would allow for more open space, such as a plaza or park. He estimated a high-rise development could create more than 800 new homes within walking distance of multiple grocery stores, rapid bus lines, health care facilities and the Hillcrest nightlife.
Even if the project were not 100% subsidized affordable housing, but included market-rate homes, Russell said it would still help with the neighborhood's overall affordability.
"Folks who are getting high-paid jobs in the tech sector who want all the lifestyle qualities that Hillcrest brings are willing to pay, even if the apartment is perhaps an older, functionally obsolete building," Russell said. "But given the choice, they would many times choose to live in something newer with more amenities and leave that unit on the market for perhaps someone who is lower income."
The lack of progress on the Hillcrest DMV redevelopment is frustrating to Jiwan Kohli, a researcher in the UCSD Department of Neurosciences who has long wanted to move to Hillcrest. He's drawn to the neighborhood's walkable streets, proximity to Balboa Park and wide array of LGBTQ-oriented bars, cafes and restaurants.
"For people who have queer identity, I think being in a space that feels so openly welcoming and accepting really can change your quality of life," he said.
Instead, Kohli has been living in Grantville for the past eight years. His apartment is relatively affordable, but he said the neighborhood's streets can be hostile to pedestrians and offer little more than car dealerships, gas stations and fast food restaurants.
"I’d really like to be able to walk to interesting places rather than getting in my car and driving there," Kholi said. "Unfortunately, I’ve kept my eye on the prices of the apartments around (Hillcrest) and it’s really only gotten worse."