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‘I’m claiming victory.’ Measure C poised to lift the height limit in the Midway District

San Diegans have seemingly agreed to end the moratorium on buildings taller than 30 feet in the Midway District — albeit by a much slimmer margin than when voters considered an identical measure two years ago.

More than a week after Election Day, the Measure C ballot proposal to strike the entirety of the Midway-Pacific Highway Community Plan area from San Diego’s Coastal Height Limit Overlay Zone now appears headed for approval. As of Wednesday evening, 51.13 percent of votes are in favor and 48.87 percent are opposed, according to the latest update from the San Diego County Registrar of Voters.

Although some ballots remain uncounted, proponents consider the matter settled.

“I’m claiming victory,” said San Diego City Councilmember Chris Cate, who spearheaded the effort to put the measure before voters. “We knew going into it, (the measure) wasn’t going to (win) by the same margin as the last go-around, but we were confident that folks were going to see the benefits and pass the measure.”

The opposition group has not conceded.

The results theoretically promise to usher in a new era for a neighborhood best known for its industrialized superblocks, congested thoroughfares and antiquated sports arena.

That’s because the 1,324-acre Midway District will, for the first time in 50 years, exist outside the city’s coastal zone, where buildings taller than 30 feet are forbidden. The coastal territory, defined by Proposition D in 1972, extends from the water to Interstate 5 in city limits with carve-outs for downtown, National City and parts of Mission Bay.

The change opens the door to towers up to 100 feet on some Midway District parcels, with developers allowed to go higher if they take advantage of density bonuses.

The city’s 48-acre sports arena property, at 3220, 3240, 3250 and 3500 Sports Arena Blvd., is first in line for a major refresh. Earlier this year, San Diego City Council members selected the Midway Rising development team to redo the sports arena site with 4,250 apartment homes, a new 16,000-seat arena, a 200-room hotel, and 20 acres of plaza and park space.

However, the legality of Measure C is already being contested. In August, environmental activist group Save Our Access filed a civil action against the city in San Diego Superior Court claiming that the measure violates the California Environmental Quality Act because the city did not sufficiently study all of the impacts associated with removing the height limit.

Last year, the same group won a lawsuit invalidating the previous initiative, Measure E, which also sought to change the city’s municipal code to exclude the Midway District from the coastal zone and was approved by 57 percent of voters.

“We filed a lawsuit that said that the city had not done a proper (environmental impact report) after the judge ordered it. And the city went ahead and put (Measure C) on the ballot. We protested it being on the ballot because they didn’t provide the proper information,” said John McNab, who runs Save Our Access and helped organize the opposition campaign. “Yes, we fought the battle on the measure, but our focus has been on the law and the city following the law.”

The cloud of uncertainty will likely stall immediate investor interest, although it won’t be a road block for Dike Anyiwo, who chairs the Midway-Pacific Highway Community Planning Group.

“We won this election and so we have to operate under the premise that we’ve won. We will take that understanding and belief into this next year. If the courts come back and change the current trajectory, then so be it,” Anyiwo said. “For the sake of my sanity, my blood pressure, I refuse to be bogged down by (the lawsuit). We won an election for the second time in a row, with a smaller outcome, but we still won. And now it’s time to do the work.”

Both camps agree that 2022’s more divided electorate on the building-height debate is a product of voters seeing the same ballot proposal twice.

“Voters are getting a second bite of the apple. I think there’s an assumed skepticism that comes with seeing something a second time,” Cate said. “Folks may not understand or know the nuances behind why (Measure C) was placed on the ballot again — because of a lawsuit.”

San Diegans may have also been paying more attention to the city’s efforts to select a development team to redo its sports arena real estate, as the process was thrust into the political spotlight after the previous effort ran afoul of the Surplus Land Act. Save Our Access also appeared to run a more organized campaign this go-around with rallies in Pacific Beach and Mission Bay, all while on a limited budget.

As of Oct. 28, the Yes on C campaign had raised $675,263.59 in funds, whereas the opposition campaign, Reform Local Government PAC, had raised $39,706.63.

“Everywhere people were educated, we won the vote. And the places that we could not get to are the only places that voted yes,” McNab said, referencing his group’s successful push to win over voters in coastal communities but its inability to reach people in north city communities east of Interstate 5. “This could go on the ballot a third time. And if it (does), the public will be so educated that I doubt (the city is) going to win a third vote.”

The Registrar of Voters estimates that there are 15,000 outstanding ballots in the county of San Diego. Only a fraction of those apply to Measure C, as the measure was only presented to city of San Diego voters.

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