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Housing plans in Oceanside spark community debate about state and local policies

Multistory+buildings+that+include+high-density+housing+are+becoming+a+larger+presence+in+downtown+Oceanside%2C+pictured+March+2021.+%28Photo+by+Matt+Gush%2C+iStock+Getty+Images%29
Multistory buildings that include high-density housing are becoming a larger presence in downtown Oceanside, pictured March 2021. (Photo by Matt Gush, iStock Getty Images)

With several new housing developments being planned, approved and built over the past several years in Oceanside, many of which have been concentrated in downtown, the city is attempting to keep up with the growing demand for affordable housing.

However, the subject of housing has become a divisive issue among residents and city leaders.

Recent housing developments that have been approved (with substantial resident pushback) include a 64-unit residential project located at 901 Pier View Way, which was approved by the Oceanside City Council at its May 17 meeting.

Along with already approved projects, there have been discussions of future housing developments at two sites currently occupied by Regal Cinemas in Oceanside. The theater chain previously announced plans to shutter 30-plus theater locations nationwide, including Regal locations in El Cajon and Escondido, after its parent company Cineworld filed for bankruptcy. The Escondido Regal location was saved through an effort of the city.

In November 2022, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that developers have proposed tearing down the Regal Cinemas in Mission Marketplace and replacing the theater with a multistory apartment complex within the retail center. This followed a previous proposal by a separate group of developers to build a residential complex anchored by retail and restaurants at the Regal Cinemas site on Mission Avenue.

Both developments have been met with resistance from residents who worry about downtown Oceanside losing its historic buildings and businesses at the expense of additional housing.

Especially in downtown, each new housing proposal for a high rise condo or apartment complex invites concerns about how well they will fit within Oceanside. Residents’ concerns about housing developments range from subjective topics such as traffic, height and aesthetic to deep-rooted issues such as affordability, urban sprawl and global warming.

Nearly every housing development brought to the City Council over the past several years has been met with varying levels of pushback, whether aimed at council members in-person or expressed online.

One forum where residents share their opinions about local politics and engage in civic discussions is on the community Facebook page Wake Up, Oceanside, which has over 1,200 members who voice their opinions regarding community issues.

Oceanside resident Amber Newman is an administrator for Wake Up, Oceanside, and she says there’s been a lot of pushback from residents regarding the increased housing density in downtown Oceanside.

According to Newman, conversations about housing among residents predominantly lean in a negative direction with many people hesitant to accept any changes to the current housing density for the sake of affordability. Even those in favor of more affordable housing options seem to be worried about the impact of increased density in downtown.

“So you can either have single-family homes that are million-dollar homes or you can have 300 apartments or condos to help bring the cost down, but you can’t have both,” Newman said. “So either you get density to get affordability, or you have low density and no affordability.”

Joan Bockman, former member of the Oceanside Planning Commission and longtime resident of Oceanside’s Seaside community, says residents must change their lifestyle and become less car-dependent to improve the density of downtown Oceanside.

It’s a complex topic, but the conventional wisdom has gone in the wrong direction, and it starts with the car.

— Joan Bockman, former Oceanside planning commissioner

“It’s a complex topic, but the conventional wisdom has gone in the wrong direction, and it starts with the car,” Bockman said.

According to Bockman, local neighborhoods need to adapt to create more sustainable ways to house people and combat traffic. She also says that downtown should continue to densify and get bigger so it can grow into a true urban downtown area, with residents encouraged to walk and bike to places they otherwise would drive to.

Bockman said she believes that having density on major streets such as Vista Way and Oceanside Boulevard with the proper mix of commercial and noncommercial elements allows the city to grow more gracefully, with options such as mass transit to get around.

While residents have their own share of opinions when it comes to what should be done by the City Council regarding housing, Oceanside Deputy Mayor Ryan Keim says there is currently a disconnect between state representatives and citizens regarding housing.

He said he worries about how the city can manage housing effectively without the discretion needed to partake in the actual decision making. Though residents see housing developments go through the council, Keim notes that Oceanside is following state mandates for affordable housing, which he says can leave council members without much they can do.

You ask somebody who their local representatives are, they usually are more able to tell you the mayor or their City Council members than state senators or state Assembly.

— Ryan Keim, Oceanside Deputy Mayor

“You ask somebody who their local representatives are, they usually are more able to tell you the mayor or their City Council members than state senators or state Assembly,” Keim said. “And not everyone connects those positions and those votes to the legislation that dictates all this development.”

As it stands, to decline a new housing development, there must be a significant safety risk found that would have definitive consequences for Oceanside, such as a major environmental threat. Without having a probable cause, California cities face potential fines of up to $10,000 per unit if they rebel against state mandates for affordable housing.

The cost of such a crusade could irreparably damage Oceanside’s finances, meaning the council must take residents’ concerns about increased traffic or ugly building designs on the chin and approve any building designs that meet the necessary requirements for affordable housing.

So unless there is a worthwhile reason to vote against a proposed development, Keim says that there is little to no incentive for the City Council to clash with the state Legislature’s push for more affordable housing. Meanwhile, developers have their own set of incentives they can receive if they meet affordable-housing requirements.

When developers meet the standards for affordable housing units (a minimum of 10% of units reserved for low-income residents), they are afforded a density bonus, with a larger density bonus being granted for the more affordable housing units included. Developers can also have the option to bypass this affordable-housing requirement by paying an in-lieu fee to the city.

Newman said she believes there can be more of a productive dialogue between the city and developers to ensure projects fit better within the neighborhoods so the density is used efficiently and the new complexes “don’t stick out like a sore thumb.” But even with her and other residents’ concerns, Newman said she feels that there’s not much that the council can do to impact the current acceleration of housing projects.

I’m not a fan of it; I am not loving all of these projects going up; I think some of them are overbuilt and some areas of Oceanside are being over-concentrated.

— Amber Newman, an administrator for Wake Up, Oceanside

“I’m not a fan of it; I am not loving all of these projects going up; I think some of them are overbuilt and some areas of Oceanside are being over-concentrated,” Newman said. “But again, (the City Council) are between a rock and a hard place.”

In regard to the future of Regal Cinemas in Oceanside, nothing has been brought to council yet about any future developments at either Regal site, but Keim says the council wants the ability to make sure that any future developments throughout downtown fit within the neighborhoods they’re built in.

To succeed in managing the expansion and growth of downtown and preventing unintended consequences from state legislation, Keim said he believes that the City Council needs more control on the matter. For now, the status quo is hard for him to accept.

“We make important decisions and we need to be held accountable for them. … When I have the discretion to make a decision, I obviously take ownership of it whether I’m right or wrong,” Keim said. “But the fact that we don’t have that discretion anymore is extremely frustrating.”


Ryan Hardison is a local freelance writer.