- Photo by Kelly Davis
It’s barely 9 a.m. and the humidity is already stifling what would otherwise be a mild August day. In front of a Tudor-style cottage in City Heights, charming with its pitched roof and multi-paned windows, there’s a single tree casting shade across the sidewalk.
It’s an oasis amid all the concrete. On either side of the Tudor—the only single-family home that remains on this particular stretch of 36th Street—are faded apartment buildings fronted by multiple parking spaces. Next to those are more drab apartment buildings and more parking spaces. It’s a scene that repeats up and down the street.
Dubbed “Huffman six-packs,” after developer Ray Huffman, these buildings, squeezed into narrow lots meant for single-family homes, are the result of hasty, shortsighted urban planning.
“Utilitarian” is how Hanan Bowman, housing director at the City Heights Community Development Corporation, puts it. Huffman-style properties were built fast to meet a perceived economic threat, he says. With new Mission Valley shopping centers luring consumers away from neighborhood businesses, midcentury Mid-City—North Park, City Heights, Normal Heights, Hillcrest, University Heights and Kensington— needed more density to help those businesses compete. In the late 1960s, Huffman started buying up single-family homes in the Mid-City area and replacing them with eight- to 10-unit apartment buildings (though few are six units, the “six-pack” tag stuck). Other developers, like Conrad Prebys’ Progress Construction, followed, using Huffman properties as a model. It wasn’t until the 1980s that city planners tried to curtail this sort of development. “San Diego’s unhappy history of higher-density housing,” is how a 2004 article in smart-growth magazine The Urbanist put it, with the consequence being a lingering hostility to any effort to increase density.
“They weren’t really all that well-constructed,” Bowman says of Huffman-style apartments, with “the parking in the front taking up a significant percentage of the lot space, the monolithic face of the buildings and such—while utilitarian and purposeful in the ’60s and ’70s, today is not appropriate for the look of the neighborhoods.”
“Subdivided into meaninglessness,” says Stephen Russell.
Russell’s standing in the lone tree’s shade, looking at the two buildings next to it. The architect and board president of the City Heights CDC is both fascinated and frustrated by Huffmans, so much so that in 2010, while at the NewSchool of Architecture, he wrote a thesis on how to revitalize older neighborhoods—Mid-City being his focus—that have been plagued by this sort of piecemeal development. What he set out to do, he says at the end of the 142-page study, was “to find a ‘cure’ for the ‘Huffman virus.’”
Ideally within a year, a City Heights Huffman will become Russell’s laboratory. Last month, the City Heights CDC was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation to help with the purchase and rehab of a Huffman property, which Russell will use as a case study. The question to be answered: “Can the Huffman structure be sufficiently rehabilitated, both its footprint and its street appeal,” Bowman says. “Or, from a cost-benefit perspective, is it more efficient to tear it down and rebuild?”
The project’s still in the early stages, and the CDC will have to cobble together money to acquire the building. The goal is to make the project replicable while also being mindful of the challenge of preserving the neighborhood’s affordability. City Heights includes some of the poorest census tracts in the county, and older housing stock, like Huffman properties, are de-facto affordable housing.
“How do we come up with a solution that the market isn’t going to seize on and do what the Huffmans did and just destroy all the affordable housing?” Russell says. “Because in many cases, you can’t even replace what is there under the zoning.… With public monies, foundation monies, there may be a formula that works for the affordable-housing market.”
The goal isn’t to add density, but to better accommodate it. The density’s already there: According to census data, more than half of City Heights households are considered overcrowded under standards set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Huffman-era properties are typically one-bedroom units, many no larger than 500 square feet.
“These places aren’t so very dense— what they are is they’re crowded,” Russell says. “We’ve crowded everybody in this little footprint in small units.”
To address the need for multi-bedroom units, the project will look at whether Huffman-era buildings were constructed in a way that would allow them to be reconfigured into a mix of unit sizes, going up to a three-bedroom space. Another option is looking at whether the parking spaces that front the properties could accommodate a couple town-home-style units.
Huffman-era apartments are defined by long stretches of driveway that allow for four or five parking spaces in the front of the building. Another four or five spaces in the back give each unit dedicated parking. But, at the same time, those front lots reduce the amount of on-street parking while also undermining public use of the sidewalk.
“You’ve pretty much abandoned [the sidewalk] to a car that uses it 15 seconds a day,” Russell says. “Parking doesn’t have to drive all of this.”
So-called "reverse-diagonal" street parking—angled parking that you back into—is one option to replace those dedicated spaces. It's bike and pedestrian friendly and has been used successfully in cities like Seattle, Portland and Austin, Russell notes in his thesis. Community lots are another option. “We [need to] get past the idea that I have to have my space in front of my place,” he says.
Many of the buildings have an illegal extra space, Russell points out, where the owner pulled out landscaping and poured in concrete. Some owners simply replaced the landscaping with concrete to cut back on maintenance costs. All that impermeable surface means that when it rains, polluted run-off is going into the city’s storm drains. Getting rid of the front-of-building parking spots would allow for landscaping that would capture that run-off.
(There’s a five-block area in City Heights that Russell refers to as the “magic blocks” because there’s not a single multi-family unit. Those blocks lack the alleyways for extra parking, making the lots unattractive to developers.)
The CDC, right now, is just focusing on the acquisition and rehab of one property. But as Russell walks through the neighborhood, he can’t help but see the bigger picture. He has a map with him, showing the redevelopment potential of each parcel in a four-block area of City Heights. All those Huffmans surrounding the Tudor cottage are “frozen” parcels—dark blue on the map. The rule of thumb, he says, is that for a property to be attractive to investment, a developer would need to be able to double or triple its current density. That worked great for Huffman and others who purchased single-family homes and replaced them with multi-unit dwellings. But those sites, in response to Mid-City’s Huffmanization, have since been down-zoned, meaning that unless a developer can combine parcels into a larger project, this isn’t an area that’s going to attract market-rate development.
Condo conversions—where apartments are upgraded and turned into condominiums, offering a way around the down-zoning conundrum—prettied up Huffman properties in neighborhoods like North Park, Hillcrest and University Heights. But, largely unregulated, the conversions—which took rental units off the market, many of them affordable to lower-income folks—became another example of how not to revitalize an area. Russell says that regulations put in place by the City Council a few years ago have made City Heights unattractive to developers looking to make quick money from a condo conversion.
“Dark blue,” Russell says, pointing to one of the Huffman parcels on 36th Street. “If you tore it down, you could put up half of what’s on the site.”
“What we did is we acted against perceived crowding by saying, ‘Stop, no more development,” he adds. “So, now we’re stuck with exactly what we have. It isn’t going to change, and is this what we want? No, we want to stop this from happening after it happened, as is so often the case.”