How Land Use Policy Can Make Or Break San Diego's Beer Scene

Andrew Keatts, Voice of San Diego, June 19, 2013

Beer has become a favorite son in San Diego.

Politicians make a point of being seen at local beer festivals. The local brewers’ guild gets tax dollars to promote its annual weeklong celebration, Beer Week. And the City Council recently changed the land development code to help local brewers continue to grow.

And the local beer scene isn’t just a favorite of flannel-clad beer geeks, it’s become a legitimate economic force: The National University System for Policy Research in April released a study pegging the industry’s net benefit to the local economy at nearly $300 million per year.

But San Diego isn’t alone. The industry as a whole is undergoing massive growth statewide and nationwide, and other markets are similarly carving out niches as hot beds for good beer. 

For the local industry to remain competitive, said Vince Vasquez, author of the study, the city needs to address a series of land use-related constraints.

One is that new converts to good beer might be less willing to venture to the industrial areas that were home to many of the city’s first breweries, Vasquez said.

“I love the Spartan, grassroots feel to enjoying beer, where you’re not here for anything else but for the beer itself,” Vasquez said. “But someone like me five to 10 years from now might like something closer to work, more accommodating.”

That change is already taking place, as more breweries open in central urban areas like North Park and East Village, but current land use policies make a low ceiling for such expansion.

Breweries are currently considered “light manufacturing” by the city’s zoning ordinance.

Because of sound, smell and pollution concerns, light manufacturing companies usually can’t get too close to homes. And as far as the zoning ordinance is concerned, there’s no difference between a small batch brewery and one operating on a much larger scale.

But encouraging new breweries to open in the city’s urban core is possible with a change to land use policy.

One option, embraced by other cities, is introducing microbrewery-specific land use designations.

Doing so, however, would mean implementing the designation through a time-intensive, costly and difficult zoning rewrite.

Instead, according to architect and planning expert Howard Blackson, the city should issue permits that give it more direct control over the operations that are most likely to result in neighborhood conflict.

“Our zoning treats everything as one-size-fits-all, so any brewery is seen as Anheuser-Busch, even though there are different levels of brewery,” he said. “We need something at a neighborhood scale, at a block scale, at a lot scale, so it’s based on how micro your microbrewery gets.”

The city should issue permits, he said, that carefully outline when a brewery can brew and how much beer it can produce, based on its lot’s size and proximity to housing.

He pointed to North Park’s Thorn Street Brewery, a small on-site brewing operation and tasting room located within a compact commercial area at the corner of Thorn and 32nd streets.

“We know the Thorn Street model works, so I’d hope instead of putting breweries through a horrible rezoning process, we could just manage it through a use-permit,” Blackson said.

The item approved by the City Council in May addressed the problem in a different way, focusing on issues facing the breweries already operating in industrial zones.

It amended the city’s land development code to allow breweries of 12,000 square feet, operating in industrial areas, to open tasting rooms or restaurants of more than 3,000 square feet. Some local breweries had complained that they wanted to open full-service restaurants to accompany their tasting rooms and production facilities, but the zoning ordinance restricted them to the small delis you normally see in industrial lots.

As the customer base for on-site microbreweries grows, cities will need to continue to look at ways zoning restricts the industry, and decide if the promise of additional growth warrants additional changes.

Andrew Keatts is a reporter at Voice of San Diego, a nonprofit investigative publication. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter, @Andy_Keatts and untappd, akeatts.

This article was first published at Voice of San Diego.