Photo by Sam Hodgson
San Diego’s planning department is updating uptown’s community plan, its blueprint for future development. It’s one of the last community plans the department, which is being consolidated into another, will complete in the foreseeable future.
One in an occasional series looking at the street-level impacts of San Diego City Hall’s financial problems.
Bill Anderson, the city’s planning director, is worried about Mission Valley. Its community plan is 27 years old. It’s so outdated that the city has had to amend it 10 times — that’s 10 City Council votes — because developers wanted to build projects that wouldn’t have been allowed otherwise.
Community plans, the blueprints for neighborhoods’ growth, are supposed to avoid that. They’re supposed to lay out standards for what a community wants so developers know what they can and can’t build. Perhaps no San Diego community exemplifies the need for that vision more than Mission Valley, where a massive and haphazard construction boom in the last three decades has left traffic jams, labyrinthine streets that inexplicably dead end, not a single neighborhood park and only a makeshift fire station.
Last year, the Planning Department was set to start updating Mission Valley’s community plan. Then the budget ax fell, and it scrapped the idea. After a recession-induced lull, construction is picking up again. But an updated community plan is nowhere in sight, meaning piecemeal development will continue there. “Mission Valley was really a victim of the budget,” Anderson said.
And now, so is he. Two weeks ago, Mayor Jerry Sanders announced that Anderson would be leaving the city May 26 as part of a restructuring of its Planning Department.
To save $1 million a year, the mayor will fold the Planning Department into the Development Services Department, which, as its name suggests, helps developers get approvals for building permits. The new group will still be called the Development Services Department. Kelly Broughton, the department’s director, will remain its leader and assume the effective role of planning director.
The idea, first raised in the wake of the Sunroad scandal, has raised concerns among current and former planning officials that, as the city’s budget increasingly focuses on simply preserving core services, planning for the city’s future is being left behind — with Mission Valley as Exhibit A. At least there, Anderson said, the city’s budget problems have jeopardized its ability to plan for growth.
Unlike parks, libraries and police, planning is a city service that residents don’t see every day. It is meant to ensure neighborhoods don’t become a jumble of high-rises, single family homes, junkyards and warehouses. Though both the planning and development services departments employ planners with overlapping skills, their missions, philosophies and approaches differ.
The Planning Department goes to neighborhoods, meets with local groups and relies on residents to articulate a vision and draft rules for the community’s growth. Development Services ensures developers follow those rules, but rarely interacts with community groups.
The Planning Department’s budget comes from city taxpayers. Development Services’ budget is mostly funded by developers (it calls them customers) who pay for staff time to process permits and ensure rule compliance.
The Planning Department is focused on the city’s long-term vision. Development Services’ work was once called short-term planning.
The departments have often acted as checks on each other. Long-term planners caution against approving developments that don’t conform to a community’s vision, while development services planners “are about implementation,” Anderson said. “They’re sometimes skeptical of long-range planning because it can be a little lofty. But it’s healthy to have a little of that tension.”
Longtime planning advocates say they’re concerned that merging the departments may remove those checks and balances.
“My biggest fear is that there will be a loss of recognition of the importance of thinking beyond permit processing as we think about the future of San Diego,” said Michael Stepner, who worked in city planning from 1971 to 1997. “The fear is whether we will have a long-term voice for planning.”
Under Anderson and his predecessor, Gail Goldberg, the Planning Department became a national model for planning in the 21st century as San Diego faced the reality that sprawling development had pushed growth toward the city’s outer limits. To keep growing, the city would have to turn inward to its older neighborhoods. Anderson wanted the department to be a catalyst for the revitalization of San Diego’s oldest neighborhoods such as Barrio Logan, Golden Hill and North Park.
That was the idea behind the city’s 2008 General Plan, which won national recognition because it concentrated future growth in existing neighborhoods by promoting rezoning that would allow higher density and mixed-use developments.
But implementing that plan has been a different matter. If the General Plan is the foundation, the city’s 40-plus community plans are the bricks. The Planning Department has initiated updates to 11 of them, several with grant funding and most in the city’s oldest neighborhoods south of Interstate 8. Once those are done, at least for the foreseeable future, progress on the General Plan’s vision will come to a halt.
The department’s efforts have been hampered by repeated funding cuts in the five years since Anderson took over, including a loss of 40 percent of his staff.
But the role of long-term planners, Anderson said, has not become any less important even as San Diego and other cash-strapped cities nationwide have prioritized permitting over planning.
“People think planning’s about process,” he said Tuesday night, sitting outside a city building in Kearny Mesa after bidding farewell to a gathering of community planning board volunteers. “It’s really about outcomes and creating choices for the public for those outcomes. But it’s deliberative, and it takes time.”
In 2006, Hillcrest residents erupted over a proposed 12-story condominium complex that the existing community plan would have allowed, but that would have dwarfed surrounding buildings.
“The community plan had allowed so much discretion that it left a lot to negotiation, and the project turned into a community war,” Anderson said. “Development Services tends to say, ‘Do you meet the regulations, yes or no?’ Planning is about saying, ‘Are you meeting the intent of the policy and the vision?’ “
Residents and developers reached a compromise, but planners are now drawing a height restriction into uptown’s new community plan, which is one of the city’s last planned updates.
In an interview, Broughton said his mandate from the mayor was to create efficiencies within the department. He said he would not be pushing for future updates to community plans.
“No,” he said. “I don’t think there will be a budget for them. I’m going to live within my means. That’s my mentality running this side of the house.”
He also said he had not yet decided whether he or the city’s deputy planning director, Mary Wright, would lead the new slimmer planning division. It will still be funded by the city’s day-to-day budget, but will also lose three staff planners.
But Broughton said he hoped to free up some of his own planners to start attending meetings of the city’s more than 40 community planning groups, so they can start developing longer-term relationships with residents and get a feel for their priorities. They haven’t been able to do that because of the department’s need to recover its costs, he said.
Broughton has his work cut out for him, not only in managing a larger, more diverse department, but also in convincing the city’s planning officials that he won’t abandon long-term planning.
Eric Naslund, chairman of the city’s Planning Commission, said he would be watching the new department closely.
“It remains to be seen whether that long-range vision piece is taken seriously by a department that has primarily been focused on customer service and an immediate need for development considerations,” he said.
The cuts may make sense, Anderson said, given that San Diego is no longer really growing outward. The hardest part of setting the city on a path for future growth — the vision — is already in place in the form of the general plan, he said.
Marcela Escobar-Eck, the former director of the city’s Development Services Department, said she thought the mayor’s move was good because it would make it easier for the consolidated department to ensure developers were complying with the visions set out in plans.
But Anderson said those visions don’t spring from nowhere. “You always have to be thinking at least just a little bit about the next steps. Unfortunately when times are tight, long-range planning can seem like a luxury.”
Broughton, he said, will “have to start putting on that long-range hat.”
Correction: This story originally reported that the Planning Department had completed or initiated updates to 11 of the city’s community plans. All 11 of those plan updates are still in the process of completion. We regret the error.
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