City Leaves Planning Behind, at Least in Name

City Leaves Planning Behind, at Least in Name

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Uptown San Diego

 

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 It’s so outdated that the city has had to amend it 10 times — that’s 10 City Council votes — because developers wanted to build projects that wouldn’t have been allowed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.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

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16 comments
Doug Wescott
Doug Wescott subscriber

I would echo much of what has been said about this being a very bad move, and creating even more (is it possible?) opportunity for developers to get their way. The decision to basically forget about long-range planning is classic penny-wise and pound foolish, times millions. My community was one of a handful that recently raised up and said NO when the City approved a huge project, and took the extreme and risky decision to sue. How will the City save money if it has to defend itself in more and more cases such as ours, 301 University, Kensington Terrace, etc.? Answer, it won't.

For The People
For The People

I would echo much of what has been said about this being a very bad move, and creating even more (is it possible?) opportunity for developers to get their way. The decision to basically forget about long-range planning is classic penny-wise and pound foolish, times millions. My community was one of a handful that recently raised up and said NO when the City approved a huge project, and took the extreme and risky decision to sue. How will the City save money if it has to defend itself in more and more cases such as ours, 301 University, Kensington Terrace, etc.? Answer, it won't.

Don Wood
Don Wood subscriber

Tbis is Jerry Sanders response to those who want to contract out all city services. He's going to outsource city land use and comunity planning to his big developer friend political contributors. What could go wrong? Who needs community plans when it can all be handed off to the developers who give him big campaign contributions? As long as Jerry's own pension is safe and he's taking care of his boys and his friends, the rest of the city can rot.

Don Wood
Don Wood

Tbis is Jerry Sanders response to those who want to contract out all city services. He's going to outsource city land use and comunity planning to his big developer friend political contributors. What could go wrong? Who needs community plans when it can all be handed off to the developers who give him big campaign contributions? As long as Jerry's own pension is safe and he's taking care of his boys and his friends, the rest of the city can rot.

Murtaza Baxamusa
Murtaza Baxamusa subscribermember

(3) Economic development, Redevelopment & Planning, all delinked: Used to be that the three divisions would work together to attract industries, redevelop in areas that needed investment, and have land-use plans balance needs of community, jobs & housing. They were all linked structurally, under one department. Bill Anderson saw Economic Development taken from his department, Redevelopment separated, and since, the role of planning in being the stewards of the over-arching vision for the growth of the city, collapsed.

Murtaza
Murtaza

(3) Economic development, Redevelopment & Planning, all delinked: Used to be that the three divisions would work together to attract industries, redevelop in areas that needed investment, and have land-use plans balance needs of community, jobs & housing. They were all linked structurally, under one department. Bill Anderson saw Economic Development taken from his department, Redevelopment separated, and since, the role of planning in being the stewards of the over-arching vision for the growth of the city, collapsed.

Jeffry Stevens
Jeffry Stevens subscribermember

Planning and Development have been merged and separated before, and the merger alone isn't necessarily bad. But long range planning and attention to community plans are important, and I am bothered by Kelly Broughton's statement: "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.' "

JffStevens
JffStevens

Planning and Development have been merged and separated before, and the merger alone isn't necessarily bad. But long range planning and attention to community plans are important, and I am bothered by Kelly Broughton's statement: "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.' "

Richard Ross
Richard Ross subscribermember

Kelly Broughton is a developer "yes man", but when I looked at Anderson's six figure salary both should be canned and divert their salaries to Library and Rec Center personnel. This city needs to provide essential services, get off its drug addiction to developers through rehab and focus instead upon sustainability.

Activist
Activist

Kelly Broughton is a developer "yes man", but when I looked at Anderson's six figure salary both should be canned and divert their salaries to Library and Rec Center personnel. This city needs to provide essential services, get off its drug addiction to developers through rehab and focus instead upon sustainability.

David Cohen
David Cohen subscriber

Development Services has long been in the hip pocket of developers, granting Ministerial status to projects that don't quality for it by accepting developers' lies without question. By claiming in-fill status as an "apartment" project, a developer of a luxury high-rise condo tower, now in its second or third bankruptcy, was able to evade scrutiny of several variances it needed. SD needs more real planning, not less, and more community input, not less.

fryefan
fryefan

Development Services has long been in the hip pocket of developers, granting Ministerial status to projects that don't quality for it by accepting developers' lies without question. By claiming in-fill status as an "apartment" project, a developer of a luxury high-rise condo tower, now in its second or third bankruptcy, was able to evade scrutiny of several variances it needed. SD needs more real planning, not less, and more community input, not less.

Jacob Pyle
Jacob Pyle subscriber

The real fear of Mr. Anderson and others is that their redundant work has been found out and they don't want to lose their jobs. This is a great move and long overdue in a highly inefficient SD government (now I'm being redundant).

SD_Guy
SD_Guy

The real fear of Mr. Anderson and others is that their redundant work has been found out and they don't want to lose their jobs. This is a great move and long overdue in a highly inefficient SD government (now I'm being redundant).

Judi OBoyle
Judi OBoyle subscriber

By combining the functions of planning, community investment, and development services, the City is showing itself as a second class city once again. Also, it puts the fox in the hen house as developers will get project approvals with little scrutiny. Kelly Broughton is the worse choice, he has no vision for the city, is simply a hack for the mayor,and will allow projects to go through without proper environment review. We simply must do better here.

Judith
Judith

By combining the functions of planning, community investment, and development services, the City is showing itself as a second class city once again. Also, it puts the fox in the hen house as developers will get project approvals with little scrutiny. Kelly Broughton is the worse choice, he has no vision for the city, is simply a hack for the mayor,and will allow projects to go through without proper environment review. We simply must do better here.