Four Things to Know About San Diego’s New Planning Director

In his campaign and since taking office, Mayor Bob Filner promised a City Hall focused on improving quality of life in San Diego’s neighborhoods.

On Tuesday, he hired the man whose job it’ll be to make that happen.

Bill Fulton — former mayor of Ventura, nationally recognized sustainable development expert and the author of the pre-eminent textbook on planning in California — is the new head of the city’s planning department. Filner’s calling it the Planning and Neighborhood Restoration department.

Fulton’s hire will also allow Filner to make good on his promise to separate the city’s planning division from the Development Services Department, after they were consolidated by Mayor Jerry Sanders. Kelly Broughton, the leader of that department, left last week and has been replaced on an interim basis by Tom Tomlinson, former facilities financing program manager.

Now, development services will focus on issuing permits and enforcing code violations. Planning will evaluate the merit of major development proposals and steer the city’s long-term growth.

Here are four things to know about the guy responsible for implementing large chunks of Filner’s vision for the city.

Bill Fulton, courtesy Fulton, Creative Commons.

Bill Fulton, courtesy Fulton, Creative Commons.

Bill Fulton

1. He’s Kind of a Big Deal

In the niche world of urban planning, Fulton’s a known name.

In planning and urban development programs across California, the most common introductory textbook is Fulton’s “Guide to California Planning,” which dubs him “California’s Pre-Eminent Expert on Land Use and Planning.”

He’s written four other books, one subtitled “planning for the end of sprawl,” and another “The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles,” in which he argues the state’s Proposition 13, which reduced property taxes and made it difficult to raise taxes, fundamentally changed the way California cities could grow.

He’s also publisher of the California Planning & Development Report, where he recently touted the fiscal case for smart growth, and is coming to San Diego after serving as vice president with Smart Growth America, a Washington D.C.-based think tank that fights sprawl and advocates for dense urban development.

In Ventura, he was elected to the City Council in 2003 and was elected as mayor by the rest of the council. During his time there, Ventura’s downtown area went through a successful revitalization after he helped implement an “infill first” development plan, prioritizing new projects on vacant lots within already-developed areas.

As mayor, Fulton even broke the statewide trend and came out in favor of Governor Jerry Brown’s decision to end redevelopment.

“Cities have forgotten that there are other ways to get things done,” he said, and advised other California municipal leaders to “not confuse the job we have to do with the tool we’ve been accustomed to using.”

2. You’d Better Like Smart Growth

As his career history makes clear, Fulton is an outspoken smart growth advocate.

Residents in favor of that idea — providing housing in dense, walkable neighborhoods near transit, jobs and things like grocery stores — will have a like-minded director taking care of the city’s long-range visioning.

But those who oppose growth or view central city planning as government overreach will have a hard time warming to him.

He drew the ire of rightwing talk radio show “The John and Ken Show” in 2010 when Ventura implemented a smart growth-friendly parking management program that Fulton said was inspired by UCLA professor Donald Shoup’s research on parking costs. (He even tweeted a Voice of San Diego story last week on the same issue.)

San Diego’s general plan, its citywide document outlining future growth decisions, aligns well with a lot of Fulton’s planning priorities. Its “City of Villages” concept calls for the city to grow in a network of dense clusters to accommodate future population growth.

None of the city’s community-specific plans has been updated since the general plan was passed, however, so not many of those ideas have been implemented. The general plan now has an advocate in charge of planning.

3. He’s Working With a Blank Canvas

Fulton’s walking into a planning department that will have just been separated from development services. And the previous development services director, Kelly Broughton, just took the same job in Chula Vista.

On top of that: redevelopment is officially dead. The old redevelopment agency, Civic San Diego, is in a restructuring period, trying to figure out its future. The city’s community plans are mostly out of date, either going through the update process or in need of one. And Filner is trying to put together his Civic and Urban Initiatives program, to get city departments to coordinate with each other on future decisions.

Among all those factors, Fulton and Filner will have a lot of decisions to make, but they’ll have every opportunity to shape the city planning in their image.

4. Which Filner Does He Get?

Ideologically, Filner favors all of the concepts that Fulton’s favored on his way to national acclaim: transit-oriented development, urban design, smart growth, bikable and walkable streets.

But Filner’s also demonstrated a willingness to speak against a project that at least seems to align with those priorities if he learns the residents in that area oppose it.

The 1.4 million square foot mixed-use development, One Paseo, for instance, has fashioned itself as a walkable main street for the traditionally suburban Carmel Valley. It incorporates a stop on a new planned transit line, and has been targeted by the regional planning agency, San Diego Association of Governments, as a smart growth opportunity.

But a vocal community opposition points to projections that the project, at nearly three times the size of the lot’s current zoning, will increase traffic in the area, and alter the area’s existing character with buildings taller than what’s currently there.

In January, Filner said it was a betrayal for the developer to open negotiations with a project so much larger than what was called for by the existing community plan.

Similarly, in December he stopped a construction project along University Avenue in North Park when he learned local residents opposed it. The project had been considered pedestrian-, bike- and transit-friendly before he stepped in.

There’s sometimes tension between Filner’s advocacy for progressive urban development and his stated desire to take sides with David when he sees him up against Goliath.

But if the split between the planning and development services departments goes as expected, it might not matter to Fulton. Since planning will be expected to focus on a long-term vision, and development services will deal with issuing permits for specific projects, the new head of development services could be the one left to sort out the times when Filner’s two aims come into conflict.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that Tom Tomlinson has been named interim director of the city’s Development Services Department.

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Andrew Keatts

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.

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