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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22 comments
Sharon Gehl
Sharon Gehl

Farmers grow food because there are people who want to buy food. No one criticizes them for doing it. Developers build buildings because there are people who want to buy what they build. It’s just supply and demand, or rather, demand than supply. When local residents object to new buildings, they are really just trying to prevent new people from moving into the neighborhood. Hopefully Mayor Filner will support Bill Fulton, smart growth, and new neighbors in old neighborhoods.

Sharon Gehl
Sharon Gehl subscribermember

Farmers grow food because there are people who want to buy food. No one criticizes them for doing it. Developers build buildings because there are people who want to buy what they build. It’s just supply and demand, or rather, demand than supply. When local residents object to new buildings, they are really just trying to prevent new people from moving into the neighborhood. Hopefully Mayor Filner will support Bill Fulton, smart growth, and new neighbors in old neighborhoods.

Elyse Lowe
Elyse Lowe

GAME CHANGER- Welcome Bill Fulton!

Elyse Lowe
Elyse Lowe subscribermember

GAME CHANGER- Welcome Bill Fulton!

NDavis
NDavis

Sounds like a smart guy. Maybe he can help citizens here in Clairemont...we're fighting for smart growth right now! www.CareAboutClairemont.com

Katheryn Rhodes
Katheryn Rhodes

Great news. Hopefully the City will move all $614 million in Non-Housing Successor Agency assets identified in the Non-Housing Due Diligence Report (DDR) from the private Civic San Diego management into the City of San Diego's direct control to fully fund the Planning and Neighborhood Restoration department. Council Member Myrtle Cole can now be assured the new EIR, Master Plans, and Specific Plans for District 4 in Southeast San Diego can be completed in-house instead of outsourcing the work to Civic San Diego. See Pages 33 to 37 for the Tables of Assets including Cash and Bond proceeds in the Non-Housing DDR which were approved only by Civic San Diego and IBA staff before approval by the Oversight Board on May 28, 2013. http://www.sandiegooversightboard.com/public_meetings_agenda/docs/Complete_Packet.pdf To fix their over-reach, Civic San Diego will be bringing the Non-Housing DDR before the City Council for their review and approval in the next few weeks. Currently both the $615 million in Non-Housing Successor Agency assets, and the Housing Assets including $32 million in cash and bonds, and 22 properties that need development are still being hoarded by Civic San Diego. See Pages 104 to 157 for Civic San Diego management plan for Housing Successor Entity assets entitled "Affordable Housing Master Plan" dated April 30, 2013. The AH Master Plan is great, but should be implemented by our San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC). http://www.sandiegooversightboard.com/public_meetings_agenda/docs/May_14__2013_OB_Complete_Pkt.pdf

La Playa Heritage
La Playa Heritage subscribermember

Great news. Hopefully the City will move all $614 million in Non-Housing Successor Agency assets identified in the Non-Housing Due Diligence Report (DDR) from the private Civic San Diego management into the City of San Diego's direct control to fully fund the Planning and Neighborhood Restoration department. Council Member Myrtle Cole can now be assured the new EIR, Master Plans, and Specific Plans for District 4 in Southeast San Diego can be completed in-house instead of outsourcing the work to Civic San Diego. See Pages 33 to 37 for the Tables of Assets including Cash and Bond proceeds in the Non-Housing DDR which were approved only by Civic San Diego and IBA staff before approval by the Oversight Board on May 28, 2013. http://www.sandiegooversightboard.com/public_meetings_agenda/docs/Complete_Packet.pdf To fix their over-reach, Civic San Diego will be bringing the Non-Housing DDR before the City Council for their review and approval in the next few weeks. Currently both the $615 million in Non-Housing Successor Agency assets, and the Housing Assets including $32 million in cash and bonds, and 22 properties that need development are still being hoarded by Civic San Diego. See Pages 104 to 157 for Civic San Diego management plan for Housing Successor Entity assets entitled "Affordable Housing Master Plan" dated April 30, 2013. The AH Master Plan is great, but should be implemented by our San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC). http://www.sandiegooversightboard.com/public_meetings_agenda/docs/May_14__2013_OB_Complete_Pkt.pdf

Ron Hidinger
Ron Hidinger

You forgot to mention the smart nimby's who won't be thrilled -- those who want smart planning in someone else's village.

Ron Hidinger
Ron Hidinger subscriber

You forgot to mention the smart nimby's who won't be thrilled -- those who want smart planning in someone else's village.

bob dorn
bob dorn

It's a great pleasure to read a serious story about the appointment of a serious professional with a creative mind to a vital post with the city. It certainly seems that San Diego has a chance to depart on a sensible 21st C. journey.

bob dorn
bob dorn subscriber

It's a great pleasure to read a serious story about the appointment of a serious professional with a creative mind to a vital post with the city. It certainly seems that San Diego has a chance to depart on a sensible 21st C. journey.

Alison Moss
Alison Moss

Very exciting! Welcome Bill Fulton. And thanks, Andrew Keatts, for yet another good piece on Land Use and Planning.

Greg Goodfellow
Greg Goodfellow

Great news. As a younger planner mentored by Bill, I'll attest to his vast historical perspective combined with a journalist's sense of story, empathy & communication. The result is a unique ability to educate and energize, perfect for SD in this time of transition.

John Anderson
John Anderson

Great news! (Although I was still hoping for Quality of Life Department for the new name.)

John Anderson
John Anderson subscriber

Great news! (Although I was still hoping for Quality of Life Department for the new name.)

Dave Gatzke
Dave Gatzke

This is great news. I can't think of anyone better to help San Diego reach its potential as one of America's great cities of the future.

Walter Chambers
Walter Chambers

Fantastic news for San Diego! Congratulations and welcome to Mr. Fulton. Thank you and good work to Mayor Filner!

Walter Chambers
Walter Chambers subscribermember

Fantastic news for San Diego! Congratulations and welcome to Mr. Fulton. Thank you and good work to Mayor Filner!

Sam Ollinger
Sam Ollinger

I cannot express in mere words on a screen how incredibly excited I am about this appointment (very!!!). I'm a huge fan of Bill Fulton! His book Reluctant Metropolis was one of the first I read after moving to San Diego and I consider it essential reading to understanding SoCal planning and politics.

Sam Ollinger
Sam Ollinger subscriber

I cannot express in mere words on a screen how incredibly excited I am about this appointment (very!!!). I'm a huge fan of Bill Fulton! His book Reluctant Metropolis was one of the first I read after moving to San Diego and I consider it essential reading to understanding SoCal planning and politics.

NDavis
NDavis

I agree with the supply/demand premise. I have no beef with developers. But a developer (and a farmer, for that matter) do what they do to make money. That's a fine and valid goal. One would hope that a City Planner would have a different goal, though....namely to plan a great city to live in. So where BOTH developer's goals and citizen/planner's goals meet....perfection! But if a developer's goal of making money brings forth a project that does not meet a planner's goal of making the city a better place to live, I think it is logical to say, "sorry, that doesn't meet our goals". There are plenty of projects where citizen/planner goals align with business goals. Just because some don't doesn't mean either party is "wrong", just that their goals don't align. I think your first paragraph makes sense, but I question the assumption in your second.