Filner’s Exit Complicates the Plan for Planning

Filner’s Exit Complicates the Plan for Planning

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Bill Fulton at Politifest

Bob Filner campaigned on a promise to put the city’s neighborhoods first.

The idea was responsible for some of his best-received policies; the approach ended up feeding his downfall.

In practice, Filner’s move to reprioritize neighborhoods meant reinventing the city’s planning and development functions in his image.

That included hiring one of the country’s most highly respected urban planners, Bill Fulton, to take over a reconstituted and empowered planning department, a move that provided a glimpse at what Filner’s plan might look like if all the stars aligned perfectly.

Filner’s new Planning and Neighborhood Resources department, freed from the confines of Development Services, would outline and enforce the city’s future growth at a community level by taking on affordable housing, transportation, economic development and historic resources. It would be the Department of Quality of Life, he said.

But there were also plenty of hints that Filner’s aggressive personality would make implementing his vision a bumpy road.

He made public statements about developments he had no authority over. He extracted payments from builders to allow them to move forward on projects that had already won approval. Just as he did throughout his brief tenure as mayor, Filner made it clear he’d use every tool in his arsenal to make sure the actions of city staff and developers reflected his grand vision.

As the city begins to select a replacement for Filner, neighborhoods and the planning department will face a crossroads. How the next mayor handles Fulton’s new department and the task of updating community plans, will be a huge indicator of whether Filner’s priority shift made a lasting impact.

New Priorities, the Old-Fashioned Way

Filner announced early in his administration his intention to reconstitute planning as a standalone department, after it had been folded into development services as a cost-saving measure during Mayor Jerry Sanders’ tenure.

He introduced Fulton as the new planning director in early June to nearly 400 development-related employees.

The message was clear: planning, once again, is a top priority. And its job is to improve quality of life throughout the city.

He said the City Hall’s empty fourth floor — where planning had previously been located — struck him as emblematic.

“I took it as a metaphor for the past administration,” he said. “The planning floor is empty, and nothing is happening. And I said, ‘We have got to change that.’”

He changed it by hiring Fulton and shaking up the organization chart for planning and development.

He also stressed the importance of replacing the city’s out-of-date community plans, which serve as a blueprint for the future growth of the city’s 50-some neighborhoods. He urged a streamlined process for locking in an update, from four to five years to 18 months.

The emphasis on updating the plans was also an emphasis on letting communities define their future.

Murtaza Baxamusa, who volunteered as a special policy adviser to Filner, said the mayor’s planning focus represented a “slow tectonic shift” that would endure after Filner’s exit.

“Neighborhood-level decision-making empowers residents to be invested in the final form, fosters a pride of place and improves civic governance,” Baxamusa wrote.

Barrio Logan’s new plan will appear before the City Council in mid-September. If approved, it’ll be the first new plan since 2008, when the city revamped its general plan.

The council has two options, one favored by residents that devotes more acreage to housing, and one favored by industry.

Filner, consistent with his promise, sided with Barrio Logan residents and city planners.

Whether the City Council, or the next mayor, takes their side is still an open question.

A Confrontational Approach

Part of Filner’s priority shift took place behind the scenes, where he upended organizational charts and instilled a sense among the city’s anonymous planners that their work was valued.

But Filner also pursued change through public confrontation with many of the developers who had been perceived as the beneficiaries of the permissive City Hall he inherited.

Early in the year, Filner attended a Carmel Valley Planning Board meeting to discuss One Paseo, a 23-acre development that would require a formal change of the Carmel Valley community plan.

Filner didn’t have a vote on the change and couldn’t veto the City Council’s decision, but came to the meeting anyway to excoriate the developer’s proposal.

“The community plan was a contract, as far as I could see,” he said. “And we spent a lot of time on it. People put their heart and soul into it, I’m sure. Once something is there, there has to be a pretty good reason to have a massive amendment, like you all are proposing.”

He was just getting started.

A few months later, he learned College Area residents were wary of a large dormitory being built in their neighborhood.

Filner only caught wind of the project once it was already construction but he instructed city staff to stop conducting inspections, halting construction. The developer sued.

He ultimately agreed to step aside as part of a negotiated settlement that also included a $150,000 payment by the developer for a neighborhood park. The city attorney later issued a memo clarifying that Filner’s initial involvement was illegal.

Filner also vetoed a City Council decision to give another developer an easement on city parkland in order to continue construction on a Kearny Mesa apartment complex.

The administration agreed to step aside after securing $100,000 from the developer to pay for two unrelated city projects Filner favored.

He eventually returned the money, but not before piquing the interest of federal investigators.

The developer, Sunroad Enterprises, had been the subject of a scandal six years earlier that plagued Sanders’ administration.

The differences between the two Sunroad scandals conveniently frames the perceptions of how developers were received by Filner and his predecessor.

In 2007, Sunroad built a Kearny Mesa office tower 20 feet beyond the area’s 160-foot height limit. It was ordered to knock 20 feet off the tower, but not before Sanders earned a reputation for cowing to developers by letting the building get to that point in the first place.

Filner’s administration, by comparison, only gave the developer what it needed after securing a community-oriented benefit.

He also interjected himself into hyper-local disputes over the demolition of two cottages in La Jolla and the rebuilding of a fast-food restaurant in North Park.

The latter dispute, which has since resulted in a lawsuit against Jack in the Box, led to a revealing appeal from one of Filner’s last-standing allies.

Filner’s director of community outreach, Linda Perine, appeared before the North Park Planning Committee in July to brief neighborhood leaders on the state of the city’s standoff with Jack in the Box.

The meeting came days after the first call for Filner to step down over sexual harassment allegations.

Perine reminded attendees that the scandal-plagued mayor had fought for them.

“I recognize how hard y’all work, and how frequently you lose and how that creates an expectation of losing all the time, but I think I can say … that your experience has been very different in the last six months,” she said.

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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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11 comments
John Falchi
John Falchi subscriber

I believe that Andrews Keatts did a creditable job of outlining how city planning evolved from the pre-Filner days through his short mayoral administration, as far as Keatts went.  However, I, also, feel that Judith Swink did a good job of clarifying that Bob Filner was really fulfilling the direction that many San Diego regional planners had been pointing the city toward for some time. Her reference to the principles that were enunciated by Citizens Coordinate for Century III, made that abundantly clear.

Despite his, clearly, indefensible behavior toward women, as well as his strong-armed victories over powerful traditional forces in this region, like Douglas Manchester in re the $40 million Tourist Authority boondoggle and Sol Price in re the reconfiguration oftraffic in Balboa Park, both of which lead to his downfall, it is to Bob Filner’s credit that he was much more farsighted in his approach to city planning than his predecessor, Jerry Sanders.He accomplished this by re-separating City Planning from Development Services and by bringing in a top flight talent like Bill Fulton to head City Planning in San Diego.

It is too early to know what the future will bring for neighborhoods in San Diego, since both mayoral candidates spoke well of defending them. However, based on what has occurred to the Barrio Logan Community Plan since Filner departed, it does not portend well for neighborhood community planning in the future. After all, Mayor Kevin Faulconer made it clear that he supported the powerful industrial forces who forced a citywide vote on the Barrio Logan Community Plan.In that citywide  vote they were able to use a huge injection of cash into the campaign, and a great deal of misinformation about the potential results of the plan, like the Navy possibly leaving San Diego because of it, to get the result that they wanted.

It is hard for me to conceive of MayorFaulconer going against the powerful forces who selected him to run instead of Carl Demaio, and then, largely, funded his campaign, in any future community plan contests.It seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same.

john stump
john stump subscriber

All this never ending rehash of the past, makes me wonder what the Voice is not covering or what you are trying to divert our attention from?  The big issue on the current agenda is the drought and climate change.  How about some reporting on how the big water users are curtailing their operations before we are forced to shower on even or odd days.  Will the cruise ships still take boat loads of water with them when they sail away?


I drove through Balboa Park this week.  The plaza looks great and very inviting.  Thank you Bob Filner.

Judith Swink
Judith Swink

Boy! You guys at the Voice still have the knives out for Filner, don't you? So, where do I start? How about the third paragraph where the writer states as fact: "Filner’s move to reprioritize neighborhoods meant reinventing the city’s planning and development functions in his image." No, this vision is not unique to Filner, though it was Filner moving Planning back into its appropriate relationship to development and Development Services. The vision was not Filner's alone - it's the vision of many, many of us who have been involved in planning, regional as well as in communities, and development issues for decades, and it's the way it used to work pre-Strong Mayor. Barely a week after Filner prevailed in the November election, and before he even took office, Citizens Coordinate for Century 3 wrote to him asking that he do exactly what he subsequently proceeded to do in order to revive a true Planning Dept.. From C-3's 2-page letter to Filner, date 11/15/12: "In the broadest sense, your expressed goals for: (i) transparency in the decision-making process, (ii) support for an engaged neighborhood and community planning particularly in older neighborhoods, (iii) enhanced public access to the waterfront, (iv) protection of the natural environment and historic resources, (v) promotion of affordable housing and social equity, (vi) economic development linked to sustainable principles, (vii) strengthened bi-national cooperation between Tijuana and San Diego, (viii) as well as an invigorated planning process to accomplish these goals . . . are all aligned with principles of C-3." These are principles established by C-3 at founding in 1961 and these principles have informed C-3's positions for the past 50+ years. The letter continued with "We are hopeful that one of your first decisions will be to reinstate planning, in function as well as in word, to its proper role in economic and community development for the city. C3 very much opposed the subsuming of planning within the Development Services Department as occurred last year in the present administration. For sustainable economic development to be in alignment with existing state legislation, San Diego must have a meaningful planning department. Additionally, an invigorated planning department is necessary for the revitalization and redevelopment of San Diego’s older, urban communities, many of whose community plans are in so need of an update commitment." As citizen advocates for good planning and managed growth, those of us who have been around for 30-40 years, we understand that development must be predicated on planning and that development must follow the City's established planning principles, the City General Plan and community plans, and the City ordinances related to planning and development. I hope that Murtaza's statement that the re-establishment of a planning department presages a "slow, tectonic shift" in planning that will endure long after Bob Filner's departure will be the reality as we go forward from here.

Judith Swink
Judith Swink subscriber

Boy! You guys at the Voice still have the knives out for Filner, don't you? So, where do I start? How about the third paragraph where the writer states as fact: "Filner’s move to reprioritize neighborhoods meant reinventing the city’s planning and development functions in his image." No, this vision is not unique to Filner, though it was Filner moving Planning back into its appropriate relationship to development and Development Services. The vision was not Filner's alone - it's the vision of many, many of us who have been involved in planning, regional as well as in communities, and development issues for decades, and it's the way it used to work pre-Strong Mayor. Barely a week after Filner prevailed in the November election, and before he even took office, Citizens Coordinate for Century 3 wrote to him asking that he do exactly what he subsequently proceeded to do in order to revive a true Planning Dept.. From C-3's 2-page letter to Filner, date 11/15/12: "In the broadest sense, your expressed goals for: (i) transparency in the decision-making process, (ii) support for an engaged neighborhood and community planning particularly in older neighborhoods, (iii) enhanced public access to the waterfront, (iv) protection of the natural environment and historic resources, (v) promotion of affordable housing and social equity, (vi) economic development linked to sustainable principles, (vii) strengthened bi-national cooperation between Tijuana and San Diego, (viii) as well as an invigorated planning process to accomplish these goals . . . are all aligned with principles of C-3." These are principles established by C-3 at founding in 1961 and these principles have informed C-3's positions for the past 50+ years. The letter continued with "We are hopeful that one of your first decisions will be to reinstate planning, in function as well as in word, to its proper role in economic and community development for the city. C3 very much opposed the subsuming of planning within the Development Services Department as occurred last year in the present administration. For sustainable economic development to be in alignment with existing state legislation, San Diego must have a meaningful planning department. Additionally, an invigorated planning department is necessary for the revitalization and redevelopment of San Diego’s older, urban communities, many of whose community plans are in so need of an update commitment." As citizen advocates for good planning and managed growth, those of us who have been around for 30-40 years, we understand that development must be predicated on planning and that development must follow the City's established planning principles, the City General Plan and community plans, and the City ordinances related to planning and development. I hope that Murtaza's statement that the re-establishment of a planning department presages a "slow, tectonic shift" in planning that will endure long after Bob Filner's departure will be the reality as we go forward from here.

Judith Swink
Judith Swink

Interesting that you don't consider stating that Filner was going to "reinvent planning and development functions in his image" as a negative statement. I take issue with the verb "reinvent" - no, he was going to restore those functions to the way they should have functioned but did not during the latter part of Sander's reign. I also take issue with your phrase "in his image" - what does that even mean? I posted the excerpts from the C-3 letter as illustration that what Filner was working toward is the vision and expectation of many others, long established, which he shared but did not "invent" or "reinvent".

Andrew Keatts
Andrew Keatts

I am very surprised to see the interpretation that this story "had the knives out for Filner." The point is that his message-- we need to emphasize improving life in San Diego's neighborhoods, and the way to do that is through an improved planning department-- was broadly popular and was among the most successful efforts of Filner's administration. Of course it's the case that many people in the city have believed the same thing and had been working to the same goal long before Filner became mayor. No one has said otherwise. The question posed is whether his successor will embrace the changes he initiated and continue them, and whether his "neighborhoods first" message will be adopted by those running to replace him.

Judith Swink
Judith Swink subscriber

Interesting that you don't consider stating that Filner was going to "reinvent planning and development functions in his image" as a negative statement. I take issue with the verb "reinvent" - no, he was going to restore those functions to the way they should have functioned but did not during the latter part of Sander's reign. I also take issue with your phrase "in his image" - what does that even mean? I posted the excerpts from the C-3 letter as illustration that what Filner was working toward is the vision and expectation of many others, long established, which he shared but did not "invent" or "reinvent".

Andrew Keatts
Andrew Keatts author

I am very surprised to see the interpretation that this story "had the knives out for Filner." The point is that his message-- we need to emphasize improving life in San Diego's neighborhoods, and the way to do that is through an improved planning department-- was broadly popular and was among the most successful efforts of Filner's administration. Of course it's the case that many people in the city have believed the same thing and had been working to the same goal long before Filner became mayor. No one has said otherwise. The question posed is whether his successor will embrace the changes he initiated and continue them, and whether his "neighborhoods first" message will be adopted by those running to replace him.

David Hall
David Hall

I am very surprised to see the interpretation that this story "had the knives out for Filner." Maybe it had to do with terms such as "aggressive personality" "confrontational approach" "scandal-plagued mayor" Those added nothing to the article's premise that Filner's departure was going to make planning more difficult. Nor did noting that the JIB meeting in North Park "came days after the first call for Filner to step down over sexual harassment allegations." And the opinion "...the approach ended up feeding his downfall." is just that. Your opinion. MY opinion is that no matter what his approach was, his downfall was caused by his abhorrent behavior towards women and fed by his refusal to take responsibility for it. If anything, his approach to confronting developers in public probably made planning more difficult in the long run and therefore his departure means planning should be able to execute more efficiently. As Judith Swink says, the idea of proper planning goes way beyond Bob Filner. In short, your article's premise is wrong.

David Hall
David Hall subscriber

I am very surprised to see the interpretation that this story "had the knives out for Filner." Maybe it had to do with terms such as "aggressive personality" "confrontational approach" "scandal-plagued mayor" Those added nothing to the article's premise that Filner's departure was going to make planning more difficult. Nor did noting that the JIB meeting in North Park "came days after the first call for Filner to step down over sexual harassment allegations." And the opinion "...the approach ended up feeding his downfall." is just that. Your opinion. MY opinion is that no matter what his approach was, his downfall was caused by his abhorrent behavior towards women and fed by his refusal to take responsibility for it. If anything, his approach to confronting developers in public probably made planning more difficult in the long run and therefore his departure means planning should be able to execute more efficiently. As Judith Swink says, the idea of proper planning goes way beyond Bob Filner. In short, your article's premise is wrong.