Photo by Sam Hodgson
The downtown San Diego skyline
The whirling dervish of mayoral debates made its way downtown Thursday, with an event separating itself from the onslaught of general debates by focusing on the future of urban planning and development in the city.
Predictably, much of the debate featured planning-centric questions that the candidates spun into their usual talking points.
But over the hour-long discussion, the four candidates did provide some specific responses on their vision for the city’s development.
And, yes, everyone is still very much in favor of neighborhoods.
Cleaning Up Development Services
One of Councilman Kevin Faulconer’s suggestions for bolstering affordable housing options in the city: Streamline the Development Services Department’s project-approval process, thereby making it cheaper on developers to provide housing.
It’s just too hard to get permits from the city he said, and the delays increase the costs of housing.
“I’m going to be bringing real accountability, and a specific time frame for moving through that process,” Faulconer said. He didn’t specify what sort of time frame he’d implement for project approval, or what means of accountability he’d apply to Development Services.
Projects of different size and intensity go through different approval processes, which makes it difficult to gauge what bringing in accountability or imposing a time limit would even mean.
Nonetheless, Faulconer’s promise to bring clarity to the city’s permitting functions underscores the fact that there isn’t much public information about how permits are approved in the city, and whether it’s as onerous and wasteful as developers frequently claim.
Alvarez said accountability could be achieved by implementing recommendations from a 2012 city audit that “was met with a lot of resistance by leadership in this city.”
That audit found the computer system the city uses to track permits created an opportunity for fraud, though it didn’t find any specific examples of fraud.
The audit recommended 13 changes to Development Services.
“They did not want to have a transparent computer program where we could track the process for development. We’ve got to make sure we get to that point,” Alvarez said.
What of Civic San Diego?
The idea of expediting the permitting process comes just as Civic San Diego is making the case that it could do just that in certain neighborhoods.
Civic San Diego — the old Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC) — is in the process of completing previously approved redevelopment projects. When that task is done, Civic San Diego is too. At least in theory.
The nonprofit is looking for ways to continue its role of spurring development in neglected areas by patching together new funding streams.
One of the proposals it’s discussed is taking over planning and permitting authority in certain southeastern parts of the city, near the Jacobs Center and along the trolley’s orange line, and on El Cajon Boulevard in Mid-City.
Civic San Diego says it could spur development in those areas by making it quicker and easier for developers to build projects that would benefit those communities.
Right now, the agency has the authority to review planning and permitting authority in downtown only. The City Council would need to approve an expansion of Civic San Diego’s authority, a move opposed by the labor union that represents city planning staff.
None of the candidates addressed Civic San Diego’s planning authority, or even mentioned Civic San Diego by name, but they did bring up various policies the group has suggested could help expand its role.
For instance, Faulconer said downtown’s development has been aided by a blanket environmental review that applies to the entire community. If new projects meet certain criteria, they don’t need to draw up their own environmental document, saving time and money and making development in that area more attractive.
That’s been one of Civic San Diego’s roles since it was CCDC.
Now, Civic San Diego wants to spur development in other neighborhoods by drawing up a similar broad environmental document that covers the areas in question, basically replicating the role it plays downtown elsewhere in the city.
“In essence, one of the main things we had with CCDC was the ability to have master environmental impact reports, and the surety of process that goes with that, so they didn’t have to go through the city’s own bureaucracy, and as we’re looking to make streamline that happen, that’s how you get things done,” Faulconer said.
Alvarez said he wants to accomplish some of the former redevelopment project’s goals by pursuing new market tax credits, a federal program that helps fund projects in underserved communities.
Civic San Diego has applied for and implemented new market tax credits, and Alvarez wants the organization to keep doing so in the future.
In his Blueprint for San Diego’s Future, he calls for creating a public-private partnership called GrowSD, which would include the city, Civic San Diego and private entities to spark investment in underserved neighborhoods. It would use the remaining redevelopment money, new market tax credits and funding from nonprofits and philanthropic foundations.
SANDAG and MTS: Part of the Good Ol’ Boys Club
The candidates were asked how they’d make the city more transit-friendly, and encourage development geared toward transit usage.
Alvarez said he’d change the culture at the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) — the county’s transportation planning agency — and the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), which operates transit functions in the city.
Neither group is interested in a progressive, transit-focused future, Alvarez said.
“Everybody’s heard of the good old boys,” he said. “They’ve controlled our region for a long time. This plays in with MTS, and with SANDAG. And I sit on those two boards, and I can tell you from MTS’s perspective, they don’t see themselves as a part of that solution. They see themselves as a quasi-private corporation, and until we change the leadership and who we elect to those boards, the mentality is not going to change.
“The same thing goes with SANDAG, where it’s not about transit first, it’s about how do we build more roads to connect to the suburban areas of this county, to get developers to build more so we can make more profit. It’s a really easy thing to follow here. There has not been a commitment to do transit first.”
Alvarez said some of his Council colleagues were at least partly to blame.
“Unfortunately people like to say these aren’t partisan issues, but the Council last year, on a split partisan vote, sent a message to SANDAG saying transit first, because we believe — some of us believe — that that’s future development of San Diego, that’s how we’ll grow, that’s how we must grow, in order to be sustainable.”
Faulconer was one of those votes against the transit-first message to SANDAG. He said SANDAG should pursue a balance of all transportation options.
Mike Aguirre, Man of Ideas
The two most novel ideas of the debate came from former City Attorney Mike Aguirre.
Moderator Gene Cubbison asked the candidates what they’d pursue as an iconic, imaginative project for the city. Allow yourselves to dream big. What does San Diego get?
Everyone punted the question, except Aguirre, who said he’d build “a Louvre for the Western Hemisphere.”
Aguirre also said he’d build a cross-border community center where residents from both sides of the border could have own access points and pace to plan to integrate the two communities. At least one prominent urban planning expert has floated a similar idea.
Fletcher’s Real Talk
Most of Nathan Fletcher’s solutions for the city’s planning-related problems mirror his solutions for other city problems: San Diego needs a mayor who, through strong leadership, will make it the world’s most innovative city.
But asked for solutions to the city’s problems with waste, water and environmental sustainability, he said the reality is San Diego isn’t a place people talk about because it doesn’t look for new solutions.
“If we’re honest, no one talks about San Diego,” Fletcher said. “No one puts us in a positive light other than our weather. When we talk about waste we talk about San Francisco which has a plan to get to zero waste by 2020. We talk about Abu Dhabi. We talk about how Boston developed in a way that was culturally sensitive to their history. We talk about how Miami invested in the arts, how Denver invested in transit. And we talk about how Oklahoma City invested in infrastructure. But nobody talks about us. And that’s where we need to have a mayor who comes in and says, ‘This is where we’re going,’ driving the conversation about making us the world’s most innovative city.”
His solution? Elect a mayor who can lead that conversation.
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