Saturday, May 20, 2006 | Bill Anderson grew up fishing for tadpoles in the San Diego River. Now, as the city’s head planner, he will fish for answers to how to accommodate the Mission Valley waterway after condos and shopping malls have sprung up around it.

On Monday, Anderson becomes the city of San Diego’s director of city planning and community investment after serving as senior vice president with Economic Research Associates, a real estate consultancy firm

We sat down with Anderson, a former planning commissioner, to talk about his new job keeping San Diego’s growing pains bearable.

You brought us to Little Italy. Is this your favorite neighborhood?

It’s one of them, but there’s a lot of favorite neighborhoods of mine in this city. One of the special qualities about San Diego, especially compared to a lot of Sun Belt cities, is having a variety of special neighborhoods and communities that can all be unique in culture.

I live in Mission Hills. I love Mission Hills and Adams Avenue, Normal Heights, University Heights, Golden Hill and 30th Street. A lot of the urban neighborhoods, like parts of the Barrio, have great foods. You can go on and on. La Jolla’s good too.

What makes San Diego unique – good and bad?

One of the unique factors is our topography, with all the canyons and the watershed, river valleys. That helps define neighborhoods and communities and drives a lot of interest. It’s the basis for our habitat. That topography includes beaches.

The city of San Diego is rather large. It’s one of the few big cities where you deal with urban infill issues and agricultural preserve issues, like the San Pasqual Valley, so there’s quite a bit of variety to it.

What planning gaffes or problems do you see with the way the city is mapped out?

There are some areas where things evolved haphazardly, and planning has come in to try to give it some order. Mission Valley has been a project for the last 30 years. When I was a kid, I used to fish in the San Diego River for tadpoles and things like that, now look at it.

But I think the key thing is that we need to find ways to finance and build public facilities and infrastructure, in our older neighborhoods in particular, and not just for new development but for the existing population that has been neglected over the last 20 years, 30 years.

We’ll probably have emerging issues with the post-World War II communities that were developed in the ’50s. They’re now starting to show some aging. A lot of them were essentially mass-produced residential communities built with the G.I. Bill … that didn’t have the same division, parks that other communities have.

What are the major factors that will dictate how San Diego grows going forward?

The fact that we’ve planned out most of our last green-field development, (that) we’re making this transition now from a suburbanizing city to an urbanizing city. In the future, growth within the city of San Diego will have to incur infill development, more conversion of land uses, more compact development.

The changing character of our economy will have a big impact, and so will the aging of the population.

Some people see the airport question slated for November is really a referendum on growth. Do you see it that way?

I don’t think it’s a referendum on growth. It might be one of the factors voters might have when voting is the rate of growth. It’s not “grow or don’t grow,” it’s more the rate of growth. If you have infrastructure capacity constraints, it does affect your rate of growth potentially. But there are factors affecting growth other than the airport.

At my (last) job, I traveled a lot, at least every other week. Some of that is international travel for work in Asia and such. It was less convenient than if we had the international airport right there like San Francisco does, but for the longer flight it wasn’t that inconvenient to have to fly up to L.A. or San Francisco to take an international flight. There are certain companies though that want that kind of service and we would be at a competitive disadvantage to those metropolitan areas that offer that kind of service.

The city agency you will be overseeing will combine the responsibilities traditionally held by the planning, redevelopment and community development departments. Why is it necessary that these functions be interwoven?

We’re calling it “city planning and community investment.” We’re combining the long-range planning department; community development, which is economic development, and they handle things like community development block grants, business improvement districts, our enterprise zones, and also business retention services. Then there’s redevelopment.

The idea is to integrate those functions. There will have to be some segregation … but the idea is for planning to be cognizant of what it takes to implement plans, so we don’t just have plans that are ideas that never get implemented. And then for redevelopment and economic development, they’re implanting using implantation tools to always be cognizant of the city’s strategy for future growth and its vision. We want to link the two: the vision with the implantation.

You said that one of your biggest priorities is to update the different community plans around the city, which will update the blueprint detailing how specific neighborhoods will grow. Are the communities that need updates more than others?

I want to talk to staff to find out exactly, but there are two approaches to that. One idea is to update the community plans of communities that are contiguous, that are part of a grouping, so we can deal with the cumulative impacts all at the same time. That would make it more efficient to do that. Secondly, there are some communities that are under greater pressure to change the development than others. They probably need near-term attention.

In places like uptown, there’s a lot of economic pressure there, but I don’t know the age of their plans specifically, s we would want to talk to the community planning group and staff to find out. There are a lot of interesting things going on in San Ysidro that may require some community planning amendments. We’ll have to see.

The city’s general plan, which gives an overview of the different land uses within the city, is up for review this year just as you jump into this role. What are you hoping is accomplished with the new plan?

The purpose of the general plan is to provide that general set of policies, priorities and vision for the region. Ideally it is a document that is written concisely enough and has the presentation format that makes it so people actually refer to it … as opposed to becoming a thick, policy wonk document.

You worked on the City of Villages, which created a strategy for how the city should absorb growth in the future. What’s your opinion of the progress that has been made under that framework?

All of the development you’re seeing right now is under existing general plan and community plans. They’re really not City of Villages yet because City of Villages, while it set framework, can’t really be implanted until community plans are updated. Some people think City of Villages is just density, but it’s much more than density. It makes sure density is focused and that impact of density is addressed. Without it, as economy continues to grow, the city will become more impacted anyway, but in a haphazard, opportunistic way versus on a planned basis.

One thing that was supposed to happen was the construction facilities financing strategy … but for obvious reasons the [City Council] hasn’t gotten there yet.

– Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN

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