A reader asked: how would I change the city’s land use process?

I think I’ll focus on three things about this – while there are lots of things that could be picked!

  • I would hire a real technical editing team to work on the General Plan update and all other Community Plan updates. What’s being produced now is being done by teams of people who do not think in terms of communication but in terms of government-speak – mixed with a lot of other biases that lead to documents that are unreadable, repetitive and poorly organized. They are difficult to use later and contain too many non-specifics and inconsistencies. Documents written by committee are dangerous to users later. It appears to me that no one has the assignment to read the final draft and see that it makes sense front to back. My document production team would consider nothing related to policies but address what really matters just as much: Who is the end user? Can an interested citizen understand it?

Is everything referenced properly? Are they internally consistent?

  • Get serious about why do Community Plan updates and how. This relates to the constant complaints from all sides about both the efficiency of processing and the public review process itself. I’ve been in some meetings recently that led me to believe that both the building industry and the citizen planning communities are kidding themselves when they believe that doing plan updates are going to be any panacea or solve the problems they complain about most!

It’s become something that many seem to be preaching as an article of faith, perhaps due to their frustration with the existing system. Builders want more density and more consistency. Communities want more infrastructure and fewer impacts. I think they can get both through the right process but only one that’s managed with real integrity and where the staff has real listening and communication skills – something they have not been known for under past leadership (this despite all the various awards they receive from their peers. Their peers giving those awards don’t have to use the documents they produce or live with outcomes see above point).

I’m not talking about PR skills when I say listening and communication. I’m talking about the kind of communication where issues actually get addressed and not PR’ed; where conflicts are dealt with or they are honest they are going to say no to some things.

That’s a big part of why there’s such mistrust. The City of Villages was done with a PR approach where the MO seemed to me to be smile nicely and never say what you think. Get through it and don’t address any conflicts. It’s like the “charettes” that SANDAG does where they have all these fancy maps and charts and the public is invited to “give input” and the “input” never changes anything. It’s a feel-good experience (for those being paid to participate) to fulfill mandates that they do “public outreach.”

What can we make of the CPC vote so greatly against (22-4) the proposed Housing Element when it really doesn’t propose to change policies significantly? IMO the draft they were presented should never have been written the way that it was. It was really foolhardy and politically insensitive to put it out that way. Not only is the city operating with a new level of mistrust on all its financial dealings, this is on top of a huge level of mistrust in the land use approval and infrastructure planning process that existed prior to the pension scandal. This vote represents the concern that while most of the media and public are distracted by the financial scandals, a whole other set of people are worried that on the other side of the house where the city does a lot of its business directly impacting communities – i.e. planning and land use – this administration is getting ready to give away the store to their business backers who greatly funded the mayor’s campaign.

What would I do? I would prep a team of staff and outside consultants (yes, you really do need some outside expertise from time-to-time, but not with open-ended contracts) to pursue form-based codes updates. What this means would be to first, choose your first update carefully. (Btw I hear the city is pursuing a couple of very small updates along these lines. Good to start small). You would take the existing plan and produce a 3D model of what the existing zoning would get you at build-out. This would give everyone a clear view of existing maximum building envelope (form). Then, you rigidly define the built-forms relationship to the public streets.

This is what new-urbanists tell us matters most: the form and not the use – and then control the relationship to the public realm. Now that noxious uses are controlled by other regulations – noise and pollution – what’s important in terms of views and sunlight and “walkability” and parking, is the form of any building and how it meets the street.

Once the process has a community agree on the form and the street level treatments, builders should be able to bring in plans that are consistent with that for quick approval. These form-based illustrations and rules can replace the complex, incremental and expensive PDO (Planned District Ordinances) system that we have now. Only after we’ve gone through that should the city be reducing public review levels. One of the biggest concerns with the Housing Element is the proposal to eliminate the PDOs. While the city claims they would only be replaced with an equivalent level of community protections, citizens are aware that’s not why most builders want them replaced.

And so it goes.

Right now the political push is on to reduce public review levels without plan updates. This is unwise because it is mainly a move to disenfranchise community participation vs industry. I’m fine with streamlining – but only streamlining with integrity – and that can

only be done when you legitimately address all the interests and integrate them into an acceptable outcome for all.

Developers always whine about the complexity and time it takes to get approvals from the city. But what are the stats? Each project comes with a Project Data Sheet that tracks how long it takes for the city to process it and how long it takes the developers to respond and resubmit. I look at each and every PDS to see where the time goes. I don’t question that staff could process some projects more efficiently. But I would like to see the real numbers. At some point, reducing public review allows unscrupulous practices to get through. There is no doubt that developers would like all their project approved without any public hearing and minimal government review. I’ve heard some developers wax romantically about how much builders are able to get done in China! It’s no question more efficient to eliminate democracy. But at this point in time, isn’t is obvious that city management needs more checks and balances not less?

  • How about paying Planning Commissioners! As I’m sure all of you reading this are aware, I serve on the city’s Planning Commission and while other cities compensate commissioners, in San Diego this is a volunteer position.

I noted with interest that a key point of the testimony by the San Diego County Taxpayer Association last week before City Council was that the city should pay the appointees (they estimated it would cost $800K) proposed to serve on the newest citizen oversight board being recommended by the mayor in response to the Kroll report. If they have the chutzpah to ask for that during the city’s financial meltdown, then why shouldn’t I ask for fairness with respect to my position? (I’m sure that the taxpayers would agree that none of their members should ever qualify for this paid position after they’re lobbying for it).

The mayor is confident he can find qualified volunteers to serve for free. This may be true, but it’s also unfair and unbalanced. As with the Planning Commission, most citizens cannot afford to serve for free in a position that requires such a huge commitment to do it well. Either that, or you only will get industry professionals whose firms in essence subsidize their service. It may look free, but it doesn’t address bias.

There’s been a lot of talk about “independence” with respect to political appointees – as well as elected officials. Well, I’d like to point out that independence is not always just about the money. Industry professionals have been taught to think a certain way and bring their own biases to the table. Trials have expert witnesses on both sides. Even when I’ve tried to hire so-called independent professionals to do honest traffic studies, I’ve been told bluntly that I had to go out of the region to find anyone who might even consider issuing a report that might rile the status quo. So paid for or free, it’s not really that simple. The question is really what influences people? Who gets appointments? Who can win elections? But probably most importantly: Do they have the fortitude to ask the right questions and see they are answered? You don’t necessarily have to be an expert on any particular subject to ask pesky questions. As a matter of fact, sometimes the most revealing questions can come from someone precisely without professional expertise but with common sense and good nose for disconnects. After all, I’m not really a planner, I just play one on TV! I didn’t know much at all about the land use process when I was appointed, but I do know how to ask questions and pay attention to details and probably as important, notice when questions aren’t being answered – and I have the persistence to keep asking until they do get answered. And when things don’t “add up” – I notice. I may not know why, but I know to ask until it makes sense.

This last capacity is indeed one of the biggest the lessons to be considered from the Kroll report and the key flaw in our political culture. Fundamentally, what was the biggest problem? The appointees involved in the oversight process – the pension board (unpaid) to the City Council (paid) didn’t care or know to ask the right questions or didn’t relentlessly pursue answers on behalf of those who did. This is at the heart of what is political expediency – pushing things through at the behest of insiders and other professionals without thoroughly addressing important conflicts and issues to those out on “the outside.”

The biggest lesson I learned in being a candidate for public office was that the last thing vested interests want is a candidate who asks tough questions. And while many will object to this, very few voters seemed to want honest answers either. Most were seeking agreement with what they wanted, not someone who would be “independent” or serve the “public good.”

My point is that right now the Planning Commission is populated by seven appointees, six of which (everyone but me) make their living directly from the development industry. It would be seven out of seven if I hadn’t put up a stink about that a few months ago. You see, I haven’t asked to be reappointed to the PC because while I’ve been honored to serve and I think I do a good job, and would like to continue to serve, it’s been a personal hardship having to do it as a volunteer.

I don’t mean to whine, and it’s not any true tragedy, but I don’t get a pension anywhere and it’s not that easy for women who are fiftyish -or men for that matter to re-enter the job market. If my husband didn’t support it, I couldn’t serve. If the city paid commissioners, more people could serve and it would be clear that they were being hired to serve the integrated public interest.

I don’t mean to say that development professionals should not serve on the PC, or don’t make efforts to address the public good. They bring good expertise. But for them to completely dominate the process is unfair and unrepresentative. No offense, but we don’t need two architects and two landscape architects. We don’t have any land use attorneys and no civic planners. And the PC is not even supposed to do any architectural review! Mark Steele, architect and former PC chair always used to say…”well I know we shouldn’t be redesigning your project from up here…” and then he would try and fix some problem the public was complaining about. That’s not a bad thing, but right now, the PC is out-of-balance and I continue to serve week-to-week since they seem to be unable to find a citizen and environment-oriented replacement. It seemed unthinkable that they would have a citizen-oriented member AND an environment-oriented replacement for the slots that were open.

So while I don’t seriously expect the PC to be paid in the current financial climate, at least not while I’m on it, what I would like to see is appointments for specific kinds of representation. It seems to me that PC should have appointees from the following categories: architect, land use attorney, renter, environmentalist, community/citizen, landscape architect, civic planner – some kind of mix like that. That, along with providing a stipend, would help provide both professional expertise and balance.


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