Monday, Jan. 7, 2008 | It is quite something to sit in a room full of angry citizens and listen to them tell a developer to completely redesign the project he is proposing for their town.

But it is quite another thing to see that developer listen.

In Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe, one tiny city and one tightly controlled but unincorporated area of the county, developers actually do listen. Because of various rules that govern the city of Del Mar and the Rancho Santa Fe Association (a private homeowner’s association that controls the local commercial district), residents maintain extremely tight control over what gets built in their neighborhood.

To see this control in action is rather amazing. Last July, I attended a meeting in Rancho Santa Fe that was as close as I have ever seen to a public hanging of a proposed development.

A property owner wanted to build a relatively large (the Rancho Santa Fe village is tiny), mixed-use commercial and residential development on a central street. The project — named “The Lilian” after the architect who divined Rancho Santa Fe’s Spanish Colonial style — architecturally embodied the community’s character. It captured historical details from nearby buildings and reproduced, in great detail, the specific style that Rancho Santa Fe residents adore so much.

They hated it.

The Lilian’s proposed 11 residential flats (complete with private elevator) and paltry 1,000 square feet of retail space fell flat among residents who thought it was, quite simply, too big for their village. The architect (at that meeting the project’s sole public representative) showed them pictures of other places in the village where two-story buildings bordered commercial streets with small setbacks. He talked about older couples living in the village so they could walk to local stores. He pointed to the parking spots that would be added underground.

The residents didn’t care. The Lilian was too big.

“I cannot say this would be a wonderful addition to our village,” one of the HOA’s directors said through a microphone at the meeting. That director, Bill Beckman, is an architect. “It seems to me this project is not about taking advantage of a very special opportunity. It’s about a housing project.”

The Lilian’s architect returned in December with a vastly redesigned project: eight flats, all on upper floors. Four times the retail space. Less bulk. A new public plaza. Still a great deal of parking. Still that classic Rancho Santa Fe architecture.

And just about the only murmurs at that meeting were what a pain it was going to be to park while the thing was getting built.

The architect, Allard Jansen, admitted to me while revisions were being made that “we’re basically starting over to reduce it back and make it fit with the comments that were made.”

Can we stop to appreciate that for a moment? Anyone who has dealt with community uproar over a proposed development must envy that sequence of events: proposed project — community dislike — major project revision — tacit community approval.

In Del Mar, the process is more straightforward: Any large project has to go to a vote of the citizens. That’s all there is to it. So when residents told developers last year that a mixed-use office and retail project they proposed for the south end of downtown wasn’t to their liking, they listened. They fired the architect, hired a new one (with offices in downtown Del Mar), and redesigned the proposal.

And while Del Mar residents don’t unanimously love the new project, they rest assured that sometime in 2008, they will register an opinion of it via ballot box. Until then, they drag the developers and the architect out to discuss every possible detail — like the placement of stairways and dumpsters.

“I don’t know how many public hearings we’ve been through but it’s in excess of 50, maybe in excess of 75,” Jim Sneed, the project’s architect said.

Yes, there was a very slight air of frustration in his voice at that tally. But it sounded nothing like the sheer desperation of residents of the city of San Diego when fighting a proposal wildly out of line — like a biotech lab down the street from an elementary school or a condo project that would bust the limits of a community plan (both of which have been approved or look likely to be approved by the city.)

Talk to members of the city’s community planning boards, and their satisfaction with their voice in the city varies directly with the amount of developable land left in their neighborhood. Even then, the voice of the local planning boards is purely advisory — they get an opinion, not a vote.

Often even getting a developer to go before a planning board and hear that opinion is counted as a sort of victory. Try getting them to come to a series of meetings to hear community comments on their proposal? Highly unlikely — and even when that does happen, developers have virtually no incentive to change anything, because the Planning Commission and City Council ignore planning board recommendations all the time.

“I think the planning board’s role is to give voice to the community’s concerns, but I haven’t found the community’s concerns to be of tremendous influence downtown,” said Diana Padgett, a Torrey Hills community activist and planning board member.

Sneed, the Del Mar project’s architect, said the amount of scrutiny given a project of similar sizes in Del Mar and San Diego is vastly disproportionate. While he seemed to have respect for Del Mar’s process, he admitted that for people on his side of the table, it’s “a much larger burden.”

“I think the public in general is much more empowered in Del Mar than they are in the city of San Diego,” Sneed said.

It shows. In San Diego we have thousands of acres of development that exists not because somebody liked it or wanted it, but because it complied with the regulations. Thus we have thousands of acres of boring, sprawling, tepidly designed and poorly planned city.

John Fisher, a development services official at the city of San Diego, explained to me that “our recommendation to the decision maker for approval or denial is based on an impartial evaluation of the proposal against the regulations.” Even the planning groups don’t get a subjective voice on a project they might live next to, he said — they’re supposed to decide based on the regulations as well.

Now, I’m not arguing that San Diego should be like Rancho Santa Fe, with a so-called “Art Jury” that enforces conformity to specific architectural standards. More reasonable is Del Mar’s rule that projects go before a design review board that allows residents to comment on things like bulk, scale, street orientation and view blockage. The architecture itself can’t be judged subjectively, but there’s a mechanism to include the quality of life effects of a project.

In San Diego, neither residents nor decision makers get to consider those things when considering a development. Does this really make sense? Is this really the best we can do? Are only the super-rich entitled to make qualitative decisions?

I asked Fisher.

“That’s sort of a philosophical question isn’t it?” he responded. “The ancient Greeks said that any city-state should grow only to a maximum population size of X … They recognized or believed that the proper democratic management of the city state was limited by the size. You could have effective government if it was representative and if it was certain size and once you got above that city size it just didn’t work. So maybe that’s kind of the answer.”

I don’t buy that defeatism. San Diego would be better and our residents happier if we treated developable land as exactly what it is: “a very special opportunity.”

Ian S. Port is Assistant Editor of the Rancho Santa Fe Review, Carmel Valley News and Del Mar Village Voice. Contact him at iansmithport@gmail.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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