By rejecting Proposition D — the half-cent sales tax/reform measure — San Diego voters snatched away the bag of money that was dangling just beyond Mayor Jerry Sanders’ reach: $500 million in new revenue he’d hoped would restore cuts to city services.
Instead, more cuts are on the way, and they’re likely to affect more than just the day-to-day services like parks and libraries that make communities whole. The mayor’s cuts could start to impact some of the less visible but important long-term planning that makes the city’s neighborhoods, well, neighborhoods.
On Nov. 19, Sanders floated the idea of eliminating community plan updates as part of his multi-pronged strategy for closing the city’s looming $73 million deficit.
Community plans are the documents that San Diego’s planning department uses to guide everything from long term growth to land use to traffic in the city’s neighborhoods. The city has 52 of them that cover all its neighborhoods, and they’re periodically updated to reflect new visions for a community’s future.
They’re the reason Barrio Logan will be able to get rid of long stretches of streets where recycling centers and junkyards operate next to family homes. They’re the documents that will allow city planners to someday build affordable housing and businesses in rundown parts of Logan Heights where they’re not currently allowed. They’ll help revitalize struggling business corridors in San Ysidro and southeastern San Diego.
Those will all happen over many years. But they couldn’t happen without updated community plans, because the documents put down on paper residents’ and planners’ vision for what kind of growth — like residential, retail, commercial or industrial — should happen in what parts of a community. The City Council, the Planning Commission, and community planning groups all rely on the document to make decisions about proposed developments based on those visions.
Sanders called community plan updates “non-critical processes” that could face the chopping block, though his office said no decisions had been made yet.
“We have to rethink government and rethink the services we provide,” said spokeswoman Rachel Laing. “We have to think about the ones we could look at getting rid of without having real neighborhood impacts. In terms of what’s absolutely necessary in functioning as a neighborhood, are they essential?”
The city will be prioritizing immediate neighborhood services at the expense of the long-term vision of what San Diego could become.
“If you can save three fire trucks by getting rid of a service that isn’t entirely essential, that’s something we have to discuss,” Laing said.
Community plans are updated every couple of decades on a rotating basis, though in recent years the city has suspended many plan updates due to budget cuts. That has made it increasingly difficult for city planners to make communities consistent with the city’s General Plan, which is the foundation for all its land-use decisions. When it was adopted in 2008, the General Plan emphasized the importance of developing pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use neighborhoods served by transit lines linking communities across the city.
The elimination of community plan updates would effectively cripple the city’s ability to achieve that vision.
The updates cost about $2 million each and can take about two years because they require extensive involvement from residents. City officials said they didn’t know the total annual savings.
The city has increasingly had to apply for outside money to fund community plan updates. Earlier this year, it applied for a $1 million state grant to update the community plan for southeastern San Diego, which was last updated in 1987. It is also updating community plans in Barrio Logan, San Ysidro, Uptown and Otay Mesa.
Through the Mayor’s Office, Bill Anderson, director of the City Planning and Community Investment Department, declined to discuss the possible cuts because they are still being discussed.
The mayor has to present a formal proposal to close the city’s budget deficit by mid-April.