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Bill Anderson, San Diego’s outgoing planning director, wanted his department to be a catalyst for the revitalization of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. He hopes that can still happen now that Mayor Jerry Sanders has decided to merge the city’s Planning Department with its Development Services Department, as I reported in my story today.

But can Planning Departments really do that? Planners don’t build, after all. Developers do.

Anderson thinks planners are critical in the process, especially now that San Diego is increasingly concentrating future growth in some of its older neighborhoods through infill development. But a neighborhood must know where it’s going.

To get an idea of what this actually means on a street level, let’s look to a community I’ve been writing about a lot lately: southeastern San Diego.

If you’ve followed our coverage, you know that there are big efforts underway to revitalize a cluster of old neighborhoods there referred to as the Diamond, which surround the intersection of Euclid Avenue and Market Street. Vacant lots, abandoned storefronts and polluted properties litter Market Street and Euclid and Imperial avenues, the community’s main thoroughfares.

Revitalization of that community faces many challenges, including the cost of cleaning up those properties and rezoning land to allow things like retail and housing development where it isn’t currently allowed. But rezoning is expensive. And those costs can deter private developers from wanting to invest there, especially because the lower incomes of many residents can make developers skeptical that their commercial or housing developments will succeed.

That’s not so much of a problem in a community like Mission Valley, where developers have initiated many amendments to the community plan because they expected larger windfalls from developing there — more than enough to recover their costs. But in southeastern San Diego, developers ask themselves: Is it worth amending a community plan and rezoning property to build something if we’re not convinced it’s going to succeed? The vacant lots persist.

That’s why an updated community plan for southeastern San Diego has been one of the Planning Department’s highest priorities, Anderson said.

One of the most important elements of an updated community plan is its land use decisions. Through talking to residents, land and business owners, planners decide how different parts of a community can develop, as businesses or houses or both. Ideally, then the Planning Department works with development services planners to implement that vision, to actually rezone the land so that a potential developer — like Walmart or Target — won’t have to do it themselves and decide it would rather not develop.

Implementation is what the Development Services Department specializes in. Once the Planning Department has identified how a community should grow, it can pass that information along to Development Services to finish the nitty-gritty work of navigating the city’s complex land use and zoning rules and make that vision law. When a developer wants to build a high-rise, Development Services can say: That’s not allowed. But something else is.

But Development Services doesn’t come up with that vision on its own. Its planners primarily process building projects. It has long been the Planning Department’s role to develop that vision in partnership with members of a community. But as part of the mayor’s merge, the city is losing its planning director. Its chief building official will take over his role. Community plan updates, he said, will not be his priority. His budget doesn’t have the money.

A few weeks ago, I went to a community meeting at the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation. Walmart and Target have both expressed interest in opening there. That would be a major development in that community. Big retailers have rarely been serious about moving in.

But the companies have started to see the community as potentially promising now that the Jacobs Center, a nonprofit that owns a lot of property there, is trying to redevelop a big part of it.

Jacobs called the meeting to bring residents together to discuss their community’s future. Among the crowd was Karen Bucey, the city’s planner for southeastern San Diego.

As the Planning Department prepares to update southeastern San Diego’s community plan in 2013, its planners are going to meetings like that one, to begin conversations with residents as they decide what their neighborhood should become.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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