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In the days before he took office, Mayor Bob Filner had plenty to say about neighborhood planning.

He wants to make San Diego a more livable and walkable city and to fund updates to community plans. The mayor used the now-vacant space in the City Administration Building where city planners once worked as a metaphor for the current status of the department.

“Stop off at the fourth floor (of City Hall). It used to be the Planning Department,” Filner told U-T San Diego earlier this month. “It has, I don’t know, 150 cubicles there or something like that. Just look inside. It’s completely empty. The whole floor.”

Filner also invited photographer Sam Hodgson to the fourth floor. Filner lay down on “a sad little desk” for an unforgettable photo that illustrated the starkness of the space.

The fourth floor should be bustling with workers, he said. At the very least, city workers should fill the fourth floor instead of rented offices elsewhere in the city.

Filner’s comments may confuse anyone who hasn’t followed the Planning Department’s recent history. Because Filner has pledged to prioritize neighborhood planning and sustainable development, we decided it was worthwhile to break down the facts.

To start, the city hasn’t lost its Planning Department, just a standalone Planning Department.

In April 2011, then-Mayor Jerry Sanders consolidated the city’s planning and development services departments to trim about $1 million from the budget.

Former Voice of San Diego reporter Adrian Florido described the differences between the two departments shortly after the merger was announced:

The Planning Department goes to neighborhoods, meets with local groups and relies on residents to articulate a vision and draft rules for the community’s growth. Development Services ensures developers follow those rules, but rarely interacts with community groups.

The Planning Department’s budget comes from city taxpayers. Development Services’ budget is mostly funded by developers (it calls them customers) who pay for staff time to process permits and ensure rule compliance.

The Planning Department is focused on the city’s long-term vision. Development Services’ work was once called short-term planning.

The 2011 merger wasn’t the first for the planning department.

Planning divisions joined the Development Services Department in the mid-1990s. In 2001, the city split its planning and development services functions into two separate departments.

After the latest merger, planning staffers have continued to work on community plan updates for Otay Mesa, Hillcrest and other neighborhoods, said Jay Goldstone, the city’s chief operating officer.

“We’ve not killed Planning,” Goldstone said. “It’s still a very important function and part of (the reason behind the reorganization) was to allow for better coordination between Development and Planning.”

To facilitate the merger, planning staffers moved a block away to the city’s Development Services Center. They left the fourth floor of the City Administration Building behind.

The space hasn’t always been vacant but there’s a reason it stayed open.

Some City Council offices temporarily moved the fourth floor over the summer while workers added a 9th Council District office and retrofitted fire sprinklers.

Council staffers have since moved back to their permanent home and city officials are deciding how to use the fourth floor.

A handful of leases for buildings the city currently uses will expire in 2014, and the city might want to begin relocating staffers there to lessen the need for leased spaces, Goldstone said.

“The more people we can consolidate here the better off we are financially,” he said.

The new mayor could also weigh in on the plans. Filner said last week it was too early to discuss potential moves or when he might re-establish the Planning Department as a standalone division.

The mayor previously described Sanders’ decision to nix the standalone Planning Department as “a drastic error” and described plans to create a planning department with a broader mission. He cited Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability as an example.

“The mission of that is so broad — urban design, smart growth, complete streets, energy conservation, economic department. That’s what we should be doing,” Filner told U-T San Diego back in October. ”Right now, the mission of Development Services is to give out permits.”

Goldstone said he wasn’t sure whether any final decisions on Filner’s plans have been made.

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa.halverstadt@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0528.

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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