San Diego’s system of city planning could be in for a significant change if a proposal to use targeted “specific plans” in economically disadvantaged communities wins City Council approval later this year.

The city’s overall, big-picture designs for the future of development are laid out in its general plan. Neighborhood-level decisions are made by the city’s 52 community planning groups, which work in tandem with city planners to create more specific community plans.

But now there’s a proposal to get even more finely tuned in certain places through the use of specific plans that would cover 300 or so acres in selected areas along transportation corridors in need of an economic jump start.

The idea comes from Civic San Diego, the organization formed by the consolidation of two nonprofit urban renewal groups that lost their funding when Gov. Jerry Brown shuttered statewide redevelopment.

With the help of the Urban Land Institute, a developer trade group, Civic San Diego is drafting a plan it hopes to submit to the mayor’s office and council offices by the end of May.

If the plan is received favorably in City Hall, the Development Services Department would begin drafting a staff report on the idea over the summer. Without major hold-ups, the plan could come before the council for a final vote by September.

If approved, the move could be finished in as little as 18 months after that.

What’s Good for Downtown …

The goal of specific plans is to dramatically expedite the approval process for developments — shrinking the timeline from as long as a few years to something closer to 90 days.

That expedited review process is often credited with aiding the redevelopment of downtown, which occurred within a specific plan drawn up by the now-defunct Centre City Development Corp.

Specific plans, in theory, provide developers with greater economic certainty, because a lot of the complicated work that goes into getting approval for a project is done up-front.

The process of writing the specific plan includes conducting an environmental review accounting for future projects, outlining design guidelines and defining density, among other things.

Once a specific plan was approved by the city, Civic San Diego would be authorized to sign off on any developments within the area covered by the plan. The approval process would likely only take a few months instead of the years it can take under the city’s standard process.

Backers of the idea say it’s time to replicate the process that worked so well downtown in other areas of the city that have been left behind.

When the council approved the creation of Civic San Diego last summer, Council members David Alvarez and Marti Emerald said it was time the rest of the city felt some of downtown’s prosperity. That sentiment has been echoed by some local developers.

“Subsequent projects that come through that process will be able to move through more expeditiously because it will meet specifications of the already-adopted specific plan,” said Reese Jarrett, a developer with Carter Reese & Associates who has advocated for implementing a specific plan in southeastern San Diego.

Backers of the concept also argue that specific plans increase an area’s ability to compete for regional, state and national grant money, especially for transit-oriented projects, like the $35 million of federal funding Civic San Diego won last week.

A Pilot Program in Southeastern San Diego

Civic San Diego’s initiative would begin with a pilot project along the Market Creek-Euclid Avenue-Imperial Avenue corridor.

The Southeastern Economic Development Corp., one of the nonprofits that morphed into Civic San Diego, used to oversee redevelopment in the area. The agency completed many different studies of the neighborhood that could be used as a foundation for a new specific plan.

Jeff Graham, president of Civic San Diego, said the area around Market Creek is a good place for a pilot program because of its proximity to one of the highest-traffic trolley stops in the city’s transit system, and because of its need for supporting infrastructure.

“Many people bike and walk there, but conditions aren’t safe because there are very wide streets, streets, narrow sidewalks and no bike lanes,” he said.

There are economic reasons for starting the specific plan program here too.

Market Creek is home to the Jacobs Foundation, a nonprofit enterprise dedicated to revitalizing the area, which owns roughly 60 acres of property in its vicinity, much of which is undeveloped.

Civic San Diego’s assets also include the Valencia Business Park and some affordable housing projects, stemming from its SEDC days.

“With CCDC, they had a streamlined permitting process for downtown,” said Cruz Gonzalez, the former board chair for SEDC who is involved in current discussions. “We’ve been pushing for this for quite some time, and my hope is we’ll get it sooner than later.”

Civic San Diego has already begun discussing the next locations it would like to pursue, assuming the pilot program proves successful.

Next in line would be along the forthcoming high frequency bus line servicing Mid-City along El Cajon Boulevard. The organization would try to partner with local Price Charities and the El Cajon Business Association, and the plan could also serve City Heights’ Centerline project.

Then the agency would like to put together a specific plan for the area surrounding the transport hub at the San Ysidro border crossing.

Treading on Toes

Civic San Diego’s ambitions for specific plans raise some complex questions that will need to be answered.

Right now, Civic San Diego primarily exists to wind down the city’s existing redevelopment commitments. When that job is done, so is Civic San Diego.

To keep the lights on, the agency needs to reinvent itself and becoming the shepherd for specific plans across the city does that.

But that new role could also bring Civic San Diego into conflict with community planning groups and the city’s development services staff.

And if any Civic San Diego employees end up displacing jobs previously held by city staff, the new setup could run afoul of the city’s requirements to negotiate with labor unions.

I’m Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at or 619.325.0529 and follow me on Twitter:

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Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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