Downtown San Diego has long had its own planning authority with the power to quickly approve developer permits. Proponents credit the set-up for much of the area’s development over the last two decades.

Civic San Diego, the group formed by merging the city’s defunct redevelopment agencies when the state shuttered its urban renewal program, is trying to bring the same set-up to economically overlooked communities.

First on Civic San Diego’s list is an area encompassing two stops on the trolley’s orange line, along Imperial and Euclid avenues surrounding the Village at Market Creek. By speeding up the permit approval process in this area, they hope to attract developers who can build the housing, commercial services and outdoor spaces local residents desire.

But part of the reason downtown’s been able to have a different process than the rest of the city is that residents and employers have different expectations for downtown than they do in other neighborhoods. Skyscrapers and traffic are accepted characteristics of downtown environments, for instance.

They’re deal breakers in other communities.

That’s why Joe LaCava, chair of the Community Planners Committee, a body that advises the city’s various community planning groups, said downtown rarely works as a model for the rest of the city.

“This was an area where the quality of life was so low that people were hungry for change,” he said. “There are some exceptions of course, but by and large people wanted redevelopment and investment and change. When you go to other communities, it’s totally different. People like where they live. They think their quality of life is pretty high. Out in the neighborhoods, there isn’t universal agreement for what the future should look like.”

Developers and some city leaders bemoan the slow planning process outside downtown, but as Civic San Diego makes its pitch to bring its expedited decision-making power into elsewhere, it’ll need to address the fact not everyone wants the city to expedite it in the first place.

Civic San Diego is trying to operate in areas smaller than current community planning areas to adopt what are called specific plans: targeted planning documents that approve all kinds of projects ahead of time, so developers know their project will be OK’ed if it conforms to certain standards.

Part of the thinking is that the smaller areas are less likely to introduce the competing visions and agendas that result from larger planning areas with people from farther flung locations.
The group’s ultimate goal is to give residents things they need — community services, commercial options, cheaper housing — by making the area more appealing to developers.

Of course, the plan would also happen to provide another funding stream to Civic San Diego, a group in need of long-term resources as its redevelopment responsibilities dry up in the coming years.

But Civic San Diego isn’t just targeting small areas where it can increase developer interest.

It’s also directing its efforts at areas that are ready to welcome a new direction, areas that more closely resemble downtown back when the area’s redevelopment agency was first given permitting authority there.

That’s why it’s starting with the neighborhood surrounding the Village at Market Creek and Imperial Ave. corridor area.

Nonprofit organization the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, for instance, is located within the target area. The center owns 60 surrounding acres of developable land and is dedicated to turning it into a vibrant commercial area with affordable housing and easy access to employment opportunities.

The Jacobs center has come out in favor of Civic San Diego’s plan as a means of achieving that goal. Its president and CEO, Reginald Jones, on a panel last week also said Mayor Bob Filner could best help the neighborhood by approving Civic San Diego’s proposal.

Kenneth Malbrough, chair of the Encanto Neighborhoods Community Planning Group, is also on board.

Malbrough’s group is already in the process of updating its community plan. In the coming months, Civic San Diego will need to demonstrate why implementing a specific plan in an area that’s already updating its community plan isn’t redundant.

But Malbrough said he’s supported the idea since it was first discussed by the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., one of the groups that formed Civic San Diego.

“There’s so much needed in this community that, as a citizen and someone who understands a bit more than the average person about how this stuff works, if a specific plan can get shovels in the ground more quickly, I think it’s a good thing for this community,” he said.

And newly elected Councilwoman for the area, Myrtle Cole, supported the idea during her campaign.

In an interview with KPBS, she said she’d work with labor, developers and Civic San Diego to improve her community’s quality of life.

“We want to make the permitting process more streamlined, to attract developers and that’s what Civic San Diego will be doing, and that will help, because investors did not want to come into our district because it took them so long to develop and it cost them so much,” she said.

Filner endorsed Cole in her race, and she is expected to be a reliable vote for his priorities on the City Council.

The mayor has yet to take a position on Civic San Diego’s proposal. The issue could come before the council for a vote sometime this year.

Filner promised to revamp the city’s planning functions, but so far hasn’t announced any specifics. It’s unsurprising that he hasn’t taken a stance on a specific planning concept before announcing his broad plan for restructuring the planning department

But Filner’s scheduled to attend the next village center meeting at the Jacobs Center on June 18, along with Cole. Given the Jacobs Center’s outspoken advocacy, that night could be the next step in building support for Civic San Diego’s proposal.

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

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