Bob Filner campaigned on a promise to put the city’s neighborhoods first.

The idea was responsible for some of his best-received policies; the approach ended up feeding his downfall.

In practice, Filner’s move to reprioritize neighborhoods meant reinventing the city’s planning and development functions in his image.

That included hiring one of the country’s most highly respected urban planners, Bill Fulton, to take over a reconstituted and empowered planning department, a move that provided a glimpse at what Filner’s plan might look like if all the stars aligned perfectly.

Filner’s new Planning and Neighborhood Resources department, freed from the confines of Development Services, would outline and enforce the city’s future growth at a community level by taking on affordable housing, transportation, economic development and historic resources. It would be the Department of Quality of Life, he said.

But there were also plenty of hints that Filner’s aggressive personality would make implementing his vision a bumpy road.

He made public statements about developments he had no authority over. He extracted payments from builders to allow them to move forward on projects that had already won approval. Just as he did throughout his brief tenure as mayor, Filner made it clear he’d use every tool in his arsenal to make sure the actions of city staff and developers reflected his grand vision.

As the city begins to select a replacement for Filner, neighborhoods and the planning department will face a crossroads. How the next mayor handles Fulton’s new department and the task of updating community plans, will be a huge indicator of whether Filner’s priority shift made a lasting impact.

New Priorities, the Old-Fashioned Way

Filner announced early in his administration his intention to reconstitute planning as a standalone department, after it had been folded into development services as a cost-saving measure during Mayor Jerry Sanders’ tenure.

He introduced Fulton as the new planning director in early June to nearly 400 development-related employees.

The message was clear: planning, once again, is a top priority. And its job is to improve quality of life throughout the city.

He said the City Hall’s empty fourth floor — where planning had previously been located — struck him as emblematic.

“I took it as a metaphor for the past administration,” he said. “The planning floor is empty, and nothing is happening. And I said, ‘We have got to change that.’”

He changed it by hiring Fulton and shaking up the organization chart for planning and development.

He also stressed the importance of replacing the city’s out-of-date community plans, which serve as a blueprint for the future growth of the city’s 50-some neighborhoods. He urged a streamlined process for locking in an update, from four to five years to 18 months.

The emphasis on updating the plans was also an emphasis on letting communities define their future.

Murtaza Baxamusa, who volunteered as a special policy adviser to Filner, said the mayor’s planning focus represented a “slow tectonic shift” that would endure after Filner’s exit.

“Neighborhood-level decision-making empowers residents to be invested in the final form, fosters a pride of place and improves civic governance,” Baxamusa wrote.

Barrio Logan’s new plan will appear before the City Council in mid-September. If approved, it’ll be the first new plan since 2008, when the city revamped its general plan.

The council has two options, one favored by residents that devotes more acreage to housing, and one favored by industry.

Filner, consistent with his promise, sided with Barrio Logan residents and city planners.

Whether the City Council, or the next mayor, takes their side is still an open question.

A Confrontational Approach

Part of Filner’s priority shift took place behind the scenes, where he upended organizational charts and instilled a sense among the city’s anonymous planners that their work was valued.

But Filner also pursued change through public confrontation with many of the developers who had been perceived as the beneficiaries of the permissive City Hall he inherited.

Early in the year, Filner attended a Carmel Valley Planning Board meeting to discuss One Paseo, a 23-acre development that would require a formal change of the Carmel Valley community plan.

Filner didn’t have a vote on the change and couldn’t veto the City Council’s decision, but came to the meeting anyway to excoriate the developer’s proposal.

“The community plan was a contract, as far as I could see,” he said. “And we spent a lot of time on it. People put their heart and soul into it, I’m sure. Once something is there, there has to be a pretty good reason to have a massive amendment, like you all are proposing.”

He was just getting started.

A few months later, he learned College Area residents were wary of a large dormitory being built in their neighborhood.

Filner only caught wind of the project once it was already construction but he instructed city staff to stop conducting inspections, halting construction. The developer sued.

He ultimately agreed to step aside as part of a negotiated settlement that also included a $150,000 payment by the developer for a neighborhood park. The city attorney later issued a memo clarifying that Filner’s initial involvement was illegal.

Filner also vetoed a City Council decision to give another developer an easement on city parkland in order to continue construction on a Kearny Mesa apartment complex.

The administration agreed to step aside after securing $100,000 from the developer to pay for two unrelated city projects Filner favored.

He eventually returned the money, but not before piquing the interest of federal investigators.

The developer, Sunroad Enterprises, had been the subject of a scandal six years earlier that plagued Sanders’ administration.

The differences between the two Sunroad scandals conveniently frames the perceptions of how developers were received by Filner and his predecessor.

In 2007, Sunroad built a Kearny Mesa office tower 20 feet beyond the area’s 160-foot height limit. It was ordered to knock 20 feet off the tower, but not before Sanders earned a reputation for cowing to developers by letting the building get to that point in the first place.

Filner’s administration, by comparison, only gave the developer what it needed after securing a community-oriented benefit.

He also interjected himself into hyper-local disputes over the demolition of two cottages in La Jolla and the rebuilding of a fast-food restaurant in North Park.

The latter dispute, which has since resulted in a lawsuit against Jack in the Box, led to a revealing appeal from one of Filner’s last-standing allies.

Filner’s director of community outreach, Linda Perine, appeared before the North Park Planning Committee in July to brief neighborhood leaders on the state of the city’s standoff with Jack in the Box.

The meeting came days after the first call for Filner to step down over sexual harassment allegations.

Perine reminded attendees that the scandal-plagued mayor had fought for them.

“I recognize how hard y’all work, and how frequently you lose and how that creates an expectation of losing all the time, but I think I can say … that your experience has been very different in the last six months,” she said.

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

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