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Last week I published an excerpt of a conversation I had with local architect-developer Ted Smith, in which he questioned whether community planning groups are really all that democratic.

He said what he said on the record, but the more I thought about it, the less comfortable I was with how I had presented his comments.

I had called Smith to talk about a local group of architect-developers, of which he’s a part, that is having a lot of success by building small, innovative projects throughout the city’s urban core.

One of their primary tendencies is building projects to the limit of what’s allowed by a lot’s existing zoning, and nothing more. It lets them bypass a subjective approval process.

Another tendency of the group is to adapt projects to the neighborhood’s existing characteristics.

Here’s how Mike Burnett, one of those architect-developers and a former student of Smith’s at the Woodbury School of Architecture, explained what Smith taught him.

“(Smith is) a hippie basically, he puts people first,” Burnett said. “He says: Don’t chase the neighborhood away. Look at it, find what’s cool about it and expand upon it.”

When I was speaking with Smith, I made an offhand mention that the community doesn’t always love every project, even if the developer has the community in mind. I mentioned the K Lofts, a small, modern apartment building in Golden Hill by Smith’s colleague Jonathan Segal that reappropriated the Circle K convenience store that used to be there.

That’s when Smith rejected the idea that community planning groups necessarily represented the community as a whole. Negative talk among the Golden Hill community group about the project’s design doesn’t mean the broader community didn’t like it, he said.

So what’s a better way to gauge community support for a particular building? Smith wasn’t saying there was one. He was just saying plenty of people who weren’t on the planning group liked the building.

I’m not quite sure why I’m uncomfortable with how I handled the story. I certainly had every journalistic right to quote Smith, and he’s a high-profile person in town whose opinion on this issue matters.

But in highlighting Smith’s comments the way I did, I think the forest got lost for one controversial tree. The story became Smith, not whether the community planning process is representative.

Each community planning group is different. Each has different levels of participation – some require fewer than 10 votes to elect a member, others require hundreds of votes. Whether these groups are effective democratic bodies is a big question.

The way I framed Smith’s comments, though, made the story about him – and not about that big question.

So I apologize for just sharing a few comments and not taking more time to put them in better context. It’s a subject I plan to continue writing about.

Smith also emailed me a response. I’ve pasted it below.

Hello to All so interested.

I‘m happy to hear such intelligent and informed comments concerning community groups, certainly a cut above the normal Internet chatter. Moderate friends tell me that my rhetoric is inflammatory and for this I apologize with the excuse that it’s all for the fun of flushing out inconsistencies in opposing arguments.

I admire many of these moderates for their generous participation in neighborhood groups, planning commissions, and redevelopment agencies. And I must confess, that I even gave it a shot for 5 or 6 years in my idealistic youth.

To Andrew Keatts, Thanks for making me sound more moderate than you might have. However, I was hoping you would use the quote I intended, “Only fools are against density.” I figured this equally explosive statement would initiate a discussion a bit closer to the one (Woodbury masters in real estate development for architects) alumni were having when you sat with us in our monthly meeting.

On this particular Wednesday, Howard Blackson, a premier San Diego New Urbanist, discussed the ongoing debate among planners, comparing the achievements of Civic San Diego, (formally CCDC) which is nationally recognized and admired for it’s incredible urban accomplishments, and the San Diego City Planning Department, which let’s just say has a less stellar reputation.

At CCDC, revenue for the agency were generated thru tax increments, where as in the City Planning Department funding is derived from permit fees, especially plan check fees. Of course builders and proponents of density preferred CCDC, where the agency wins when the developer wins.

However with the defunding of redevelopment agencies, there really is little difference between the two in that they both now depend on plan check fees to fund their operations. Where fees, not tax revenues of completed projects, fund an agency, plan checkers might be inclined to require greater amounts of time reviewing a project. Certainly the multiple layers of reviewers one finds at the Planning Department are partially the result of a need to pay the salaries of staffers through the collection of fees for service.

This is the point in the conversation that Wednesday night where the link to community group participation in the process was discussed. In a follow up call with Andrew, where he repeated that the “community didn’t like Jonathan Segal’s K Loft project” I interjected the opinion that community groups don’t necessarily speak for the community in any case, and very often hold private rather than public purposed views. The community with which I was familiar really likes the project. It has won many awards and it achieved the most important of all civic requirements by providing a sustainable density.

Our (masters program alumni) consensus is that neither agency presents a better model than one that does not require extensive subjective plan review at all. At least from the perspective of actually accomplishing the densification, our side would rather avoid the prohibitive cost and uncertainty of a community group review. The Planning department should be congratulated for its continuing effort to replace subjective redevelopment ordinance with standard city zoning designations. These efforts like the years long Barrio Logan update are the proper place for community involvement and input. Here the debates and presentations can be made without impacting the everyday granting of permission to build by the rules established. “By Right” (development) avoids the naysayers and NIMBYism so often apparent in lay groups most concerned that a development will take more from them personally than it might provide.

We believe in developers who don’t ask for variances, who build according to the long- debated formulas edified in the city zoning ordinance.

I have always advised my students to stay clear of any subjective approval process, since these costs will make impossible small development projects. Infill cannot weather the review process.

To Matt Finish, you are correct in taking offense to my comment “selfish neighbors who are just worried about their own property rights.” I meant to say “property values.”

I believe all property “rights” should be protected including the right to build in conformance with the ordinance, and thanks for describing me as an elitist. In that I will take great pride.

To the commenter behind the name tarfu7, Please accept my apologies. I didn’t mean to say the Architectural Community, with which I am very familiar, is the same thing as the Golden Hill Community, with whom I have only slight and second-hand knowledge.

To the rest of you, including all those who emailed words of support, thank you again for the wise comments and deep understanding of the local political situation in which we find ourselves, a situation this elitist considers a sad extrapolation of the ideals of at least a social democracy. What and who prevails in the ageless debate between the private and public realm? From the worldview at this very late date at least, the answer should be obvious.

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

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