Like the communities they represent, planning groups tasked with helping city staff draw up long-range development plans are each slightly different.

Since communities from different parts of the city face different concerns — from suburban to urban, wealthy to low-income, big to little, etc. — the hot-button issues at each group are different as well.  For example, one group my oppose public-transit stations being built in their neighborhoods; another may actively court them.

Attendance, organization, board members’ backgrounds: They all vary from one group to another, making it difficult to draw broad generalizations about the system as a whole.

Local architect Ted Smith has helped spur a debate about whether the groups’ positions really reflect the communities they represent.

Laura Garrett, the chair of downtown’s planning group, has some thoughts of her own about that.

Photo courtesy of Laura Garrett
Photo courtesy of Laura Garrett

Her group is different in one big way: Civic San Diego, not the city’s development services department, has planning and permitting authority over the area. So that’s who the group works with when it offers its advisory recommendations on projects or plans.

But Garrett also said her group has always had a positive relationship with developers and other applicants – notable, she thinks, given the dominant vision of community groups constantly warring with the business community.

Here’s an exchange we had on the value of an up-to-date community plan, keeping a diverse board and to what extent groups should review individual projects.

How do you see the role of a community planning group (CPG) in the overall planning and development process?

I think CPGs are one way of ensuring that the community has a voice in the planning process. That’s not to say that the voice is always unified, or that the process is without its flaws, but it’s a useful channel for the city’s decision-makers to get input on what people want their community to be.

How would you describe flaws in the system, and conversely what would you say are its strengths?

Planning group members are meant to be champions of their community plan.  The fact that plans aren’t current in all communities probably means that some CPGs have a bigger challenge in serving that role.  Without that guiding document to get everyone aligned, it means that some issues may get rehashed with every project.  We’re lucky downtown, in that our plan is relatively current.  I’m glad there’s an effort under way to bring the other plans up to date too.

Another challenge, frankly, is that it takes time and effort to be involved. The reports are detailed, the meetings are long and there’s a learning curve. I realize that not everyone can fit that type of volunteer work into their lives, so invariably the process isn’t perfectly inclusive.

Over time I think we’ll see an evolution on how community engagement happens. Social media and technology will make a difference. For now, the process still requires a physical presence — actually sitting in meetings in order to be heard. It isn’t ideal, but it’s better than not involving the community at all.

All of that being said, I’m always impressed by the dedication of those who choose to be involved.  I’ve known people to reschedule business travel so they don’t miss an important vote.  I’ve seen people bring their kids to a meeting because their childcare fell through yet they wanted to keep their commitment to attend.  These are folks who care about their community. That’s where the strength lies.

For most planning groups, one of the frequent issues is density. When updating plans or approving projects, it often comes down to how many housing units are being proposed in a given area. That’s really not the case downtown, where people know they’ve sort of bought into an area that encourages dense development. What are the recurring issues you face instead?

It’s true that downtowners generally accept density. In fact, it’s one of the roles we feel like we can play for the entire region – taking on the density that isn’t wanted or appropriate in other communities.  We also tend to be in alignment about making our neighborhood more pedestrian- and bike-friendly.  And we all value shared public open space, particularly in light of the density we embrace.

One recurring issue that comes up for us is the demand for “family units.” When we’re reviewing a new residential project, we always ask developers about their mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units. Usually we’re told that there’s just no demand for three bedrooms. Several of our members have young families, so we tend to challenge that claim. Admittedly, our position is based on personal experience, not hard data, so I realize we might have a skewed perspective that doesn’t reflect the larger community’s desires (and certainly doesn’t align with the developer’s plans). That being said, there’s research that shows how communities thrive when they’re built with all generations in mind, so I’m glad we keep asking the question.

Your group is also a bit different in that you’re advisory to Civic San Diego, rather than the city’s planning department. How do you think that affects how much or little you’re heard, and just your ability to affect the planning process in general?

I can’t speak to the experience of other planning groups, but I do feel like we’re heard and respected by Civic San Diego.  That doesn’t mean we always agree, but I think there’s mutual respect.

One of the issues architect-developer Ted Smith brought up in a recent conversation with me, that generated a lot of push-back, was that community groups aren’t necessarily representative of the community as a whole as much as they’re representative of the relatively small group of people who are involved with community planning. Do you think that’s a fair observation, and do you make any attempt to make sure your group’s recommendations speak to community-wide issues, rather than the specific concerns of those seated at the table?

Our seat categories encourage a forced diversity of interests – business owners, homeowners, renters, and charitable/civic organization reps. It makes our elections more complicated than I’d like, but the outcome is worthwhile.  At 27 members, our group is also a little bigger than most of the other CPGs, so no one “voice” can really dominate.

I know there’s been some public discussion about CPGs not being representative of the larger community, yet I feel like we’re still a reasonable focus group.  We have members with backgrounds in real estate, architecture, construction, government and planning — I actually think that’s a good thing. I think it’s normal that CPGs attract people with some professional interest in the subject matter. That expertise might shape their perspectives, but it doesn’t necessarily mean their decisions are self-serving.

I also think it’s a good thing that we’re balanced out with folks from other fields: retailers, restaurateurs, clergy, medical professionals, entrepreneurs.  Our age range spans from folks in their 20s to those in their 60s.  Some are single, some are new parents and some are semi-retired “empty-nesters.” What we have in common is an interest in our neighborhood and in urban living.

The other thing Smith said in a follow-up was that he’s very supportive of communities coming together to define their wishes through community plans and zoning, but that he doesn’t think it’s necessarily reasonable to review every individual project, especially if they comply with the plan that’s already been established. Where do you come down on whether developers should bring “by-right” projects to community review?

We’re basically only involved in the design review process for projects that are big (e.g., more than 50 units or taller than 85 feet), which makes sense to me.  To review every project would seem excessive. The larger ones, on the other hand, have such a significant impact on the feel of a neighborhood; I like that we get a chance to offer feedback in those cases.

A good point brought up to me was that the Planning Commission and the City Council, who ultimately vote on the things community planning groups are asked to weigh in on, aren’t interested only in the final yes or no vote by the community group, but by the notes and comments and specific points they make for and against an issue that are submitted to those bodies as part of the background material. Basically that a group that just votes against things without much consideration loses whatever leverage it has in the first place. Do you think of your group that way when you’re voting on a major item, like the Solar Turbines issue a few years ago?

A vote without context isn’t always very meaningful. If we have a mixed vote, the Civic San Diego staff generally tries to capture the spirit of our debate in the staff report that goes to the board (or the Commission or Council).  For major items, we’ll also usually write a letter or give public testimony so that we can elaborate on the reasoning behind a vote.

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

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