The San Diego City Council unanimously approved Monday a reorganization of the city’s bureaucratic structure that, among other things, re-established planning as a standalone department within City Hall.

The move had been expected ever since Mayor Bob Filner’s summer hire of Bill Fulton, a national authority on sustainable development, to lead an independent planning department, but the details of the reorganization needed to be worked out.

In the end, planning is no longer a subdivision of development services, a related department that checks development permits for consistency with the neighborhood plans drawn up by city planners.

Now, those planners will be on their own, working alongside city staffers focused on economic development, and a new department, called the Civic Innovation Lab, meant to solve issues facing the city by working between departments. They’ll all answer to Fulton.

Following the Council’s unanimous vote, I spoke with Fulton about his excitement watching the city do things it hasn’t done before, whether his department will eventually take on binational affairs and how to reinvigorate urban design standards.

The conversation’s been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How would you explain the tangible effect for a city resident who isn’t a developer that this change is taking place?

There’s a couple of different things. One is, for people living in neighborhoods who have been waiting for a long time to get their community plan updated, that should happen faster, and better. Mostly because the community planners are going back into planning and we should be able to focus on them more.

On the (California Environmental Quality Act) side, the tangible effect should be that the CEQA process for any development project will over time become much more clear. We’ll be able to update our policies on a regular basis, which we really don’t do now, so whether you’re a developer or an applicant or a neighbor who’s concerned, all the CEQA processes , how you’re involved, how you participate, when an (environmental review) is required, all that stuff should become a lot more clear over time, which ought to be a really good thing for everybody.

Having planning as a sub-department of development probably sent a clear message on priorities, and it makes sense to separate them to send a different message. But the (independent budget analyst) report and the memo justifying the change both say a couple different times the two functions (planning and development services) are sometimes in conflict, or that their priorities aren’t perfectly aligned. Could you give me a specific example of that?

Well, I think that where they appear to sometimes be in conflict is, in community planning we are trying to reach a compromise among a variety of stakeholders for the future of a neighborhood or community. And then development services’ mission is to focus on the applicant, and make sure the applicants are able to get through the process and get their permits. So sometimes, having an example where the community plan is old or the rules are fuzzy, getting an applicant through the process as quickly as possible may or may not be consonant with what that community or neighborhood needs to maintain its quality of life or improve the neighborhood.

So if we separate out the community planning process, if we can update the community plan, then the rules that an applicant for a private development permit have to follow should be much more clear, and much more reflective of community consensus, and there ought to be much less conflict when a development comes along. Now it might be that a developer comes along and wants to do something that wasn’t anticipated in the community plan, and they need a community plan amendment, and it’s a major change, and that will engender a lot of debate.

But hopefully most of the time once we update a community plan, that will represent community consensus, the community and neighborhood groups will buy into it and developers will buy into and make that process over in development services a lot easier, and make it align more with what communities desire.

The other big part of what you’ll be doing is taking on economic development, and you mentioned at Council the opportunity to reinvigorate economic development as an important city function. What are some things you can do with that function now that it’s under your control?

I’ve spent a lot of time, more than  you might think, on economic development over the last three or four months, and I’ve been thinking a lot of how to reinvigorate it, and also to align it with other city functions. The line on economic development, citywide, the strategy has been languishing literally for years. We, after Mayor (Bob) Filner left, we took it back to do one more revision on it, and we’re set to take that to (the Council committee) Rules and Economic Development on Dec. 11. So like the community plans, just moving things along makes a difference.

Another part of it is, with Housing and Urban Development programs, block grants, our small business programs, our (business improvement district, or BIDs) programs, our storefront improvement programs, what we’re hoping is we can work to pull those together so they that they work together more, so they’re more focused on neighborhood economic growth, and also so there’s frankly a focus to support those areas where — in the community plans — we’re trying to direct future growth and development. Infill locations, transit-oriented development locations.

We have a pretty good group of BIDs in the city — including the Downtown Partnership — and we, and I think, if we try to align everything we can get more bang for the buck. That in those areas where we’re trying to focus everything, not only does the development occur, but also that we can provide as much support as possible for those business districts once they are expanded with mixed-use development, with retail on the bottom and housing above. Whether that’s in North Park, or on some green line station in Mission Vallley, at Euclid and Market, or in San Ysidro.

Basically, making sure those two functions are talking to each other.

Yes, and it’s really exciting to see them start to talk to each other, and realize how they align. I went on a tour on Saturday of City Heights and Adams Avenue with our community planner who works in those areas, and our BID advocate, who works in economic development, and to have them talk to each other, and start to realize how they can work together, is very exciting. That’s not really something that has happened much prior to this.

Councilman (and mayoral candidate) David Alvarez  suggested the city consider taking binational affairs out of the mayor’s office, so it would be a priority within the city regardless of who was elected mayor. Would that be something that could fall under your department in the future?

That’s hard to say. Binational affairs have traditionally been a function of the mayor’s office. There will be some binational work we do in the Civic Innovation Lab. That is one focus, but not the only one.

Most of the binational opportunities that I perceive, are economic development opportunities — how can we increase our trade across the border, how can we work together to increase the economic output of each. That’ an economic development function if the Council and the next mayor decide that should be a line function, it would probably make sense for that to go under economic development. But that’s not something that we talked about, and of course, a lot of it depends on who the next mayor is. And what their priorities are. If Mr. Alvarez is elected mayor, we know where he’s going to want to go on that.

City architect — any conversation about bringing that position back?

What I have committed to is a couple things. Within community planning, we have to increase our ability to do plans that are for transit-oriented locations, and infill locations, and that requires better design. And we also, I have said, that we have to create an in-house urban design capability in the planning department, to work on both public and private projects.

I doubt, however, that we will be bring back the Mike Stepner city architect, who has enormous design influence over all projects, public and private. We will probably develop the urban design capability, and in the context of our community plans and our CEQA review of the city projects, our involvement in the CIP, try to play a role in making sure that both public and private projects are well designed, but to have a city design czar that sits outside the regular department, as was the case when there was a city architect, that’s probably unlikely.

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

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