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A big part of former Mayor Bob Filner’s neighborhoods-first promise involved finding a way to speed up the process of updating community plans, the blueprints that different neighborhoods draw up to guide future development.

Planning Director Bill Fulton Wednesday hinted at a workaround that might achieve that same goal.

Pursuing “focused plan amendments” for specific areas within one of the city’s 50-some community planning areas would let the city draw up new standards in areas ripe for growth.

Then the city could just leave alone the parts of the community that aren’t likely to change very much.

The focused plan amendments would require a lot of the same parts of modernizing a plan — updating fees developers pay to help build infrastructure, conducting traffic studies, drawing up new lists of needed park and infrastructure investments. But they wouldn’t require studies and complex new blueprints for areas that really aren’t going to change much anyway.

The city has three focused plan amendments under way right now, at Chollas Triangle, the Morena Boulevard Station Area and in Grantville.

The Morena Boulevard Station Area amendment is meant to increase use and drive development around the planned trolley stops — at Tecolote Road and Clairemont Drive — along the Mid-Coast Trolley extension, which will connect the existing blue line from downtown to University City.

More focused plan amendments would require more money, either from the city’s general fund or other sources. But as Fulton described it, the focused plans represent an opportunity to align some of the specific areas of the city likely to experience growth with the city’s general plan — its broad outline for future growth — cheaper and quicker than the traditional route of updating community plans.

Fulton described the opportunity at Wednesday’s land use and housing committee hearing, where committee chair Lorie Zapf convened Fulton and representatives from SANDAG, MTS, the city’s housing commission and County Supervisor Ron Roberts to discuss how to get the most out of the Mid-Coast Trolley line by increasing development around the three new stops it would establish east of Interstate 5 in Clairemont Mesa and Linda Vista.

Fulton also said, with increased funding, the strategy could potentially be used at the third Mid-Coast stop, at Balboa Avenue.

“Rather than doing a comprehensive community plan update, we’re finding more and more that the community is mostly built out, so a comprehensive update might not be needed, so we can update only the areas that are likely to see lot of change,” Fulton said. “In the case of Morena, and Grantville on the green line, instead of a comprehensive community plan update, we can do a plan amendment that’ll focus on specific areas. We’ll go through a lot of the same exercises — mobility, update impact fees — but it’s a quicker and less expensive to focus on areas that’ll really change, rather than spending more time and money on a comprehensive plan area, most of which isn’t going to change.”

If that sounds similar in some ways to what Civic San Diego is proposing to do in Mid-City and along the orange line in Encanto, it’s because it is, at least from a planning perspective.

Civic San Diego is also proposing to subsidize development in specific areas through a public-private investment fund, but it begins with creating what’s called a “specific plan” in those areas that would clear the way for more development by, among other things, changing the zoning to allow more building.

Fulton said the focused plan amendments could take the shape of these so-called specific plans, if city leaders decided that’s what they want.

“For example, in theory, we could take the focused plan amendment, and call it or turn it into a specific plan,” he said.

If that happened, the city could do an environmental review for the entire area, and any potential project proposed within that area would be exempt from doing its own environmental review. That would lower the cost of development — and, therefore, the cost of housing for eventual residents — by reducing the time it takes to get a project approved.

Zapf said she had talked to Fulton in the past how to make community plan updates faster, and greeted the discussion of focused plan amendments as “good news.”

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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