Until now, there wasn’t any objective understanding of the system by which the city decides where and what can be built around San Diego. Discussion around the system has been entirely anecdotal. But after a sustained push from Voice of San Diego, the city has released records from its permitting system. We’re using the newly released data to get solid answers to basic questions, and see what else we can learn about the city in the process.


When it’s done, Lloyd Russell’s new Bankers Hill project, with its modern design and 46 apartments, won’t be as tall or house as many people as others in the neighborhood. It’s in line with the community’s existing urban character, and four of the units will be reserved for low-income residents.


Russell’s project isn’t a monster. It fits the community and has all the stuff good development is supposed to have. And even though it was approved relatively quickly compared with projects requiring the same permit, it still took nearly a year and cost over $200,000 in additional review costs.

Other projects get approved in just over a month.

Why the difference?

Russell’s apartment complex fell on the wrong side of an important threshold that dictates how much scrutiny goes to a new project.

On one side of the threshold, city staffers check that plans meet height, density, parking and other restrictions, and make sure they’re safe and structurally sound.

It took roughly 46 days to get one of these permits in 2013.

On the other side, project developers must plead their case to neighbors in a formal hearing, obtain additional studies and secure the approval of a city official, possibly as high up as the City Council. It’s called discretionary review.

These permits routinely take over a year to secure.

One major way the City Council sets those thresholds is when it updates community plans, the regulations that dictate new development in specific areas.

The policy challenge for City Hall, then, is setting the threshold at the right level for each community.

Major projects like One Paseo — the newly approved development of 600 homes and scads of stores, offices and open space in Carmel Valley — will always require the additional level of review.

But the city can make much more pronounced changes for projects that land near the margin for discretionary review.

The chart below shows just how stark the differences can be. Discretionary approval times often take a year; over-the-counter reviews can be done in just a few weeks.

The city can make certain reforms to speed up discretionary reviews, but there’s only so much that can be done with a process that includes public hearings and expansive environmental studies. They’ll always take a while.

But the city can conduct a lot of the environmental review and community outreach upfront, and save individual developers from having to do it for every project.

That’s a big part of what the city is doing when it updates a community plan. Problem is, the overwhelming majority of the city’s community plans are out of date, and the plans it’s been trying to update are way behind schedule.

Even environmental attorney Cory Briggs, who regularly sues cities and developers over inadequate review, argues it’s better to have the city do a thorough environmental review upfront to clear the way for development meeting certain characteristics.

“If we do a good job on our (environmental review), and we look out 20 years as best as possible, then we can say, ‘Tell us how your project is like what we’ve considered, and we can get it done,’” Briggs said.

Russell, meanwhile, isn’t particularly upset about the review process on his project. He got to speed it up a little bit since he had subsidized units on site, and he said the additional consulting work he had to do might have made it a better project.

It’s just about finding the right level for discretionary review in each community, he said, and setting it too low can end up encouraging exactly the type of projects neighborhoods tend to oppose.

“It ends up making it a rich man’s game,” Russell said. “A small developer can’t afford the expense, but a big corporation can. So who do you want to build your city: locals who care about the city, or big developers from out of town?”

Likewise, Dave Gatzke, an affordable housing developer with nonprofit Community HousingWorks who just got discretionary approval of a 194-unit project in North Park, said setting the threshold in the right place can be an incentive for the projects residents like.

“It can spur the production of smaller and lower-cost projects that are more compatible with a neighborhood’s scale, and affordable to a wider segment of the market,” he said.

David Saborio, an architect, former DSD project reviewer and a member of the short-lived Civic Innovation Lab, went a step further.

“You could connect the dots and say, if you have a depressed economic area, that community could provide itself a direct economic boost by making it easier to issue (over-the-counter) permits,” he said. “Those new projects would generate fees for infrastructure, which could be considered economic stimulus. But it should be clear that the community wouldn’t necessarily have to sacrifice anything it didn’t want to because it would be involved in the update process.”

Since neighborhood residents would help set the threshold during the update process, they wouldn’t have to allow for anything they couldn’t live with, Saborio said.

That’s the tricky part. Neighborhoods might be hesitant to lower the level for additional review, in light of disagreements on projects resident groups have said were approved on false pretenses, like a Sherman Heights Wal-Mart, a North Park Jack in the Box or a student housing complex in College Area.

Joe LaCava, chair of the Community Planners Committee — a group that represents the city’s community planning groups — said the problem for too long has been stacking regulations on top of each other, rather than enforcing the ones that are already on the books.

Rewriting community plans, and making sure they’re enforced effectively, is the best solution, he said.

“You could move the threshold in a reasonable way,” LaCava said. “That’s what I advocate: Streamline regulations, and then provide adequate enforcement. Let’s make reasonable rules, and then make it easier to build if you follow those rules.”

Damon Crockett contributed data analysis to this story.

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

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