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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.
Well, they weren’t wrong.
Ever since Civic San Diego, a nonprofit owned by the city, lost its primary funding source when the state ended the redevelopment program, the group has been trying to reinvent itself. Topping its list of dream jobs is to take over planning and permitting authority from the city in neighborhoods like Encanto.
A big part of Civic San Diego’s sales pitch is that it approves development permits faster than the city’s Development Services Department. Faster approval time, the thinking goes, helps spur economic development.
Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, who represents Encanto, made the case when she was running for office.
“We want to make the permitting process more streamlined, to attract developers and that’s what Civic San Diego will be doing, and that will help, because investors did not want to come into our district because it took them so long to develop and it cost them so much,” she said in a KPBS interview.
Civic San Diego CEO Reese Jarrett said before he took over the group that its faster permitting could invigorate areas like Encanto or City Heights.
“We have an opportunity that creates a certainty of outcome, for potential investors and developers,” Jarrett said. “The mayor (Kevin Faulconer) has made that an essential part of his One San Diego plan, that there is certainty of outcome.”
All along, though, I kept coming up empty with a basic question. Did Civic San Diego have any evidence that it’s faster than the city at permitting new development? It didn’t. (Though no one seemed to be rushing to dispute it, either.)
Now that we have access to the city’s permitting records, we can answer that question.
Civic San Diego is faster.
This chart shows how long it took to approve development proposals that required special permission from a city official in downtown, which Civic San Diego controls, compared with how long it takes DSD to approve three types of development permits in the rest of the city.
Civic San Diego was more than twice as fast in 2013, the most recent year with useful data.
Slow down before jumping to any conclusions about what this says about the competence of city staff.
Even a Civic San Diego executive acknowledges the driving factors have more to do with downtown’s unique dynamics than it does with DSD and Civic San Diego.
Updated Plans — and Community-Wide Environmental Review
Downtown is something of an anomaly among San Diego neighborhoods. Its community plan was updated after the Clinton administration (2006 to be exact) – that makes it recent by San Diego standards.
A recent-ish plan means downtown has already gone through the process of sorting out what types of developments should go in which places.
More importantly, all the different development possibilities spelled out in that plan have already been through an environmental review. If developers propose projects in line with what’s considered in the plan, they don’t need to do another environmental review of their own.
“The largest thing driving that discrepancy is, we’ve effectively taken the (environmental review) burden off of developers,” said Brad Richter, assistant vice president of planning for Civic San Diego.
Joe LaCava, chair of the Community Planners Committee — a group that oversees community planning groups — said the same.
“Because of its new community plan and its (community-wide environmental review), you have less environmental issues,” he said. “You’ve taken that off the table.”
This is an element of downtown’s unique circumstances that can be brought to the rest of the city — regardless of whether Civic San Diego expands to handle permitting in other neighborhoods.
An environmental review covering projects up to a certain level might not be as effective in every neighborhood as it is in downtown, LaCava said, but it could still provide some relief to the rest of the city.
Downtown Is Different
“You have greater buy-in with the community what they’re trying to do downtown,” LaCava said. “You have little if any neighborhood opposition.”
Few disagree that downtown San Diego is meant to have tall buildings, dense development and an emphasis on public transportation.
Civic San Diego, unlike planners in the rest of the city, doesn’t have to approve or reject projects that make residents think their neighborhood’s character is under attack.
Laura Garrett, chair of the community group for downtown, said she can only remember a few projects where Civic San Diego approved a project that her group had opposed.
“More often than not, we are in alignment, and when we do disagree, I always feel we are listened to,” she said.
Disagreement slows things down, and Civic San Diego has less of it to deal with.
Developer Selection Bias
Downtown projects are big and expensive. It’s not a good place to cut your teeth on your first development.
Civic San Diego’s almost always dealing with relatively sophisticated developers whose plans are well ironed out before they’re submitted. Reviewers have less work to do.
“If you do a 30-story building downtown, it’ll be built by someone who knows what they’re doing,” LaCava said.
Experts in One Area
It almost seems tautological, but one of the reasons Civic San Diego is so effective downtown is that it only has to worry about downtown.
DSD must approve projects all over the city, yet every community has slightly different regulations, and slightly different reactions to new development.
“Our developers are focused on one community, they aren’t distracted by lots of different things in lots of different communities,” Richter said.
This part might not be true all that much longer. It’s been slow to happen, but Civic San Diego wants to take its same responsibilities from downtown to Encanto. It’s also discussed taking on a similar role in City Heights and San Ysidro.
Damon Crockett contributed data analysis to this story.