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San Diego is at a crossroads in how to address the natural growth of our population – in other words, meeting the housing needs of the next generations of children.

Thus far, conversations to this end have gone badly: Tempers have flared, taxpayer dollars have been wasted and homebuilders have been frustrated.

Others have offered their solutions but they tend to be project-specific. We need to do something different.

The change needs to come from City Hall.

Simply put, San Diego needs a public outreach division within the Planning Department. Most city departments start their public messaging after a policy or plan is adopted. The department, in contrast, stops messaging upon gaining approval. When a plan is adopted, the planning file is closed and the approved document is put on the digital shelf. Staff then move on to the next assignment.

If you participated in the development of the plan and its adoption, that would be OK for you. But the average San Diegan is likely unaware of the city decisions that have been made and the implications for their neighborhood. And that may mean trouble when it comes time for implementation.

With no organized outreach by the city, the task of delivering the message of the adopted plan to neighborhoods has often fallen to private developers, which is both unfair and frankly, counterproductive. We want developers investing their time in conforming projects to adopted plans and delivering good design, not trying to educate neighbors on what the city’s adopted plan says.

Some community leaders and elected officials have tried to step up on an ad hoc basis to fill that public outreach role, but that’s not how our city should function. The vision for our city and the neighborhoods must be carried by City Hall.

We need to hire a planning director who can lead that public messaging. Bill Fulton was a near-perfect fit for San Diego, but just a year in the job was too little time to gain the benefit of his expertise and experience. During his tenure, Fulton weathered three election campaigns and could not overcome the inertia of the previous several years.

Since adopting the General Plan in 2008, the city has gone through two significant gaps without a planning department. That left our city without leadership and without a coherent message. Fortunately, the department is back in operation.

For a city of our size and complexity, for what we need to accomplish, we must have a director in place and leading the conversation on how to house future San Diegans while protecting the quality of our neighborhoods. In short, the city needs to own its adopted plans and policies.

Joe LaCava is chair of the Community Planners Committee, president of the La Jolla Community Planning Association and a civil engineer. He lives in Bird Rock and is running for San Diego City Council. LaCava’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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