Even the most nostalgic participant in San Diego city affairs is apt to experience flashbacks of the City Council’s marathon session last February, when the Council approved a plan for a mixed-use development in Carmel Valley called One Paseo, despite ardent opposition from local planning groups and community members.

Outraged, the community collected enough signatures to take the decision to the June ballot. But it won’t come to that: After long negotiations, the Council rescinded its OK based on promises the project’s developer, Kilroy Realty, and the community would come to an agreement. Couldn’t this waste of time and resources have been avoided if the Carmel Valley Community Plan had been updated in the first place?

“Community planning is key to empowering our neighborhoods and bringing better infrastructure and opportunities to residents across San Diego,” as Mayor Kevin Faulconer said last fall in a press release announcing Jeff Murphy as the new director of the city’s planning department. If that’s true, then our civic leaders have a responsibility to ensure that this process works. But saying we ought to address the rift between government and concerned citizens is mere lip service unless we provide the tools to do so.

Faulconer made strides in this direction last September, including the Murphy hire, but now he must commit resources to the process – namely, funding and staffing – and establish a clear timeline for updating each community plan.

Moreover, the objective of the community plan update process should be to protect the character and quality of life in our neighborhoods, provide a meaningful and productive way for community members to participate in the future of their neighborhoods and reduce uncertainty in the development process. We can achieve this by focusing on efficiency and transparency – we should make the process faster, fairer and friendlier for everyone involved.

Several key innovations would help us accomplish this, starting with targeted planning of opportunity areas – locations likely to be targeted for new development – and accountability for completion of community plan updates. New development should come only after a community’s updated plan is finalized.

It is also vital that new plans incorporate any necessary improvements to highways, mass transit, schools, parks and other infrastructure and service needs so that stakeholders address these issues prior to implementation. There should be an update to the city’s general plan to ensure this. Doing so would also give communities assurances that their willingness to accommodate growth will be balanced by public agencies’ commitment to meet current needs and by developers’ obligation to mitigate any potential negative impacts.

Procedure can go a long way in ensuring that community members, developers and government all weigh in on projects. Community plans should not be amended to accommodate projects without good cause and clear community support. It is in everyone’s long-term interest to encourage participation, so a process involving the community from the outset makes sense. This might involve more work on the front end, but the result would be a more transparent process with greater community buy-in of development projects.

Faulconer has yet to propose a significant change to the process of updating community plans, while acknowledging that the latter represents a vital step in his “neighborhoods first” approach to city planning. But if One Paseo teaches us anything, it is that moving forward with top-down community planning will not move our city forward.

Barbara Bry is an entrepreneur in the technology and nonprofit sectors and a candidate for San Diego City Council District 1. Bry’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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