Has San Diego’s Planning Department Been Gutted?

by on May 12, 2011 · 5 comments

in Civil Rights, Environment, Ocean Beach, Popular, San Diego

How will the OB Community Plan Update be affected?

Editor: Urban planning in Ocean Beach is and has been a big deal.  Ocean Beach demanded its own planning committee in response to the planning crisis of the early Seventies, and got it.  The OB Planning Board was the very first democratically-elected community planning body in the history of the City (and the State for that matter).  The OB Precise Plan was changed to be more green and more resident and small property owner oriented.

Volunteer planners from the community have been working on a Plan Update for 9 years, and have been working with members from the City Planning Department.  Now, however, in this article by local and U-T reporter Roger Showley (Point Loma HS Class of 1966), we find out that the Planning Department has been possibly gutted and submerged into Development Services Department. What this means for the future of the plan update process is up for grabs.  Will the City continue to be focused on permits and not planning?

by Roger Showley / SignOnSanDiego / Originally published May 5, 2011

Planning has vanished from San Diego’s city organization chart.

The original planning document for the Peninsula, circa 1972. It heavily favored development and big-money to the detriment of residents and small property owners. It’s section on Ocean Beach called for increased congestion, one-way streets, and large apartments. Due to the crisis that this plan represented, residents were outraged and demanded a new plan.

The traditional function of preparing for the future hasn’t been abandoned. It’s just been moved down the departmental pecking order into the Development Services Department, which is headed by Kelly Broughton and principally concerned with issuing building permits.

The news, announced last month by Mayor Jerry Sanders, upset some people, reassured others and left more withholding judgment until they see what Broughton does with his expanded portfolio.

Meanwhile, new plans are in the works in nearly a dozen city neighborhoods, such as Otay Mesa, where the draft of a new community plan has been issued with the goal of balancing environmental and developmental priorities.

“We’ve been working on it for eight years,” said Rob Hixson, a land sales broker with CB Richard Ellis and chairman of the Otay Mesa Planning Group.

He said the new plan calls for more housing to match expected industrial and warehouse growth in the border area. But he said issues like transportation, habitat for the burrowing owl and a new border crossing keep cropping up.

“My biggest concern in a plan like we have is flexibility,” Hixson said. “Every once in a while, things change.”

What’s reduced planning as a priority is the dire city budget, which faces tens of millions of dollars in revenue shortfalls. Now, officials have to make choices — fund community plans or police on the beat, compose long-range visions or keep libraries and recreation centers open.

Sanders hopes to save at least $1 million by closing the Planning Department and lopping off a few executives and support personnel.

City Councilman Todd Gloria worries that combining planning and permitting melds two incompatible functions. If he were mayor, he said, he’d restore planning’s departmental status.

“Planning is about long-range vision, something hopefully we think about — what we want to aspire to as a city and put into policy as a city,” Gloria said.

Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, who heads the Land Use and Housing Committee, said she will reserve judgment until she learns how Broughton expects to mesh planning with development review. She said planning and development ideally should work together but between 1995 and 2000, when the two were last combined, “planning wasn’t independent enough from development.”

That earlier merger, ordered by then-City Manager Jack McGrory, occurred during another recession when the city wanted to demonstrate it was “business-friendly.”

After McGrory left the city and Dick Murphy became mayor, planners got their own department back and proceeded to write a new city general plan to implement a new theme for the new century — a ‘city of villages’ that would direct growth into higher-density, mixed-use developments along transit corridors.

With the new plan adopted in 2008 and development in the doldrums, thoughts turned once again to efficiency and economy.

Matthew Adams, vice president of the San Diego County Building Industry Association, said he urged Sanders to bring planning and development back together. Too often, he said, time is wasted as project applicants wait for two sets of comments on the same building plans.

“Projects are running on such narrow margins where delays are not measured in time but dollars,” he said. “We don’t want projects to become economically unviable.”

Adams praised Broughton as “a person we can do business with.”

“He doesn’t always tell me what I want, but he always tells me what I have to hear,” Adams said.

The origin of the new reorganization dates to the 2006 controversy over a 12-story office building under construction near Montgomery Field. Sunroad Enterprises exceeded the 160-foot height limit desired by the Federal Aviation Administration, but it was in technical compliance with city zoning. The city stopped work on the building until the top 20 feet were removed. Bridgepoint Education is the main tenant at the building, east of state Route 163 and south of Clairemont Mesa Boulevard.

Jay Goldstone, Sanders’ chief operating officer, said he looked into the origins of the misunderstanding but backed away from combining planning and development because the pairing was not always successful in cities where he’d worked.

“Now fast forward to today where the reality is we’re looking at budgetary issues and trying to figure out where we can save money and preserve as many services as possible,” Goldstone said.

Planning Commission Chairman Eric Naslund, a principal at the award-winning Studio E architectural firm, said he always favors wise spending of public funds. But he wonders if long-range planning issues will be lost in the name of efficiency.

“We do need to be thinking about long-range planning and about the ultimate form and vision of the city,” Naslund said. He expressed concern that there will be enough money left over to look ahead.

Leo Wilson, chairman of the Community Planners Committee that brings representatives together from all San Diego neighborhoods, said the biggest concern is that the city staffers maintain their professional integrity in a department that deals mostly with permit applicants.

“It’s perception more than anything else,” he said. “They may come together nicely. Obviously, we’ve got some red flags up.”

Wilson was referring to the budgetary complication in the new department — developers and property owners pay fees to get projects approved. That income stream is not supposed to be used to fund community plan updates and other long-rang planning functions, which are financed from regular city sources.

Currently, both permit fees and general-fund support are in short supply as real estate development remains at a low ebb. But it’s in such a pause in the real estate cycle that more planning, not less, should take place, said Bill Klein, research director at the American Planning Association in Chicago.

“Thinking about the future is the best thing a community can do if it has economic problems,” Klein said.

Perhaps worries about planning’s future would lessen if “planning” were added to the name of Broughton’s department.

But the former landscape architect said he resists renaming his department, based on the precedent set when he took on zoning code enforcement duties and didn’t make a change then.

“I don’t think anybody will think anything about it if we get their community plan adopted and people are thinking big thoughts and planning a beautiful community,” Broughton said.


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Gary Ghirardi May 12, 2011 at 4:25 pm

This is an invitation for large development interests to enter a weak real estate market to push ahead with large projects without public review. It also does not clarify how this would involve business improvement districts or do they even still exist? This could present a special problem for Barrio Logan which is struggling with property owners to maintain a semblance of their ethnic identity moving forward. In a local government where property development interests have basically owned the government, this is akin to the privatization of the city government planning process. OB might be revisiting their struggles from the early seventies when they fought off the high-rise development of their village.


Danny Morales May 13, 2011 at 5:03 pm

“OB might be revisiting their struggles from the early seventies…” Given the social engineering by the free-marketeers I wouldn’t count on it. The level of interest in public affairs is… well, you know- “Look outside the window where the poor are left to rot-They dragged them to the alleys where now the’re being shot- Maybe we should raise our voices and try to stop such things – But to get involved is such a risk before the time bell rings – And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest, anybody, outside of a small circle of friends”- Para Fraze


broan May 17, 2011 at 12:45 pm

i think mayor sanders is doing a great job. the planning department may have a “vision” but they don’t have the right to force their vision on private property owners and take away property rights.


Seth May 18, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Property rights are always a consideration, but not the only one. I’d be hard-pressed to name anywhere worth living that doesn’t do a fair amount of restricting of property rights. I mean, if you could trust everyone to do the right thing, we wouldn’t need a police department either, but you are not often going to hear someone saying that we should abolish them because they restrict people’s liberties.

This region has some serious future challenges coming its way. Without a vision for how to handle them, it won’t be as great a place to live, and we would have failed our children in that regard.


Danny Morales May 18, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Seth- I feel sorry for those of us who still cling to the naive notion that human rights, justice (economic & social) and peace are the driving forces behind the current civic discourse. The right to property gives US all the liberty to do whatever the (If you see Kaye) US want and assume a beligerent posture to those who would otherwise get in our way. Freedom isn’t free and if you communist socialist fascist liberals dont believe US tell it to the Marines who are sworn to defend that greatest of property documents-the US Constitution.


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