I’ve traveled to many cities, one in particular, I recently moved to, is known as, “America’s Finest City.” I remember my first time visiting downtown San Diego, the area was blighted with decrepit buildings and underutilized or vacant lots.
Fast forward 15 or so years, and one cannot even recognize this place. What a transformation! How did San Diego’s downtown area that comprises of 8 or so neighborhoods go from underutilized, neglected, abandoned to a thriving “live, work, play” neighborhoods that are cohesive and pedestrian friendly with efficient public transportation?
Take a journey with me into the often times mysterious world of urban planning, design, and financing. My intent is to provide the reader with a basic overview of the (re) development process and the major players involved.
So, what guides and motivates the stakeholders to work together? Who are the stakeholders? What role do they play?
California State planning and the City of San Diego’s zoning laws govern the City’s land policies and uses. In the City of San Diego, the Neighborhood Code Compliance Department (NCCD) enforces the City Municipal Codes, with its highest priority being safety and health. The Land Development Code and Planned District Ordinances (PDOs) are found in chapters 11-14 and 10 and 15, respectively in the City Municipal Code book.
In my humble opinion San Diego’s downtown redevelopment success is highly correlated with how the stakeholders develop, interpret, enforce and implement the Land Development Codes and PDOs. One immediately notices this when walking from the East Village to the Marina, passing through the Gaslamp, and towards Little Italy how seamlessly and cohesively these neighborhoods are integrated.
Whereas the codes are the City’s flesh and bone, the Progress Guide and General Plan are its DNA. Like any other living organism, the City is always adapting to its changing environment. For all you urban planners, policy, management and development professionals or just urban dwellers/admirers, please note that together the codes, Progress Guide and General Plan provide the blueprint for the development for the City of San Diego as a whole.
So what is the General Plan?
This plan is a policy document that discusses various matters: land use, public facilities financing, transportation, zoning, historical preservation, safety, housing and all matters integral in developing and managing a City. Due to its size the City of San Diego has at least 40 community plans all part of the General Plan. Important to understand that this document does not operate in a vacuum but when applicable decision makers use it with other documents such as Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP) or SANDAG regional Comprehensive Plan.
While the City is free to develop as they think is best, the State of California does require San Diego City to include at least 7 elements in the General Plan. The elements are as follows: land use, housing, circulation (Roadways), conservation, open space, noise and safety. The State requires the City to update the housing section every 5 years and the circulation must correlate with land use. Other elements that the City includes in the General Plan are financing and zoning.
City staff and Council with community planning groups review all projects; however, the review process differs if a project is completely in accordance with land development and building codes, than it qualifies under the ministerial review process. Only City Staff perform this process.
Living in San Diego, one immediately recognizes how important it is to manage all developments in an environmentally friendly way. San Diego is a City bordered by the Pacific Ocean and its magnificent beaches, surrounded by majestic mountains and in between deserts and valleys—a truly diverse eco-system all with its unique flora, animals and microclimate. Therefore all development proposals not meeting all land development and building codes must meet the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and are subject to the discretionary review process. The purpose of this act is to advise the public and decision makers, and when applicable, make mitigating suggestions on the potential environmental effect and damage of proposed projects. One of the goals of the act I find very useful is informing the public when decision makers approve a project despite its significant environmental impact. The Development Services Department is responsible for implementing and enforcing the CEQA.
I find that well-managed and charming cities do at least 2 things effectively: (1) preserve it’s historical sites, buildings and resources; (2) adequately provide funding for public facilities in each community. In San Diego, the former falls under the jurisdiction of the Historical Resource Board, consisting of 15 members all appointed by Mayor and confirmed by the City Council. The Public Facilities Financing Plan identifies public facilities that are necessary for a community to meet the standards of the General and Community Plan(s). The goal is to provide and maintain adequate funding and facilities for a targeted area.
So who are some of the stakeholders involved in the discretionary review process?
The journey begins with governance. An integral body government responsible for the City’s development success begins with the City Council—a body of local government consisting of 8 members, each serves 4 years. District residents who are eligible to vote elect their respective council representative. This body is responsible for adopting the General Plan and annual budget, approving all ordinances, resolutions, contracts, providing revenue and confirming or making appointees to various City Boards and Commission.
The other stakeholders are Hearing Officer, Planning Commission, Community Planning Groups and City Staff all performing and working together for the sole purpose to create a sustainable, livable and vibrant communities. The City Manager appoints the hearing officer. The Mayor appoints the planning commission and confirmed by City Council. So one can see how a strong relationship may exist between the City Council and Planning Commission. The City Council recognizes per community 1 community-planning group. Each group comprises of at least 12-20 members. City staff consists of 2 teams: Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT), which consists of technical professionals that ensure proposed development projects meet all State and local land use policies and regulations. The other team is known as the Development Project Team (DPT). DPT is responsible for mediating and navigating all formal communications among all stakeholders. Overall their purpose is to inform, advise and when applicable make alternative suggestions to the decision makers. City departments select team members based on the type of project and permit sought by developers, its location and the proposed site.
San Diego’s downtown redevelopment is impressive. This is a main reason I now reside in downtown San Diego. What is so remarkable is how the stakeholders were able to have accomplished so much under the constraints that are inherent in local government. Keep in mind that unlike a private corporation, a local government’s mandate is primarily not for profit and operate on a consensus-building model. Local governments must provide services, safeguard the health of its residents and environment while with limited resources constantly meet and balance the growing demands for development. Think about how difficult and challenging it sometimes takes 2 persons to agree, now imagine a room full of stakeholders that more often than not are representing divergent interests. Despite all this, look at downtown San Diego today. Truly remarkable!
Now the next challenge is attending to other areas of the City. Unlike San Francisco, Chicago, New York, or Boston, San Diego is a city that is spread out with many distinct communities. Drive to Pacific Beach, La Jolla, Mission Hills, Barrio Logan and Point Loma one will think these places are their own City, but they are not and we must always keep that in mind. As distinct these communities appear they are part of the City of San Diego, the 8th and 2nd largest city in the USA and California, respectively.
I hope that after reading this report that you will have gain a broader understanding how a city, such as San Diego, conducts and carries out its redevelopment process. The process of effective redevelopment involves many stakeholders, at times, with divergent interests all willing to compromise. All directed by policy documents, codes and laws for the sole purpose of developing, financing and managing vibrant “live, work, play” communities that are pedestrian friendly and linked by efficient public transportation, streets, and roadways.