July 1, 2001 - From the July, 2001 issue

San Diego's Planning Director Is Overcoming Native NIMBYism

The projections are complete. California's population, whether by natural growth or migration, is growing. Our options are simple: 1) Continue clinging to the hopelessly naive adage of "If we don't build it, they won't come," or 2) Finally turn the corner and decide to plan proactively for growth. While many jurisdictions have chosen the former, the City of San Diego has shown true initiative and begun a process that proactively plans for growth. Gail Goldberg, the city's Planning Director, outlines the plan for TPR and describes how it has not only altered the direction of planning in San Diego, but truly changed the public's perception of population and density.


Gail Goldberg

Gail, we know San Diego is growing and that your new mayor has provided leadership re: growth management. Elaborate then what your charge is as Director of Planning for the City of San Diego? What are your most pressing challenges?

The San Diego region will see a 1.2 million person increase in population over the next 20 years-60-percent from natural increase and roughly 20-percent from migration. That is an enormous amount of people.

That projection becomes distressing when one realizes that roughly 1/3 of that population will locate within the City of San Diego's 44 community planning areas which, even at full capacity, will be 50,000 units short. So the mission of the Planning Department is to help communities understand that we can both grow and enhance or improve our quality of life in San Diego.

Most cities faced with the challenge of greater density have becme anti- growth. How did you convince San Diego's neighborhoods to add density?

Our first step was to conduct focus groups throughout the City to determine whether residents truly understood the nature and consequences of growth. The overwhelming response was, "If you don't build houses, the people won't come." So before we could even attempt to discuss accommodating growth, we had to educate the public.

As part of that education process, we asked a number of jurisdictions engaged in planning to explain the population forecasts, the nature and specifics of growth and how they planned on responding to these predictions.

When that presentation was finished, we began a lengthy public dialogue with a set of questions beginning with, "Is anybody here really excited about the prospect of 1.2 million new people living in the county?" Without exception, every community said that they were not. We then asked, "How many people think that this is a terrible thing?" Again, almost everybody answered in the affirmative. "Should we try to stop it?" Yet again, everybody said yes. Then we asked them to tell us how.

About an hour into this discussion, most communities concluded that growth was likely to happen despite their best efforts, that they were better off planning for it rather than ignoring it and that density can actually have positive effects on issues such as mobility, infrastructure and affordable housing.

After building this understanding of what growth is, we began to address the issue of how to accommodate it. The first question we asked our residents this time was, "What must we assume before we start?" The answers: 1) Planning entities must look first to regional opportunities to accommodate the forecasted growth; 2) Single family neighborhoods must be protected; and 3) Increased density must be tempered with enhanced transit and additional public amenities.

Those key ideals helped planning staff develop a new general plan element which identifies 4 sub-regional areas of the city diverse enough to accommodate much of the forecasted growth. The strategy-which should be finalized within the next few months and adopted this Fall-intensifies residential development by creating a series of neighborhood villages which offer increased civic space, effective mass transit and mixed-use opportunities.

What has been the reaction of the Mayor and the neighborhood representatives to the general plan roll out?

One of the fortuitous things that happened with our outreach process is that our public meetings coincided with the mayoral race. Mayor Murphy attended many of our public meetings while he was a candidate and really listened to what the communities were saying. So when he was elected he had a firm grasp of how the Planning Department was dealing with the issue of growth and what level of community buy-in we were receiving. Since then he has made this growth strategy one of his primary goals and has publicly announced that he wants to foster livable neighborhoods through this new general plan element.

As far as our neighborhood representatives, the City of San Diego is divided into about 50 planning areas with 44 of those areas having been recognized planning groups for the past 20 years. So we have a long history of neighborhoods being involved and engaged in the planning of their communities. And they will work closely with planners to create community plans that will implement the strategy.

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In L.A., some are concerned that area planning bodies will force City Administrators to look down to the neighborhoods, rather than out to the region to find solutions to the historic ills of air quality, transportation and land use. What's been your experience with the 20-year history of area planning bodies in San Diego? Has it impacted your ability to plan regionally?

The concerns that you raise are obviously real. And in the 20-year history of San Diego's planning areas I don't think any have looked past their own community. For much of that time they could get away with it, but over the past 5 or 6 years they have increasingly been affected by development outside of their boundaries. So I think they've finally come to the realization that they can no longer achieve their goals within the strict boundaries of their own communities.

The real challenge is to give them the opportunity to plan at the neighborhood scale, while at the same time challenging them to look at the big picture and what role they play in relation to other neighborhoods as well as the region. We have to convince our communities that the more sophisticated they can be-both in their neighborhood and within the greater region-the greater the amount of resources they may be able to leverage.

The reality is, we're growing. If the impact of that growth is spread out, there will be less opportunity for winners and losers. We're either going to win together or we we're going to lose together. And I think they are beginning to understand that.

TPR has been covering the REGC regional discussion that's been going on in San Diego re: linking land-use and transportation into a regional entity. Has the REGC effort helped you, as the Planning Director of the City of San Diego, in any way?

Well, I think that for purposes of planning we certainly recognize that the regional transportation and land-use functions have not been coordinated. But that's not just a regional issue, it's also a jurisdictional issue. We are challenged with trying to figure out how to bring together engineering departments and land-use planning departments at the local level as well. So I think RGEC has helped people recognize that we must find better ways of coordinating these functions both at the regional scale and down through the local level.

Let's delve deeper into the coordination that you speak of. Update us on the status of the City Heights revitalization project and the lessons learned from that collaborative experience.

The collaboration between the Price Foundation and the City has brought both private and public interests together to achieve something that neither of us alone could have achieved. And the civic facilities that we have been able to provide have triggered a private sector renaissance in the City Heights core.

One new concern we are having is how to retain the current residents. What we are finding is that as redevelopment has taken shape and really upgraded some neighborhoods, we've begun to see gentrification and displacement of existing residents. That was not our aim and we don't want to continue that trend.

A second challenge is to retain and increase the housing stock. Redevelopment activities have removed a lot of residential development. The local school district continues to buy 10 acres of property for each new elementary school, further reducing housing. So striking a balance between those two uses will also be an enormous challenge.

Is the state driven school facilities process an impediment to this kind of cooperation? How does the City and School District overcome the disincentives inherent in the archaic state facilities funding regulatory process?

While it may be a statewide problem, we're not willing to let the state process be an impediment. The San Diego School District has been extremely willing to partner with us to examine new and innovative ways to build schools and replace housing. And through this partnership we can identify the changes that need to be made at the state level to accommodate more innovative schools.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.