September 4, 2014 - From the September, 2014 issue

Bill Fulton’s Exit Reflections on San Diego City Planning

Bill Fulton, director of the City of San Diego’s Planning Department, will move on this fall to lead Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research in Houston. In the following conversation with TPR, he characterizes planning in San Diego—from the “City of Villages” strategy to the status of Barrio Logan’s community plan. He draws upon years of experience in California to discuss the dissolution of  community redevelopment agencies, noting the options remaining for cities wishing to invest in existing neighborhoods.

Bill Fulton

“I finally came to realize that the division of labor is not about who handles the built environment and who doesn’t—it’s about long-term versus short-term.” —Bill Fulton

“[San Deigo’s] infrastructure investment and community benefit investment have not kept up with our infill development.” —Bill Fulton

Bill, after an extraordinarily prominent career as a mainstay of California’s urban planning and civic community—from mayor of Ventura to director of San Diego’s Planning Department—you exit the latter to move to Houston and to accept the directorship of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. What inspired you to leave California for Houston? 

Bill Fulton: The Kinder Institute is an extraordinary opportunity. The more I thought about, the more intrigued I got. Rice and some of the major philanthropists in Houston have made a commitment to make the Kinder Institute the best, most important, and most prominent urban think tank in the country. They undertook a national recruitment to find the right person.

I think it has been difficult for a lot of the traditional think tanks, many of which are based in the Northeast, to get their arms around Sun Belt cities. We’ll be working on Houston, but we’ll also be working nationally—to connect Houston and other Sun Belt cities together, figure out the common issues, and determine how to grapple with them. I got really excited to tackle some of the issues particular to fast-growing Sun Belt cities, whether it’s public education, transportation, or anything else.

I’m intrigued by the fact that the two largest cities in the Sun Belt are Houston and Los Angeles. There are a lot of differences between the two, but there are a lot of similarities, too. I’m looking forward to exploring that.

We last interviewed you a year ago, shortly after you arrived in San Diego to lead that city’s Planning Department. You shared your priorities: “What we’re going to do... at the planning level with a separate planning department is detailed enough plans and detailed enough zoning that the permitting function, though still in a different department, probably will go much more smoothly.” That was a major endeavor. What did you find and what did you accomplish? 

We’re getting there. When I arrived in San Diego, the Planning Department had been dismantled. The very fine General Plan had been adopted in 2008, but none of the community plans had been successfully updated through to adoption since then. A lot of it was simply getting the Planning Department up and running, and getting the process of moving the community plans through to adoption going again. That has happened.

Since then, we have begun to work on more detailed plans. We call them Focused Community Plan Amendments. We’re doing two right now for areas around current and planned transit stops. Mayor Faulconer provided us with a lot more money in the budget this year relatively speaking. We are planning to hire a couple of urban designers to bring that skill back in-house. We hope to work increasingly on not just the conventional community plans, which like in LA are mini General Plans, but also to do more of these detailed, fine-grained plans—both within the Planning Department and collaboratively with Civic San Diego, the former Center City Development Corp. 

Bill, in that TPR interview you also addressed the merger and de-merger of the city’s Planning and Development Services departments. Who in a city such as San Diego (or Los Angeles) ought to be the custodian or steward of the built environment?

Since I came to San Diego, it’s been reinforced for me that the public and private sector have to do that together. In San Diego—not unlike when Gail Goldberg was here—the Planning Department is in charge of long-range planning. Many other city departments do implementation. Development Services processes the development projects. Public Works, as well as Transportation and Stormwater, build most of the public infrastructure. I finally came to realize that the division of labor is not about who handles the built environment and who doesn’t—it’s about long-term versus short-term.

We do community plan updates and come up with long-range plans. The private component eventually gets implemented by DSD, in collaboration with private developers. Also, a lot of the public facilities that we identify in the community plans will feed into San Diego’s Capital Improvement Program—CIP.

We have never had a multi-year CIP here in San Diego. Now that we’re putting one together for the first time, the Planning Department can play an important role in helping to identify capital projects that need to be built in the community plans. The department can also help prioritize them, figuring out which ones should be built in the next three to five years as opposed to which ones can hold. It’s a joint effort with a long-term, short-term division. 

Your professional life has including being a smart growth advocate and writer, a teacher, a mayor, a councilmember, and a planning commissioner. You are thus well aware that urban planning requires that there be a common and agreed-upon public vision to guide planning. Who is—or ought to be—articulating that vision in San Diego (or LA)?

On the one hand, that vision ought to come from the mayor. It is coming from Mayor Faulconer, who ran (as Mayor Filner did) on restoring and strengthening neighborhoods.

On the other hand, we’ve had the “City of Villages” strategy in place as policy for 12 years. San Diego is just about out of land, with a couple of exceptions. A very fine General Plan was passed six years ago. SANDAG’s transportation planning and investments are complimentary to our land-use objectives.

Generally speaking, the people of the city and elected officials are in agreement as to the vision. San Diego should be, as in LA, a multi-centered city where future growth revolves around transit investment in particular locations. That’s well articulated in the General Plan. Now we’re embedding it in the community plans, where we identify more specifically the size, nature, and scale of the villages. We’re lucky that we’ve had mayors across the political spectrum who have embraced this idea and recognized that it is a longstanding consensus in San Diego that needs to be implemented

The challenge of implementing San Diego’s “City of Villages” has always been aligning public infrastructure with agreement on development and density, particularly when public investment is constrained by deficits. As California’s economic and civic climate improves, is there a prospect that we may align the infrastructure with San Diego’s plans? 

Yes, there is. It’s still a challenge. San Diego invested in the public realm over the last 30 years in two different ways, both of which were set up by Pete Wilson when he was mayor: The first was heavy redevelopment investment through tax-increment in downtown. The second was relying on large-scale master plan developers to do all of the infrastructure in the master-planned communities, particularly along I-15—typically called the Facilities Benefit Assessment Communities. That system was set up in the ’80s. Both of those approaches worked really well in those locations.

The struggle has been, ever since the “City of Villages” and Mayor Dick Murphy 12 years ago, how to make sure you have the right investment in the right place in the infill neighborhoods to support the next development. We still struggle with that. Our impact fees do not and cannot come close to covering the cost in infill neighborhoods, many of which are in great deficit.

Since I got here, we’ve been working on channeling more of the impact fee money into parks. We’re finding ways to incentivize developers, even in infill locations, to provide parks or recreation improvements in places that might already be on publicly owned land. Parks are probably the biggest issue as an urban amenity in infill neighborhoods. There’s still an enormous infrastructure backlog.

Now that revenue’s going up again for the first time in about 10 years, Mayor Faulconer has committed to devoting half of all new increased revenue to infrastructure. That will make a big dent. Then the question will be whether we need a pretty big bond to cover infrastructure deficits in the older neighborhoods. That’s a political debate that’s brewing but yet to come.

But you’re right—this has been a difficulty all the way back to Mayor Murphy. The infrastructure investment and community benefit investment have not kept up with our infill development.

You’ve obviously been grappling with the demise of redevelopment in San Diego. Does it need replacing? Is there a substitute that makes sense?

There are only so many ways to skin that cat. If you’re going to heavily invest in public improvements in an existing neighborhood, there’s only three different ways to do it. One is to raise taxes on the residents. A second is to take money out of the existing tax flow, which is what redevelopment did. A third is to get developers and their end users to pay for it—whether through assessment districts or increased impact fees.

Taking money out of the existing tax flows is off the table because redevelopment is dead. That said, there have been discussions here and in other cities about having a city-level tax increment. But we have to think about how to partner with other agencies and entities to get more creative.


As we’ve figured out how to invest more in parks, we realized that we have to work more closely with our school district. It is surplusing schools and disposing of property that we could use for parks and other community amenities, but that we have not traditionally had the money to buy. The major land-rich institutions play an enormous role in bringing land to the table.

With Civic San Diego, we’re considering how to leverage the possibility of higher-density development at transit stops through public-private partnerships  as a way to create more revenue flow back for public investment.

I was critical of redevelopment before, because I thought it was abused too much and used too widely. I think it will come back in a more targeted form around transit stations eventually. I would welcome that. In the meantime, it’s been very difficult to put the pieces together.

Philanthropic sources have become more important. Nationally there are outfits like LISC, which put together $100 million affordable housing TOD funding in LA and has been looking at something similar here. In San Diego, we’re fortunate to have two major charities that basically adopted neighborhoods—Price Charities in City Heights, and the Joe and Vi Jacobs Foundation in Southeast San Diego. Jacobs in particular is a major landowner in Southeast San Diego and can really set the tone.

When we last talked, the community plan issue on the table was Barrio Logan. Can you bring us up to date?

The City Council adopted Barrio Logan 5-4 last September. Everybody agreed on 90 to 95 percent of the plan. However, some of the maritime industries that support the shipyard, which is right next to Barrio Logan, objected to a few things.

It’s a very complicated situation.You’ve got maritime industrial businesses, other kinds of industrial businesses, residential, and commercial all mixed up together in an old neighborhood dating back to about 1910. Some of the maritime businesses put the plan on the ballot as a referendum in June, and the voters voted it down. So a new Barrio Logan plan is not currently in place. With Mayor Faulconer and Councilmember David Alvarez from Barrio Logan—who ran against each other for Mayor back in February—we’re working with both sides to find a compromise. It’s probably not going to be completed before I’m done.

But I’m very proud of the plan that we had. It was about the best possibility to untangle that spaghetti snarl of industrial and residential uses. We sorted it out so the traditional commercial heart of Barrio Logan was a mixed-use village. The other end, by the 32nd Street Naval Base, was more industrial. I still think those are the components that will work in the end. It’s just a matter of finding the right political opportunity for everybody to agree. 

Focusing on San Diego’s largest neighbor to the north, Los Angeles—there’s some pushback to the notion of greater density around transit stations. Examples include opposition to Hollywood’s community plan and a court’s recent shutdown of a Target store under construction for exceeding the limits of the agreed-upon height envelope voters had approved a decade ago. What are the political challenges of pressing for greater density in California urban communities? As a smart-growther, what—if any—compromises are acceptable? 

We’ve struggled with that here, particularly in neighborhoods that will be adjacent to stations for the Mid-Coast light-rail line. SANDAG will start constructing it probably next year. The line will travel from Downtown to UCSD—the two biggest job centers in the region—as well as going by Sea World and Pacific Beach.

That’s where we have had the greatest difficulty working with neighbors to come up with a useful compromise solution. We have to do a much better job of engaging communities so that they understand the impact of the built environment, and we need to do more fine-grained plans. This is true everywhere in California.

In the past, we in California have not focused as much as we should on adding density around transit stations while protecting the views of nearby residents who might live on a hill. We sometimes don’t have a very good conversation with longtime homeowners about whether the changes we are proposing might benefit them and their neighborhood. The typical longtime homeowner looks at the situation and says, “All I’m going to get out of this is more traffic and more apartments nearby.” On the surface, that makes sense. But on the other hand, they might get more mobility and more local shopping options. They might even have more local housing choices as they get older.

It’s interesting to me to watch neighborhoods on the Westside of Los Angeles that were completely opposed to the subway 30 years ago when I was on the West Hollywood Planning Commission. Now, they’re in favor of it. The reason is mobility. Traffic on the Westside is horrible and any alternative is welcome.

In San Diego, by comparison, traffic’s bad but it’s not as bad. People’s motivations are different. You have to talk with longtime residents not only about what they might be giving up, but also what they might gain. We have to show people good examples of what that looks like. Otherwise, it’s hard to grasp the benefits, and residents tend to only see the downside. Of course, the whole CEQA analysis is designed to highlight the downside.

We’re in mid-flight. In most parts of coastal California, we are past the point where we’re not having the conversation. But we’re not to the point where everyone agrees on a micro, neighborhood-level consensus that this is where the future lies. We’re still in flux.

During your professional life, how has the term “smart growth” evolved? What would you say the term connotes today?

I don’t think the phrase connotes anything different than before. I always liked that it suggested a broader set of things than just building more density around transit stops.

I learned a lot when I worked at Smart Growth America alongside Parris Glendening, the former governor of Maryland, who basically coined the term. Parris always talked about the importance of proximity. When he was governor of Maryland, he liked to talk about how, whenever the Social Services Department wanted a new location for one of their buildings, they would always suggest putting it off of a freeway off-ramp. You could only get there by car. Of course, that didn’t make any sense from the point of view of their customers. “Smart growth” is about making sure that you put the right things in the right places so that they are convenient.

Now that I have been deeply embroiled in the day-to-day dealings over CEQA in San Diego, for me “smart growth” has come to mean making sure that people have access to the things they want and need on a daily basis in their neighborhood. That’s not how we analyze plans and projects under CEQA. We try to figure out whether we will need another left-turn lane in 30 years.

I like that “smart growth” encompasses a variety of ideas about proximity, convenience, and location. There’s a much stronger market preference for that now then there was 20 years ago when Glendening first started using the term. This is always said to come from millennials and retiring baby boomers. But I think in our society there’s a much greater taste for urban, or at least village-style, or at least walkable living than there was 20 years ago.

To close, what advice will you leave in the drawer for your successor as you exit San Diego?

I’ll leave the “City of Villages” strategy in the drawer. I’ll say: “Don’t forget that all of the leaders of this city have been committed to this policy for the last 12 years. Don’t lose sight of that in the middle of the micro battles on a day-to-day basis over this project or that project. Bear in mind that this is the largest city in the country that has become land-poor and must become an all infill city. That’s a tremendous challenge, but it’s also a tremendous gift and opportunity. Our predecessors saw that 12, 14, and 15 years ago. Don’t forget to remind the policymakers, too!”


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.