By Barbara Bry
Community plans are vital to implementing the vision of a City of Villages established in San Diego’s general plan. Through prioritizing timely and proper updating, community plans can help every community preserve its distinct character while allowing reasonable growth. Today, however, the community plan update process is failing.
We must improve our community plan update process to make it faster, fairer and friendlier to ALL of our communities. This is important 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.
--Reduce the uncertainty in the development process. That should result in a reduction in costs. For example, if the Carmel Valley Community Plan had been updated, the controversy over the One Paseo project might have been avoided.
Insist our Mayor and City Council "Walk the Walk." Hiring Jeff Murphy as Director of the Planning Department was a good first step, but his efforts to improve the plan update effort will continue to be hindered by the program’s uncertain year-to-year funding. The few community plan updates completed since 2008 indicate a long-term problem requiring a long-term commitment to fix. "Community planning is the key to empowering our neighborhoods and bringing better infrastructure and opportunities to residents,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a press release, when he announced the hiring of Murphy. If the Mayor is serious about this statement, he needs to commit to a consistent annual budget that will be sufficient to fund his new Director's update efforts. The Council also needs to support that commitment as a priority in the City’s annual budget. Once proper funding is assured, the update process for each community plan needs to have a clear schedule that will be met. The City has been able to obtain grants to fund the cost of some of the plan updates and should be able to continue to do this.
- Replace "We've always done it this way" with "Let's pursue a better way." Other cities have adopted the approach of focusing updates on a community's "opportunity areas," locations where there is likely to be significant new development. Those areas are addressed with shorter-term, more focused studies rather than the traditional multi-year, full scope, several thousand pages environmental studies.
- Accountability Drives Performance. The current approach does not align all stakeholders around timely plan updates. A community update should be required to be completed in the original timeframe agreed upon in the community plan, with completion taking precedence over privately initiated community plan amendments. With such a policy in place, all interests – the community, the City, and the developers – will be aligned to complete the update as efficiently as possible, so that appropriate new private development can move forward expeditiously.
Amend General Plan to Address Infrastructure Needs. In the current general plan, there is no explicit requirement for developers to invest in infrastructure improvements in the highways, mass transit, schools, parks, and other infrastructure and service needs resulting from their projects. Many of these public services and spaces are already near, at or even beyond capacity. To deliver these needed improvements, we must formalize public-private participation by and between the developer, and the City and other agencies such as MTS, CALTRANS and SANDAG. I am proposing a general plan amendment to require all community plan updates (and any intervening plan amendments) calling for significant growth or density increases to incorporate an Infrastructure Implementation Plan, which would delineate each party's responsibility and provide an integrated plan of execution to be carried forward in a timely manner. This implementation plan will 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. In addition, whenever the City enters into a development agreement for a new project, priority must be given to satisfying existing infrastructure and service needs.
- Enforce Community Plans Equitably. Once approved and updated, community plans should serve as a guide for land use in the community. They should not be amended to accommodate individual projects without good cause and clear community support. At the same time, projects that conform to the community plan should be able to rely on that, without concern over being scaled back during the approval process.
- Involve the Community Upfront. The current process is driven by the City’s Planning Department. This top-down approach reduces a community's motivation to engage, causing the process to become unnecessarily adversarial and drawn out. We need to adopt a more balanced emphasis on engaging the community in an authentic way on its vision, infrastructure needs, retaining community character and increasing connectivity. We should institute and provide community advisory committees with the resources to engage the community at the outset of the update process with community surveys, workshops, charrettes, email blasts, pop-up polls, and then have them jointly develop with staff initial update alternatives within the general plan framework and goals. This should include providing facilitators to help guide discussions about the update, so that City staff are not inordinately influencing the process. We can empower the community while also using the Department’s available resources to ensure this process is done as expeditiously as possible.
- Leverage the Community's Resources. Solicit volunteer support from planning and design programs at our local colleges and other institutions. This can increase citizen participation, accelerate the process, generate creative alternatives and offer potential cost savings to the City.
As an innovation economy, we cannot settle for incremental improvement in this all-important process for planning growth of our communities and City. On top of updating this process and empowering the community, we need to undertake a complete update process overhaul, starting with examining the best practices of other cities. It is time to convene a task force of specialists in land-use planning, traffic, environmental policy etc., to re-design the process to deliver plan updates in a faster, fairer and friendlier fashion. This will accelerate the adoption of the general plan's City of Villages strategy, reduce timeframes and costs for developers, maintain community character and infrastructure capability, and bolster economic and job growth in all of our communities.