April 16 2014 09:25 AM

Civic-idea lab should be given a chance to produce

Kevin Faulconer
Photo by David Rolland

One of the strongest moves Bob Filner made during his short run as mayor of San Diego was to hire Bill Fulton to head up the city's planning department. Filner's predecessor, Jerry Sanders, had essentially neutered planning by folding the function into a developer-friendly Development Services Department, and hiring Fulton, considered an urban-planning rock star, to lead an again-independent planning program was bold.

By the time Filner resigned, Fulton was settled in downtown San Diego and entrenched as the director of the Planning, Neighborhoods and Economic Development. Had he been elected mayor, David Alvarez would certainly have retained Fulton, but what Kevin Faulconer would do was more of an open question. He'd long been a reliable soldier in the pro-developer, less-regulation Republican Party, but his campaign coopted the Democrats' pro-neighborhoods stance.

Faulconer's been mayor for a month-and-a-half now, and, happily, Fulton is still employed by the city. On Monday, the mayor announced his proposed city budget for the next fiscal year, and it was a bit of a mixed bag when it came to Fulton's realm. 

Fulton's been an enthusiastic backer of the Civic Innovation Lab, an initiative launched by Filner aimed at dreaming up cool projects to enhance public spaces and making them reality. But if the City Council approves Faulconer's plan, the Civic Innovation Lab will be scuttled and its four employees offered different city jobs. The money budgeted for the lab—roughly $700,000—would be redirected to Fulton's department, to be spent on finishing updates to three of the city's dozens of community plans, continuing work on six other updates and making amendments to the general plan, the overarching blueprint for the city's growth.

The Mayor's office says that without the money from the Civic Innovation Lab, the city would be able to update only one or two community plans this coming year.

Making sure that community plans are up to date is hugely important. Neighborhoods and the priorities that govern how they flourish change over time, and community plans establish the rules for growth in the neighborhoods. At this time last year, 71 percent of the city's community plans were more than 20 years old, 54 percent were more than 25 years old and 31 percent—nearly a third!—were more than 30 years old. 

These plans need updating, big-time, and Faulconer's proposal is to spend $900,000 on completing updates for Grantville, Southeastern San Diego (Sherman Heights, Logan Heights, Grant Hill, Stockton, Memorial, Mount Hope, Mountain View, Southcrest and Shelltown) and Encanto (including Chollas View, Lincoln Park, Emerald Hills, Valencia Park and Broadway Heights) in fiscal year 2015 and Uptown (Mission Hills, Hillcrest, Middletown, Bankers Hill and University Heights), North Park, Old Town, Midway, San Ysidro and Golden Hill (including South Park) in the first half of fiscal year 2016.

If the city has less than $1 million to spend on either the Civic Innovation Lab or community plans, then Faulconer is making the right choice. But $900,000 is a tiny fraction of the city's $1.18-billion discretionary budget; it's certainly possible that both can be funded if Faulconer, City Council President Todd Gloria and the rest of the council can stomach carrying through with a Filner-era initiative.

The City Council will hold public budget-review hearings from May 5 through 8; long-range planning and the Civic Innovation Lab will be reviewed from 2 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, May 7. We urge the council to give the folks from the lab a chance to talk about their work. The lab was a great idea, and it wasn't given enough of an opportunity to establish its worth. The council should seriously consider giving it more time, so long as its goals are clear and measurable, and maybe find some private-sector money to help fund its operations, as we're told is done elsewhere.

Faulconer so far seems to be making good on his vow to be neighborhood-focused, and if his finance team is to be believed, things are looking up in terms of tax-revenue projections. If that's the case, we should be looking at the slash-and-burn era of city government in the rear-view mirror and seizing the opportunity to think creatively and innovate. A small team is in place, and it's just gotten started. Let's not kill it before it's had the chance to take off.

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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