July 2 2014 10:12 AM

San Diego planning director's uphill battle to create walkable communities

Bill Fulton
City Planning Director Bill Fulton outside of City Hall
Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith

"In District 3, we don't do ugly," City Council President Todd Gloria said at a recent council meeting. With his off-the-cuff humor, he was referring to what architects and planners call the "built environment," such as libraries, parks, apartment buildings, storefronts, even fast-food restaurants.

Whether it's true that Gloria demands developers build only aesthetically pleasing and well-thought-out projects in his district, what's clear is that politicians are realizing how much resonance such ideas have with voters.

When CityBeat quoted Gloria's statement to San Diego Planning Director Bill Fulton in a recent interview, the nationally recognized urban planner let loose a hardy chuckle. For the 58-year-old advocate of so-called "smart growth," it must be satisfying to find such principles in vogue.

"All over the country, people are saying, ‘How can we revitalize our downtown? How can we revitalize our older neighborhoods?'" Fulton said. "And this is in small cities as well as large ones. ‘How can we create a more attractive walking environment for people who live and work in these places?'" 

Hired last summer by then-Mayor Bob Filner as the city's top planner, Fulton is building on an already interesting career, including working as a news reporter after graduating from college in upstate New York, publishing several well-regarded books on planning and recently serving as the mayor of Ventura. In 2011, he joined a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group called Smart Growth America, for which he toured the country, speaking to local-government officials about how to create pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods where residents can spend less time stuck in traffic and more time running into friends on the sidewalk.

"Both millennials and aging boomers are interested in living in a more compact situation where they can walk more, where they're not tethered to their cars so much," he said.

Solving the puzzle of how to do this in San Diego is Fulton's latest and perhaps greatest challenge. With little room left to sprawl, the city must increase density in at least some of its more suburban neighborhoods if it wants to accommodate population growth. But whether pressure to construct "urban infill" will lead to smart growth is far from determined, as is the question of where exactly that development would go.

"I thought this was a really great opportunity," Fulton said. "San Diego's at a very particular critical point in its history. I think it's the largest city in the country that's at this juncture right now."

In one sense, the city seems to be leaning toward the smart-growth principles of walkability, public transportation and architectural sophistication. In 2008, the city dubbed its General Plan "City of Villages"—named for the development strategy enshrined in the document that calls for dense neighborhood clusters organized around public transportation.

Upholding the reversal of a 2011 policy during Jerry Sanders' tenure as mayor that combined the Planning Department with the Development Services Department, Mayor Kevin Faulconer sent the message that city planners should be free to focus solely on making sure that growth is tasteful and well-organized. Most recently, in the approved fiscal year 2015 budget, Faulconer also boosted the number of planning staff to 76, adding 16 new jobs, including two urban designers and a historic-resources planner.

"In the context of our department and in the context of this new budget, we did very well," Fulton said.

Faulconer declined to respond to questions from CityBeat regarding his commitment to smart growth.

However, a broader look at the city's recent planning history may seem troubling for smart-growth advocates. First adopted in 2002, the city-of-villages strategy included five pilot projects that have never fully materialized. Uncompleted projects include "The Boulevard Marketplace," which called for building several apartment complexes on El Cajon Boulevard between 38th and 40th streets and Central Avenue and Marlborough Street; and "Mi Pueblo," located in San Ysidro along Interstate 805, which has yet to realize a plan that included more than 1,000 residential units, a public market and a community garden.

These largely forgotten projects are often seen as the result of budget shortfalls during the recent recession. With little money to pay for public infrastructure, such as water and sewer upgrades, needed to keep pace with the proposed urban infill, the projects were largely put on the shelf.

A lot on El Cajon Boulevard slated for development as part of "The Boulevard Marketplace," a never-realized smart-growth project
Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith

"What happened was the city had no money," said former City Architect Mike Stepner, who now teaches at the NewSchool of Architecture + Design in San Diego. "So the money that was needed was not there, and the neighborhoods were very concerned with new development coming in without the needed infrastructure."

While these projects haven't been completely abandoned, the city has few, if any, major examples to point to when trying to get residents on board with pedestrian-friendly urban infill, which over time could dramatically change their neighborhood. Instead, poorly designed apartment complexes, islands of development with no connection to surrounding areas and crumbling streets have left an otherwise attractive city pockmarked.

"Right now, nobody trusts anybody," Stepner said. "People don't trust developers. They don't trust government. And a lot of the stuff that's been built over the years hasn't been that great."

The success of Fulton's vision, to a large extent, will be determined by a series of long-overdue community-plan updates, many of which are decades old, some stretching back to the 1970s. The city has 52 of these community plans, which are developed by the Planning Department in conjunction with 41 community planning groups and a central Community Planners Committee.

With 10 community-plan updates slated to be completed by 2016 and dozens more thereafter, the fate of the city's urban character remains largely unknown. This year, the City Council approved two community-plan updates, but one, Barrio Logan, was overturned in a well-financed referendum paid for by the shipbuilding and -repair industry. A controversial community-plan update for Ocean Beach was recently put on hold by the council for at least a month after the California Coastal Commission recommended dozens of changes.

On top of these challenges, Fulton has run into difficultly getting people to buy into smart growth. Recently, a proposed community-plan update in Clairemont Mesa hit a snag when members of the planning group and residents in Bay Park vocally opposed raising a 30-foot height limit around Morena Boulevard to accommodate several six-story buildings and an extension of the trolley line.

"I think it's more than an aesthetic difference," said Susan Mournian, who sits on the Clairemont Mesa Community Planning Group. "It's a lifestyle thing. I thought my community was built out. I didn't think it needed to be tweaked any further."

However, despite widespread objections, the community may have bought into the idea had it been marketed better, Mournian added. For example, she said, the plan was too technical and didn't fully address traffic concerns or the need for additional public infrastructure.

"He was not a person that could sell his plan—very arrogant," Mournian said of Fulton. "That's part of the problem."

Clairemont Mesa Community Planning Group Chair Jeff Barfield—who recused himself from voting on the plan update due to a conflict of interest—said he wasn't against the concept but agreed it hadn't been properly explained to the public.

"There could have been an effort to show an example in another city," he said. "Some people thought they were looking at a skyscraper."

Acknowledging some of these concerns, Fulton said that if smart growth is to succeed, he has to improve his department's community outreach, as well as the design presentation.

"We have to give a better visual depiction of what the buildings are likely to look like," he said. "We have to do a better job of showing and being sensitive to the relationship between the new development and the existing houses."

In Encanto, the Planning Department has started holding "pop-up events" to improve community outreach, Fulton added. "You go out to some location on a Saturday morning to where people are likely to be anyway, a farmers market-type situation, and you grab people as they walk by and you talk to them. That way, you get people who are not likely to be at the typical evening planning meeting. We know that we definitely need to do more of that."

Such outreach is designed to not only get feedback, but also build excitement about the potential for smart growth. During several public meetings, Bay Park residents expressed skepticism about the city's ability to exact tasteful, well-planned architecture from the development community.

"That's a very reasonable concern," Fulton said. "That's why I think that one of the things that we have to do in the community-plan updates and in the projects henceforth is we have to up our game on urban design."

However, the question remains: Where can smart-growth advocates get a strong win to provide an example to skeptical residents of a desirable project?

"The average homeowner says, ‘You're doing a sales job on me, and I don't trust you to deliver,'" said Joe LaCava, chair of the umbrella San Diego Community Planners Committee. "And there are a lot of bad examples out there. We see a lot of sad, lonely islands of mixed-use [projects] that don't make anyone proud."

However, LaCava is optimistic that smart growth in San Diego will eventually prevail.

"I think that people are coming around to the concepts," he said. "People are talking about wanting things in their neighborhoods, having their kids walk to school. It's up to the city to say, ‘Here's how you get it.' But people are coming around to the idea that something's missing."

If residents embrace the idea of living closer to each other, smart growth doesn't have to be all that complicated, Fulton said. For example, changing parking requirements for developers can go a long way toward promoting walkable neighborhoods. Traditionally, projects have been required to provide a certain number of parking spaces per parcel, per square footage. But under smart growth, parking is often consolidated in a garage, which can be more cost effective and allows mixed-use development to more easily provide street-level retail.

Concerns about parking are "perfectly reasonable," Fulton said. "There's a number of ways we can deal with that. One is the possibility of introducing residential permit parking, but if we make every property owner on Morena solve their own parking problem, that will make it very difficult for successful restaurants to stay in business."

Despite recent rumors that Fulton might abandon the city midstride, as well as the obvious challenges of bringing smart growth to Southern Californians, he said he plans to see his vision through.

"I hear the rumor all the time that I'm about to leave, but it's not true," he said.

"This is a great job." 

Write to joshuas@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on twitter at @jemersmith.


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