The news last week that Bill Fulton had resigned from his position as the city of San Diego's planning director was not completely unexpected, but still extremely disappointing.
Fulton's hire was the best thing former Mayor Bob Filner did during his short tenure. Fulton brought a national reputation as a leader in innovative smart-growth planning to a city that desperately needed a bold new approach to the conversation surrounding how and where the city will grow and accommodate an inevitable and gradual swell in population.
Fulton accepted the position with a basic assumption in mind: that Filner would be his boss for at least four years and likely eight. That fell apart when Filner resigned after eight months and Kevin Faulconer was elected, leading to pessimistic speculation that either Fulton would be fired in favor of someone of Faulconer's choosing or the political environment would simply be too inhospitable for Fulton to stay.
One could argue that firing Fulton would be a bad PR move for Faulconer, who'd co-opted Filner's "Neighborhoods first" message— canning him would contradict the rhetoric. Fulton lasted for nearly five months under Faulconer, but in that time, as has been documented in the wake of his resignation, the Filner-created and Fulton-favored Civic Innovation Lab was dismantled; Faulconer helped lead the charge to overturn the Fulton-endorsed Barrio Logan Community Plan update; Faulconer hired David Graham as Fulton's boss and took the economic-development function away from Fulton and gave it to Graham.
It began to look like Faulconer's plan was to make life miserable for Fulton. Yet, when he resigned, Fulton seemed to go out of his way in telling reporters that that's not a totally fair assessment and that Faulconer was on board with Fulton's program. We have no reason to doubt that Graham was on board and that he was sincere when he said he tried to talk Fulton out of leaving. Fulton's a savvy political operator—he knows not to trash his employer on the way out the door, but he didn't have to praise Faulconer.
The word from both City Hall and Fulton is that the job Fulton's taking—as director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston—was just too good to pass up. We suspect that it was a little from Column A and a little from Column B: a great opportunity to helm a prestigious think tank and a somewhat diminished leadership role in San Diego. Fulton's task of convincing suburban neighborhoods to accept more dense housing clusters near transit corridors was already proving challenging, but we think Fulton was up for the fight.
But let's not allow Faulconer to wriggle off the hook so easily. Faulconer's opposition to the Barrio Logan plan, based on his allegiance to influential business groups and counter to any concept of proper neighborhood planning, was cause for major concern. If we're going to believe that the mayor genuinely wants smart growth and healthy neighborhoods, he's going to have to prove to us that he can stand up to his business constituents when those ideas conflict with their desires and their bottom lines. He's going to have to show that he'll have his professional planners' backs when the political pressure is ratcheted up.
And that brings us to the national search for Fulton's replacement that the Mayor's office says has begun. The new planning director must be in the Fulton mold. She or he must have a reputation for innovative thinking and the gravitas to help persuade folks to follow. Obviously, it's going to be someone who's not completely at odds with Faulconer's business-first vision, but it must not be someone who'll stand for being a shill and a yes-person for the mayor and his friends in the building-industry lobby. We challenge Faulconer to hire someone who'll challenge him rather than bow to him.
As Joe LaCava, chair of the San Diego Community Planners Committee, told CityBeat's Joshua Emerson Smith last week, San Diego's in a crucial time, in terms of how it accommodates population growth. "We're still a city in transition," he said, "and we're going to need strong leadership and the right vision to carry this city forward."
As for Fulton's decision to leave, LaCava added, "I'm very disappointed. This is a real loss for our city."
Yes, it is.
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