Aug. 6 2014 10:40 AM

San Diego planning director cries "Uncle!"

Fulton in chains
Photo by John R. Lamb

"I can imagine no more comfortable frame of mind for the conduct of life than a humorous resignation."

—William Somerset Maugham

A week before he announced his impending escape from San Diego, Planning Director Bill Fulton stepped gingerly into a meeting hall filled with residents from Bankers Hill. He scanned the audience as if trying to gauge if these were friends or foe. "Uncertain," his eyes seemed to say.

And who could blame him? Within the sliver of humanity that believes city planning still offers a useful function in modern civilization, you won't hear much surprise that communities don't trust the process and therefore push back against any notion of change, invariably envisioned by residents as something bad.

"It's always been that way, because we build a lot of garbage in this town," former city architect Mike Stepner told Spin. "Residents always envision the worst. Developers look very short term and what's easiest to build based on their pro formas. Planners usually get into too much minutiae or not the right minutiae, in terms of regulation."

Fulton experienced Residents Revolt in spades in the communities of Grantville, Morena and Ocean Beach. How does one even start a conversation with a neighborhood when residents—at least judging by the signage they employed—equate five-story buildings with Manhattan or three-story structures to Miami Beach?

While that may be typical, what seemed different for Fulton was the highly publicized retreat from his planning ideas by city leaders themselves—Republican, pro-development, building-industry-darling types particularly.

"The new thing was the pullback by the council and mayor based on community opposition in Ocean Beach and Morena," Stepner said. "The planning director has to have the support of the council and mayor to be effective. Perhaps that made Houston more attractive."

On Friday, the nationally renowned urban planner, author and former mayor of Ventura announced that he'll be leaving San Diego at the end of August to head up an urban-research institute based at Houston's Rice University.

Considered a big fish in the planning world when lured to San Diego last year by then-mayor Bob Filner, Fulton was hailed as a symbol of change in a city with a history of treating its planning leaders with distain, most recently during the mayoral administration of Jerry Sanders, who now heads up the pro-business San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"Bill will lead this city in a new direction," Filner said at the time. "His creativity, thought-provoking ideas and practical solutions are what we need to move this city away from complacent and decades-old planning processes to innovative and flexible plans that will unleash the expertise of city planners and the imagination of the citizens."

But Filner's precipitous fall from grace started almost immediately after Fulton's hire. One colleague noted that after the announcement, Fulton spent two weeks in Israel for his daughter's wedding. When he returned, he essentially was a planning director without a mayor.

As his tenure progressed, he was gradually stripped of his Civic Innovation Lab, responsibility over economic development and his liaison role with Civic San Diego, the post-redevelopment agency.

"His role changed," said urban planner Howard Blackson, who worked in Fulton's innovation lab before it was disbanded. "He had too much cachet for anyone to fire him. But put him in a smaller and smaller box, and who would want to stay?" 

The business establishment's ballot defeat of the Barrio Logan Community Plan update in June also was likely a "wake-up call to what San Diego politics is like," said Councilmember David Alvarez, whose district includes Barrio Logan.

Alvarez added that he thought it "unfair" that Fulton was "thrown under the bus" for the city's handling of the community-plan update for Ocean Beach.

Last week, the City Council— with Mayor Kevin Faulconer's blessing—signed off on tighter restrictions aimed at preventing construction of so-called McMansions in the community, rules the city's Planning Commission had tried to limit.

"If I was him looking at that and what might potentially be coming, I might be looking for other options as well," Alvarez said.

The irony, Alvarez added, is that while other communities push back against growth, the Barrio Logan plan actually encouraged growth, yet it was opposed by the city's establishment. Both he and District 4 Councilmember Myrtle Cole frequently "shout for attention" in their underdeveloped communities, he said, all for naught.

"I told Matt Adams, who heads the local Building Industry Association, a couple weeks ago at a public meeting that we want growth," Alvarez said. "We've got commercial corridors. We're not anti-growth. There are places in the city where people want development and infill because it makes sense there."

The response, he said, has been silence. "I think it has to do with the fact that they don't make as much money there and they don't really know the communities," Alvarez said. "They don't really care."

Fulton seemed to have a soft spot for underserved communities. Last spring, Fulton—a senior fellow at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy—led a planning studio of graduate students that focused on revitalizing the Fairmont corridor in City Heights between University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard.

For his part, Fulton has had nothing but nice things to say about his time in San Diego and that this job in Houston was just too good an opportunity to pass up. Faulconer issued a terse statement of appreciation for Fulton's "input and expertise."

How hard did Team Faulconer fight to keep Fulton in town? As David Graham, the mayor's neighborhood-services chief put it, "When Bill Fulton gets asked to run a multimillion-dollar think-tank intent on doing urban research of national and international importance, all anyone can do is quote James Brown's first single, ‘Please, Please, Please.'" 

It is telling, however, that the editorial writers over at the U-T San Diego—who lament any shift of talent from California to Texas—have remained silent on Fulton's pending departure. Perhaps they're simply waiting for confirmation that San Diego has officially castrated its Planning Department again. Stay tuned.

Got a tip? Send it to or follow John R. Lamb on Twitter @johnrlamb.


See all events on Wednesday, Dec 7