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 wont hear much surprise that communities dont trust the process and therefore push back against any notion of change, invariably envisioned by residents as something bad.
Its 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 whats 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 hell be leaving San Diego at the end of August to head up an urban-research institute based at Houstons 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 Filners precipitous fall from grace started almost immediately after Fultons hire. One colleague noted that after the announcement, Fulton spent two weeks in Israel for his daughters 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 Fultons 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 establishments 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 citys handling of the community-plan update for Ocean Beach.
Last week, the City Council— with Mayor Kevin Faulconers blessing—signed off on tighter restrictions aimed at preventing construction of so-called McMansions in the community, rules the citys 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 citys 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. Weve got commercial corridors. Were 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 dont make as much money there and they dont really know the communities, Alvarez said. They dont 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 Fultons input and expertise.
How hard did Team Faulconer fight to keep Fulton in town? As David Graham, the mayors 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 Browns 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 Fultons pending departure. Perhaps theyre simply waiting for confirmation that San Diego has officially castrated its Planning Department again. Stay tuned.