Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Civic San Diego: the kiss of death for San Diego neighborhoods

The city of San Diego has first-class universities, first-class biotech companies, first-class ethnic restaurants, first-class theater, first-class engineers, artists, and musicians.  Also:

Our city has first-class standing as a prototype of community-based planning. 

Who would have guessed that during the heady years of the 1960s, while the Pump House kids were tripping the waves fantastic at Windansea Beach other San Diegans – more firmly-grounded and civic-minded – were partnering with City Hall as official members of newly-created community planning groups.  The La Jolla community plan was the city's first.  Then the Peninsula plan.  Soon came the others.

Half a century later there are more than 40 recognized community planning groups throughout the city, where locally-elected members meet monthly to opine on neighborhood land-use issues, community goals, and proposed real estate development and relay their advice and recommendations to city officials.  

Although these planning groups are private organizations they have no legal power to take action on behalf of the city.  They're required to adhere to city council policies and city-approved bylaws.    
It's true, our planning groups are frequently dominated by people with personal or business priorities rather than communal well-being.  It's a fact, they generally represent the perspectives of homeowners over renters. Certainly, they can be contentious and rancorous.  Yes, they're sometimes short-sighted and overly-opinionated. 

But in these planning groups you'll find plenty of altruistic, environmentally-aware, economically-savvy, intelligent and openminded social reformers and planning advocates, all determined to do what no one else will do for them – look out their own backyards.  Plus those of their neighbors and neighborhoods in the rest of the city.  

Granted, there's plenty of room for improvement within community planning groups. Dwindling staff support from city planners (who have, themselves, been hammered by planning department reorganizations, budget cuts, unfilled positions, and political machinations) doesn't help. 

But here's a fact of life we should not ignore: imperfect though they may be, San Diego's community planning groups are indispensable.  They're the eyes, ears, and vocal chords of our neighborhoods.  They're the  building blocks of a healthy city.  

Without them, the voices of everyday citizens to improve the environment throughout San Diego are easily diminished... overridden... eventually extinguished.  

Here's another fact of life we should not ignore: one by one, in this way or that, San Diego's community planning groups are being sabotaged.

Look what happened in Barrio Logan and its community plan update.  See what's happening at the opposite end of the city, in Carmel Valley's One Paseo project.  Watch how numerous communities are left hanging out to dry over their community plan updates.  Take note of the chronic battering in Ocean Beach by variances to permit out-sized development.  Notice the attempts to cluster and meld distinct neighborhood planning groups in North Park, Golden Hill, and Uptown.  The Serra Mesa community group knows how hard it is to prevent being devalued and ignored.  The Grantville planning group knows the same.   

Community planning groups routinely tackle blunt questions: Does the proposal under consideration benefit the street? the neighborhood? the community? the city? the public good?  They put themselves on the line each time they resist fast-tracking and outsized projects… each time they challenge spurious claims and empty clich├ęs about "property rights" or "transit-oriented development" or "smart growth"... each time they open the debate about community benefits versus private profits.  

Which brings us back to Civic San Diego and its kiss of death.  

Does Civic San Diego – the recently-created private real estate consortium, endowed by its creator (the city of San Diego) with certain (unalienable?) rights to override, supersede, and nullify the voices of community planning groups – sabotage San Diego's longstanding public system of city planning and community planning groups?  Yes!

Is Civic San Diego's most recent proposal to become a provider of "community benefits" and "work with a diverse range of community stakeholders... on community priorities" a calculated farce to placate their critics and keep themselves in business? Yes!

City leaders created and empowered Civic San Diego as an autonomous purveyor of private development and transferred city government responsibility for planning, zoning, permits, and oversight to a private corporation.  They locked themselves, the public, and city planners out of the process.  They got it all wrong.  

They sabotaged the public's rights to be heard and oversee our own backyards.  The City Attorney's office tiptoes around the edges but appears to have serious reservations about city delegation of authority to Civic San Diego.  The courts may not be as easily intimidated by San Diego's power elite or remain sanguine about Civic San Diego's kiss of death for community planning.

City officials need to cut their losses and try to get it right.  How to do it? 

FIRST, DISASSEMBLE AND DISSOLVE CIVIC SAN DIEGO.  Land use decisions involving the future of our neighborhoods and communities belong in the hands of city officials and the public, not in the hands of San Diego's downtown landed gentry.  Contrivances like Civic San Diego take us backward to the bad-old-days of lining the pockets of the good-old-boys.   Just get rid of it.

SECOND, EXPAND THE ROLE OF COMMUNITY PLANNING GROUPS.   After a half-century history of constructive partnership between community planning groups and the city, the time is ripe to consider enlarging and extending the scope of planning groups beyond land use issues. 

"Backyard" concerns like neighborhood job creation, local crime problems, renters rights, city budget priorities, utility rates, water conservation, transit, homelessness, and government efficiency belong side-by-side with land use recommendations on the agendas of city-authorized, locally-elected, well-regulated neighborhood councils.  It's not a panacea but it is a step forward – in the right direction.

City officials unwisely transformed outlawed redevelopment agencies into Civic San Diego.  That decision should be repealed.  

Our city can get it right by wisely transforming community planning groups into top-rung public assets, namely full-purpose neighborhood councils.  

Think about it.