Anthony King | Downtown Assistant Editor
Voice of San Diego CEO Scott Lewis sat down with the city’s new Planning Director Bill Fulton at Politifest Aug. 3 in Point Loma to talk about one of the things the former mayor of Ventura, Calif. was hired for: planning neighborhoods.
The discussion touched on several general topics, including the status of current Community Plan Updates, issues of density and infrastructure and the proposed lid over state Route 94.
First however, Fulton laid out exactly why he chose to stay in the position after the sexual-harassment scandal that marred Mayor Bob Filner’s last two months in office, which saw several other Filner appointees leave.
“The vision that has been laid out to focus on the neighborhoods and revitalize some of the neighborhoods that have been overlooked, those challenges remain and they are just as relevant and just as significant as ever,” Fulton said. “I don’t want to walk away from that.”
Filner appointed Fulton planning director in June, and Fulton moved into the position July 8, four weeks before the Politifest discussion and almost two months before Filner’s resignation was final. Fulton is a nationally recognized urban planning expert, publisher of the California Planning & Development Report and, most recently, the former vice president of Smart Growth America, a think tank that promotes urban development.
“The challenges and the opportunities that I was presented with when the Mayor asked me to take that job, those are unchanged,” Fulton said.
It was smart growth – a term used to describe denser neighborhoods surrounding amenities like businesses and transit instead of suburban sprawl – that Lewis initially discussed, moving into a conversation about existing community plans.
San Diego is currently updating nine community plans, which will in turn direct the city’s overall General Plan. There are four Community Plan Updates in Uptown – the Greater Gold Hill Community Plan, North Park Community Plan, Old Town Plan and Uptown Community Plan – and several in South San Diego, including the Barrio Logan, Encanto, Otay Mesa and San Ysidro community plans. Ocean Beach is also being updated, among others.
The plans will provide a “framework for the future,” Fulton said, for both “public investment and private development” in the communities.
“In my mind, we will do some great plans. We will listen to the community,” he said. “Some communities will be more interested in having more development than others, and that’s fine. We will focus that additional development in the right locations as much as we can”
One of the biggest obstacles in planning for San Diego’s future is the city’s current infrastructure deficit, or backlog of larger capital projects that Community Plans can address. Some estimate the deficit reaches over $890 million, and Fulton called it the “single-biggest challenge” in the region’s growth.
“If we are going to put additional growth in the right locations in the neighborhoods, mostly in transit-rich locations around the city, we’re going to have to address the infrastructure problem as well,” he said.
In Uptown, with some community planners eschewing higher density and growth, Fulton said it was better to be prepared for what he said was inevitable.
“In my experience of 30 years in California, what I have found is that when a community tries to deny that growth is going to occur, that backfires,” Fulton said. “To simply try to deny that it’s gonna happen usually means it’s gonna happen anyway, and it doesn’t happen as well as it could.”
Fulton worked on the North Park Update several years ago as a consultant, and now lives in Little Italy. He said he is “intensely involved in the communities and neighborhoods,” every day.
“Our goal is to balance the interests in each neighborhood against the interests of the city as a hole,” he said. He also said his goal was to move the plans along faster and to make the plans target changes more effectively.
Heading into Downtown, for example, Fulton acknowledged that a lid or cap over SR 94, as part of the planned Express Lanes Project, was something residents really want.
“That’s something that’s under discussion. It’s a very expensive thing to do,” he said, adding that a similar proposal is being considered in Ventura. “As we move forward and we build more stuff, that … can help to repair our neighborhoods, rather than further damage them.”