Reviving San Diego's City of Villages
By Lisa Ross
March 13, 2003
The only thing worse than the proverbial camel that was a horse created
by a committee is a shrunken camel-not only is it stupid looking, but
it cannot do the job for which it was designed.
San Diego's tragically battered Strategic Framework Plan, the City of
Villages, is gasping for survival after a serious drought of grass roots
political support and a bleeding city budget forced the Mayor to emasculate
the plan last fall by dumping the density element.
The Mayor and the five council members who went along with him by prematurely
passing the City of Villages plan sorely miss the point. The public upset
at the City of Villages is as much about density, as the public's hatred
of the stadium deal is about a ticket guarantee. Both are convenient sound
The problem with City of Villages has everything to do with the public's
lack of confidence that city government will stick to the principles promised
in the plan and protect the taxpayer pocketbook along the way. That is
precisely why Councilman Maienschein, a fiscal conservative and a community
advocate, voted against it.
For the past three years, people who love to talk planning and public
policy spent a lot of expensive time convincing each other that the best
way to handle a projected population increase of over a million new people
is to walk the next generation away from the California American dream:
the car and a single family home.
A very skillful public relations effort appeared to have achieved unprecedented
consensus from business groups, builders, environmentalists, and all manner
of planning policy wonks supporting a vision of multi-family housing around
transit, walkable retail and employment centers, and with any luck, some
public space and a park or two.
And then it came apart when hundreds of real people showed up at the City
of Villages City Council hearings with a volume of questions about the
plan from which a single theme could be discerned---what guarantees did
we have that we the goodies come with the baddies.
These were the real people who live in neighborhoods under siege as the
city's Development Services Department approves one un-village-like project
after another under commercial zoning rules so inclusive that plans for
a Starbucks can change to a gas station mini-art, commercial buildings
can double in size and big-box shopping centers easily replace walkable
No wonder they fear losing their communities to a different kind of sprawl--the
kind that heads upward instead of outward.
The easiest political solution was to cut the density requirements to
make the plan less scary, seduce in a few more interests for support,
and just make this political nightmare go away.
But, it is density that makes smart growth and the "new urbanism"
tick, we were told---including creating those much touted public transportation
corridors, increasing housing stock to seriously address affordability,
giving incentive for snappy mixed-use projects with street level retail,
and generating building fees to pay for the adorable public squares promised
by this new urbanism.
The Mayor could have risked losing the fragile coalition of interests
supporting City of Villages by withholding approval of this drastic plan
for San Diego's future until the several details that might actually create
an exciting plan were achieved, including a financing plan that encourages
private investment and a revamped Development Services Department responsive
to the public.
Now, having passed the doctrine without the guts and guarantees, communities
and the taxpayer are facing their worst nightmares: over glandular commercial
buildings towering over neighborhoods, stacked apartment buildings circling
big box shopping centers, assaults on the 30 foot coastal height limit
and further desecration of coastal canyons. All this with little public
The Mayor and the Council could revive the moribund City of Villages plan
by considering a few profound changes in the planning process.
1) Bring the Planning and Development Services Departments out from the
dark recesses of the City Managers offices and back under their umbrella
where the departments lived in the full light of public view until 1991.
Few could say that the twelve year experiment has done much to speed the
permitting process, and most should admit it has eroded public confidence
in the city's planning capabilities.
2) Reform the city's Community Planning Group process to strengthen their
credibility. Although serving as advisory bodies, planning groups are
the voice of neighborhoods. Members should be elected at the polls instead
of in libraries to increase representation and they should be subject
to the same conflict of interest disclosure rules as other advisory groups
in the city.
3) Articulate a clear policy and consistent guidelines governing the
ministerial Substantial Review process. In today's climate, major projects
can metamorphose into completely different animals with the flick of a
Development Services project manager's pen, while builders of small projects
must walk over the coals of public review to add a bathroom or shift a
Gutting the core of the City of Villages Plan by slicing density simply
threw a flawed plan in a broken system into a political quagmire. The
Mayor and Council need to breathe life into the Strategic Plan, soon.
Only in a Village of Idiots would a little camel pass for the real thing.
is a writer and former three-term member of the Carmel Valley Planning
Board. She can be reached at www.lisaross.com.