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Down with the Plan?
Opinions mixed on dissolution of San Diego's planning department.
Aerial view of central San Diego.
Courtesy Port of San Diego

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders’ decision to fold the city’s planning department into the city’s department of development services looks risky at best, according to seasoned San Diego design and planning professionals. First announced in January, the merger was approved by the city council in June and took effect on July 1.

Until now the city’s pro-active planning model has been similar to models used in Boston, Seattle, San Antonio, Austin, and Portland—all cities recognized for effective planning and high-quality urban development. San Diego won awards from the American Planning Association and the Urban Land Institute for its 2008 overhaul of the city’s general plan. But in his state of the city address in January, Mayor Sanders claimed that merging planning with development services would “save as much as $1 billion by eliminating duplication.”

Bill Anderson, who was the city’s Planning Director before resigning in May, sees pros and cons in the new arrangement. “We will benefit by having California Environmental Quality Act issues tied more to development. Also, with the staff for land development code under development services instead of in a separate planning department, things may be more efficient,” he said. However, Anderson cautioned, “Now planning becomes a more conventional regulatory process, rather than a pro-active community planning and development department.” Currently a principal and vice president at AECOM, Anderson left his position with the city largely because of the impending merger.

“At first glance, the re-organization seems like a bad idea,” said local architect Teddy Cruz, who works on both sides of the Mexican border.  “What we need is the opposite: more power for planning to operate experimentally and be more agile in implementing planning processes. San Diego has already perpetuated the same urban equations—big malls, privatization and homogenization of the environment.”

“The thing about development services is that they are customer focused, that’s their mission. But planning had a long term vision and role, and the concern is how the long- term vision works when customer service is a priority,” added San Diego architect Eric Naslund, who chairs the city’s planning commission. By “vision” Naslund says he is thinking of things like protecting natural and historical resources, and having a strong influence on urban design.

Under San Diego’s new model, Development Services Director Kelly Broughton assumes Anderson’s former responsibilities. Broughton is highly regarded by many planners. Anderson says Broughton is capable of implementing the 2008 general plan, which includes important community plan updates. “His experience is more in regulation—he wrote the land development code—and permitting,” Anderson said. “He has to change modes to think about implementation.”

Dirk Sutro