January 2, 2014 by Omar Passons
I got the above 1930 photo from John Fry’s website. There is a ton of cool stuff on his site and I am grateful for his efforts. I led with that photo because this post is about how communities evolve, so a historic look is a nice start. I was asked by a fellow lover of the San Diego region, Walter Chambers, why the community plan updates in Greater North Park, Greater Golden Hill (which includes South Park) and Uptown are so important and why the January 9, 2014, scoping meeting at Balboa Park is a very important moment in the process. He runs Great Streets San Diego, please check out that site to see examples of how he helps push for smarter communities. I only have a little time, so this is going to be a crash course on our Community Plan Updates and why they matter, here goes…
First, for some historical context, check out this post, which has links to every large visioning effort that has happened in San Diego in the last century. Scroll down a bit for the bullet list. It isn’t exactly the point of the community plan updates, but the overarching theme here is planning for what we want to be as a community in the future. Okay, let’s get to it.
This photo helps frame an important part of the conversation. On the one hand, this photo shows a “remodel” of a Jack in the Box that had been in the community since the 60s when drive thrus were allowed by zoning law. On the other hand, the community and the city changed the area zoning law to prohibit drive thru establishments in this area so that it would be more bike and pedestrian-friendly. Jack in the Box could keep its drive thru as long as it didn’t try to tear down the whole building and the idea behind that is that we don’t want to punish businesses who were already in existence when we changed the rules. However, this brings me to point number one of why the Community Plan Updates (and the January 9th meeting) are so important:
Point #1: Our city is set up to allow community and business to work together for future planning – but this only happens if everyone participates.
Planning gives us a chance to think about how many parks we think are appropriate. This is a complicated question that involves making sure the city’s standards for the right amount of parks is up to date. For North Park and Golden Hill at least, it also involves thinking about how much of Balboa Park/Morley Field should be counted towards our park requirements. This part of the discussion is massively important because parks aren’t free. They cost money to build, money to maintain, money to staff, and at least for urban areas they cost money to obtain because most land already has something on it.
I put the picture of the water tower at the North Park Community Park both because it’s a place I’ve put alot of personal time into improving and because it also symbolizes the importance of history in our planning. The crumbling adult center building pictured in the foreground was initially set to be demolished a few years ago but the city hasn’t had the money to make that happen since redevelopment went away. The story is more complicated than that, but the point to realize is as we think about what we do with our buildings and how we get enough park space, the financial issues play a very significant role. You can’t see it in this photo, but part of this park/recreation area is also the subject of a joint use agreement between the city and the school district. These agreements allow the city to make more park space available by working with the school district to share play areas that are used by schools during the day then by communities in the evening and on weekends. This is another tool in the toolbox for planning for our future and it brings us to the next important point:
Point #2: Standards for how much park space is appropriate impact the costs of getting those parks in place and creative solutions like joint use agreements can help if you want more parks. But showing up to the January 9, 2014, meeting is important to make sure you know if these issues are being considered.
Infrastructure is way more than sidewalks, but this photo helps make an important point about out city: as we plan for the future in our communities, thinking about how we fix and maintain the skeleton of our neighborhoods is vital. Sometimes we can get our pipes and bike paths and things paid for when a company wants to build a new apartment complex or commercial building. Sometimes the city has to just save for a rainy day and bite the bullet. The Community Plan Update process can help you as a community member, small business owner or just concerned citizen actually make sure that we have a plan for how to improve our communities – and what kind of improvements we actually want.
Another big reason to attend the Community Plan Update scoping meeting on January 9, 2014, is that the plan impacts what will happen on streets like El Cajon Boulevard, 30th Street and University – all major parts of the connective tissue for our communities. You may have noticed the construction along El Cajon Boulevard. Well SANDAG is upgrading parts of the road to make it more friendly for transit. It is also working with dozens of community groups on two major bike plan efforts in Uptown and North Park. I know (in this case because I voted for it on our planning committee) that the North Park Planning Committee favors a plan supported by the business associations in the area and many residents to put cycle tracks from 30th and Adams all the way south to create a more pedestrian and bike friendly route along an important connective street. This brings us to the next important point:
Point #3: Participating in the Community Plan Update process will allow you to weigh in on which types of infrastructure the city should prioritize in these communities. That way, whether you think alternative transportation or commerce or the environment or just plain old safety is most important, you can be sure the community plans reflect those considerations.
Finally, understand that these scoping meetings are about making sure environmental considerations that impact everyone in the communities are accounted for. My neighbor Dennis O’Connor is one of the owners of Thorn Street Brewery in the area many locals now call T-32. It’s more formally known as part of the Altadena neighborhood and, like many areas in mid-city, residents and businesses are in pretty close quarters. Most of my friends know that I love San Diego Craft Beer. Not just because the creative and innovative brewers make interesting beer, but because, like Dennis did with this sign and so many others are doing in communities across San Diego, our 82 craft breweries actually promote community. They get eyes (and lights) on the street, they encourage neighbors to walk or ride bikes and they hire people who live in the communities where they operate. Craft breweries in San Diego are an example of true catalysts for community change. But as with any business, there is a need to make sure the residents who are raising families and enjoying retirement and going about their lives are able to live well even in close proximity to high-volume businesses. For businesses to thrive, they need customers, so this conversation also impacts the types of residential construction we want to encourage and where we want to encourage it. The more people we account for, all other things being equal, the better our local businesses can compete and thrive. This dynamic comes with trade-offs and showing up to these key meetings helps ensure that the city is accounting for your views on the future. This brings us to the next important point:
Point #4: Engaging in key parts of the Community Plan Update process helps maximize harmony between community residents and the businesses we need to have our communities thrive. This is especially true in the urban areas covered by these three plan updates.
There are lots of very easy-to-read sources on our community planning and why it matters. Helpful pieces I like are this one and this one by Andy Keatts of Voice of San Diego. One of the best reads you can find to get your mind around what’s going on is this piece by Howard Blackson, a local planning expert and general good guy. He’s at the leading edge of thinking about how to plan for a more responsible, more active, more interesting urban space and has helped cities across the country really change the way they prepare for the future.
What’s at stake in all this isn’t just some loose notion about letting government workers decide who can put a business where or allowing NIMBY control over every new decision. The stakes are MUCH bigger than that. Two important takeaways:
First, the controversy like the one over the One Paseo project (one side and the other side) in northern San Diego is at least in part because the community plan that sets the tone (and the legal requirements) for what is appropriate to build in the area is so massively out of date. If we are to have new development in the coming 20 years in a way that most residents and businesses can live with, the community plan update process is pretty important. I am a land use and construction attorney, and I’m a volunteer on my own Community Planning Group and Neighborhood Association. So I see the very real impacts on the cost of doing business for actual clients who would love to build affordable housing or environmentally thoughtful projects but get stuck on outdated standards for parking or growth. And at the same time I see what happens when neighbors try to create the community they want to live in and failures to enforce existing laws derail those efforts. It’s complicated, but showing up (or submitting comments to DSDEAS@sandiego.gov with subject line: Comments about “Community Plan Updates for Uptown, North Park and Greater Golden Hill communities” by 1/23/14) is the only way to make sure your voice is heard.
Second, and this doesn’t get talked about nearly enough, our city no longer has the money to build and maintain public buildings, roads, storm drains, sewer pipes, sidewalks and bike paths using the models it has in the past. We must fundamentally change the way our cities grow so that new development (and redevelopment of existing buildings) no longer leads to streets we can’t afford to fix and transportation that doesn’t efficiently connect people to their jobs, their shops and their recreation activities – whether on foot, by car, or like I did today down a nice bike path along Harbor Drive – by bike.
There’s a lot in this post, and it didn’t end up being as short as I’d hoped. But hopefully the links and the concepts helped frame why taking an active interest in the Community Plan Update process – at least at the key stages – is important not just for the communities we have now, but the ones we’ll have in 10, 20 or 30 years. Thanks for reading (about this site).