This time last year, I took a look at all the things happening in San Diego that suggested the city was accepting its role as a major metropolis and embracing urbanist thinking.

“Urbanism seems to have taken hold of San Diego in 2013,” I wrote.

That seems to have been absurd.

In the year since, some of the crumbs that led me to that conclusion have been dismantled or dismissed. New efforts aimed at making the city a more urban place, with denser development and increased use of public transportation didn’t fare well.

The biggest piece of evidence to suggest San Diego was getting serious about planning and development — the hiring of nationally renowned smart-growth champion Bill Fulton as the city’s planning director — was also the biggest counter-argument in 2014. He was welcomed with open arms in 2013.

He’s already gone. He was pushed out, left unsatisfied or took a can’t-pass-up job, depending on who you ask. He’s now running a university planning institute in Houston.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

In Fulton’s last months, Mayor Kevin Faulconer elevated the Economic Development department so Fulton no longer oversaw it and the City Council created a position above him that limited his decision-making ability.

One thing he was left in control of — the Civic Innovation Lab — was born in 2013, and shut down this year.

The brainchild of former Mayor Bob Filner and two UCSD professors, it was meant to be an ambitious mod squad working between city departments to solve urban problems.

Faulconer stripped its funding after it had only been operating a few months. His office said the four full-time employees weren’t fired – but they were.

San Diego’s pivot away from urbanism isn’t all about personnel, either.

Fulton’s planning department this spring unveiled plans in Bay Park near two planned trolley stations in the area.

The new development plan would have increased the number of homes and the height of buildings that could be built in the area. Residents did not like that idea. At all.

Former Councilman Ed Harris organized a three-hour town hall meeting for residents to protest the whole thing. The few plan supporters who got on stage were shouted down, and the city frantically tried to back away from the plan. Fulton said the city would no longer pursue an increase in building height limits, though that change isn’t official yet. A Council race under way at the time became a competition to declare who hated the plan the most.

A few months later, Fulton took the gig in Texas.

And while the city’s ever-hopeful urbanists won a second court victory in their lawsuit against the region’s transportation plan — which they say is too reliant on cars, highways and sprawl — the regional planning agency SANDAG’s board last month voted to go for one more appeal to see if they could avoid making changes to the plan.

But the news wasn’t all bad for urbanist in 2014.

Significantly, Faulconer threw his support behind the Climate Action Plan, a city outline to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions dramatically by 2035.

The plan would do that, in part, by committing the city to direct new development so that 61 percent of people living within a half mile of a major transit station — as many as 470,000 people — will walk, bike or take transit to work.

It would do that by building lots of homes in dense clusters around transit stations.

And on the micro-scale, the city did see another parklet this year, plus the imminent opening of a temporary commercial space made out of shipping containers downtown from a vacant lot, meant to revitalize the area until it can be developed.

And the city’s oft-delayed bike-share program is tentatively scheduled to open in January.

Nonetheless, 2014 showed anyone looking to make San Diego more like San Francisco, Portland or Denver that they have their work cut out for them.

Correction: The City Council created the deputy chief operating officer position prior to Faulconer taking office.

    This article relates to: Corrections, Growth and Housing, Land Use, Neighborhood Growth, News, Share

    Written by Andrew Keatts

    I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at or 619.325.0529.

    Al Scotch
    Al Scotch subscriber

    When every home will have Solar Panels on its roof. Charging the electric car every night.

    Transportation will be irrelevant to Greenhouse Gas Emission.

    Solar panels and wind turbines on the roof of a multi-family apartment building can never be enough to meet the needs of the multi-families below and will not be ENERGY COST EFFICIENT.
    But Single-family houses will be net ENERGY PRODUCERS --  when multi-family cannot.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    For Seth Hall, Catherine Green, etc. Why is supply of housing where people want to live a troubling diagnosis?

    Is it troubling to modify rational community growth plane so housing of questionable interest is concentrated hoping to justify mass transit lines that have trivial use in energy/emissions and congestion reduction?

    Some argue the best route to affordable housing is convenient reliable transportation, especially clean economical autos.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Io Mark Griffin,

    "Give em what they want-----'

    Yes, though many still want monster pickups and 500 HP sports sedans.

    Fundamental is to preserve on-demand personal direct to real destination, while savong even more energy.

    And such can be land saving publuc transportation even for non-drivers.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Some history building on CAPRSDOC’s excellent appraisal of smart growth.

    Admiration perhaps for its constancy and political leader promotion of litany, including this and other VOSD comments, for community designs and “fixes”..
    The simple theme; rejuvenate mass transit to overcome dominatautos’ unhealthful pollution as if in the 1960’s. As noted to absorb most growth. But that failed, and autos reduced emissions 60%. So in the name of sprawl reduction, smart rowth emphasis shifted to restrict already inadequate roads, and dense community lifestyle changes arranged to favor mass transit. The current Transportation Plan can be read easily to credit this, disputed trolley priority for facilities arrangement and all, for success, through 2035 for at least meeting GHG goals.

    More below.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    But even modest auto improvements make mass transit reduction of energy use and emissions trivial. Auto energy use will again be cut nearly in half starting in 2025. And preserving the personal on-demand direst to destination needed by the vast majority, these very efficient vehicles, using even less land, are a better match with more dense communities. As automation appears, this climate superior Public Personal Transportation will carry non-drivers, now principal users of mass transit.

    Isn’t it smart for a technology-driven theme change and merge efforts to produce urban transportation the public clearly wants along with community designs that emphasize productivity and social flexibility?

    Walter Chambers
    Walter Chambers subscribermember

    This article really begs the question: Is what San Diego trying to do "good" urbanism - or even urbanism at all.

    Perhaps good urbanism would be making the most of what we have now ... such as putting transit in already dense neighborhoods, instead of trying to create new dense neighborhoods around not yet built transit. 

    Or making already "urban" neighborhoods more walkable, with more pocket parks, safer/user friendly streets, and better infill development.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    @Walter Chambers 

    From Scott Shermans website............

    " Major urban development began occurring in Mission Valley in 1958, mostly because of highway improvements. Today it is an urban center of San Diego, and is home to Qualcomm Stadium, Hotel Circle and several major shopping centers and malls."

    Perhaps they should start there, figure out the problems with that "urban" experiment before they plunge headlong into Grantville.

    Walter Chambers
    Walter Chambers subscribermember

    I have a radical idea for SANDAG and SD Planning Department. Instead of trying to build dense housing around proposed transit stops, how about building transit stops where there is already dense housing? Curiously, the most dense neighborhoods in San Diego are lacking good transportation options. Radical idea or common sense? It seems that common sense IS radical these days.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Mr. Cohen,

    Yes numbers are desirable in articles like this-----including yours. But please be careful about large sounding; even double digit claims.

    The central point is mass transit travel share was, is, and will be trivial, even as planned through 2050. Numbers to ponder:
    Despite nearly 30 years and 1/3rd the total transportation budget, Its share has not reached 2%.

    Planned spending 45% of the capotal budget to 2050, travel share is 2.5%; about 5% of rowth

    Rest is primarily on-road vehicles accounting for 95% of energy and emissions reductions.
    The 1974 Era of Limits decreed mass transit would absorb furure growth. Instead it’s been 95% for onroad vehicles.
    Mexican Border specialdemographics trolley carries more than 40% despite trolley route miles more than tripled
    Total mass transit ridership same as 1957 despite about a 30% population increase.

    It’s time to look forward to to new personal transportation the public obviously wants.

    David Cohen
    David Cohen subscriber

    One would think a set-up claim that "increased use of public transportation didn’t fare well" would be followed in the article by data comparing bus, trolley, and Coaster ridership data across the past few years.

    Instead the only even-marginal journalism addressing that claim has to do with SANDAG plans and whether there will be taller buildings near a few trolley stops. Surely you could do more, and if not you should have done less by making no claim about public transit USE.

    Bill Henderson
    Bill Henderson subscriber

    "It would do that by building lots of homes in dense clusters around transit stations."

    The X-factor that makes urban transit successful is proximity to job centers. Unless the majority of the people who live in those "dense clusters" work someplace that is close to another transit station, they will probably get in their cars to go to work in a myriad of locations in the metropolitan area. Will that really significantly reduce GHG emission? 

    A more practical solution might be to seek ways to encourage more people to telecommute to work.

    Another proven method to reduce congestion and pollution: coordinated traffic signals.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    @Bill Henderson 

    "A more practical solution might be to seek ways to encourage more people to telecommute to work."

    The organization my wife works for tried this but eliminated it because they felt they had lost control over monitoring work load and felt too many were abusing it.

    It was a shame as the added benefits, besides gained commute time, made home more easy to manage.

    The commute time of the equation is huge especially when you have kids.

    msginsd subscriber

    "That seems to have been absurd."

    No more absurd than the idea that some  "reporter" can act like an expert and offer opinions as facts.  As David Cohen states, there is plenty of development, including infill, going on all around the city.  But pointing out that would offer a counter view to the "reporter's" agenda and render yet another VoSD "story" as moot.  Guess that kind of balance doesn't generate enough donations from the kool aid drinkers.

    CAPRSDOC subscriber

    Though Smart Growth may have some new and innovative ideas about how to increase density in urban areas through infill development for example, the strategies developed to reduce GHG emissions really don't work. Also, Smart Growth focuses on environmental, social, and  economic dimensions of planning but completely ignores the political (whether the public will comply) and financial (the costs associated) dimensions. Even the dimensions it does address, fall short. Studies show that if you create priority development areas, the price of housing goes up. If car lanes are removed to allow for more bike use, congestion goes up and so does pollution and GHG emissions. Environmentalists pushing for this planning ideology have a "It's our way or the highway" attitude (Excuse the pun) and with this attitude they forgo an important debate on whether or not Smart Growth/New Urbanism/City of Villages is entirely appropriate for San Diego. Read this report Dimensions of Sustainability published by the American Coalition of Sustainable Communities created for the 2012 League of Cities Convention Expo.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @CAPRSDOC "If car lanes are removed to allow for more bike use, congestion goes up and so does pollution and GHG emissions."

    The report you linked to doesn't say that removing car lanes increases congestion, pollution, or GHG emissions. It only says that congestion increases pollution and GHG emissions.

    In fact, as you remove lanes, pollution and GHG emissions will drop, because if you remove all the lanes, there will be no place for cars to drive and therefore no way for them to create any pollution or GHG emissions.

    CAPRSDOC subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann @CAPRSDOC The inference is there. Assuming people do not wish to stop driving their cars...if car lanes are removed, traffic inevitably increases. When there is traffic, cars slow down and emissions go up. 

    "if you remove all the lanes, there will be no place for cars to drive and therefore no way for them to create any pollution or GHG emissions." Your comment here is exactly to my point. There is no political dimension taken into account here. What are your ideas for getting people out of their cars in San Diego?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @CAPRSDOC We show favoritism to drivers when we force business and property owners to provide more parking than the market wants and is willing to pay for. We do it again when we pay for the roads from sales taxes like the TransNet half cent sales tax instead of 100% through gas taxes and user fees. Ending this big-government favoritism for driving would probably result in less driving.

    Jafa subscriber

    Why would we want To make San Diego more like San Francisco, Portland or Denver?

    Marcus Bush
    Marcus Bush subscriber

    @Jafa Why would we want to make San Diego more like Los Angeles, Houston, or Phoenix?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Jafa That's a good point. I think a better role model for San Diego (currently 4,003 people per square mile) would be Nice, France (12,000) or Barcelona, Spain (41,420).

    Jafa subscriber

    Why try to be like someplace else? We have our own history, culture, unique environment. I agree with promoting good public transportation, biking and walking, but I don't agree that increasing the number of housing units per acre is going to make that happen. Ever notice how many of the folks who have moved into the new apartments and condos in the urban neighborhoods near downtown come with multiple extended cab trucks?

    David Cohen
    David Cohen subscriber

    I don't dispute that, but when we (retired and) relocated here to a highrise condo adjacent to Balboa Park 10 years ago it took us less that one year to decide we needed only one car and to sell our other one.

    wadams92101 subscriber

    Good summary although the Bay Park backlash is overblown. 

    PBOly subscriber

    I agree with @wadams92101. I think the "Bay Park experience"  was ignited by people losing their views.  It doesn't take much to start a wildfire and that is what happened when the City proposed raising the height limit.  The media continues to stoke the fire by referring to this as a consensus against smart growth. 

    David Cohen
    David Cohen subscriber

    Residential units are being built again in Downtown and Uptown, including infill. The central core of the City is increasing in population density. That denotes increased urbanism.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    " Nonetheless, 2014 showed anyone looking to make San Diego more like San Francisco, Portland or Denver that they have their work cut out for them."

    Would certainly be an interesting poll to see if San Diegans Think "density" is a dirty word or not.


    Sara_K subscribermember

    Mayor Faulconer has a new chance to lead on climate and urbanism, assuming he prefers a fresh start: he can advocate for and approve a truly transit-first Regional Transportation Plan using his prominent role at at SANDAG.