This story has been updated.

Here’s a newish urban planning buzzword: lean urbanism.

So how is it different than tactical urbanism or new urbanism or smart growth or transit-oriented design or any of the other bits of euphemism used to describe new projects?

This one refers to projects that are small, can be approved quickly and can revitalize areas (or change them, depending on your perspective) without going through large-scale fights. Small projects don’t just mean faster decisions, they also limit the effects of gentrification or strain on local resources, proponents say.

It’s similar to the tactics used by a group of architect-developers associated with the Woodbury School of Architecture and Design in Barrio Logan, who’ve completed a number of projects in the city’s first ring of urban neighborhoods mostly by building within the confines of existing community plans and zoning regulations.

They make a habit of not asking for variances or plan amendments that would rope in decision-making entities like the planning commission or City Council.

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

That’s why nationally renowned urban planner Andres Duany came here to learn from them.

He’s received a $600,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to study and spread the “lean urbanism” movement, and came to San Diego for two days because developer-architects like Ted Smith and Michael Burnett are actively practicing it, even if they don’t use the term to describe their work.

Here are four highlights from a few hours spent listening to Duany and San Diego’s architect-developers talk about “lean urbanism.”

Make “red tape” into “pink areas.”

What people can build and where they can build it comes down to what’s written in the city’s development code.

Smith, who runs the Woodbury school, teaches his students to fly under the radar, to build as much as they can without causing commotion.

Master the city’s development regulations, build as much as the building code lets you without seeking special approval and call it a day, he says.

Duany refers to this type of thinking as finding “pink areas” in the development code, or finding areas where red tape has been lightened over the years (read: regulations have been weakened) by previous precedent-setting decisions.

You might think that’d mean Smith wants the city to change its regulations to make it even more permissive, but he tells his students not to bother with that fight.

“I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Yeah we want all that fixed, but … I don’t want turmoil. I’m all about status quo. I know where the magic is. And the more we mess with it, the more I lose the advantages in the ordinance that allow this room to be a porch, instead of a living room.”

The meeting was held in a Smith-designed building, in a room that qualifies by the city’s definition as an outdoor porch, even though it looks and feels like an indoor room, because it doesn’t have things like heating or insulation. By playing with the city’s zoning rules, he can find chances to build more living area but at a smaller cost and on his terms.

San Diego is ahead of a national trend.

San Diego’s architect-developers have lessons for like-minded urbanists all over the country, Duany said.

“Your regulatory environment is so heavy, and has been so heavy for so long, that you have some of the most sophisticated bypasses in the country,” Duany said. “You’ve actually figured out how to get around things. The rest of America is just getting the regulation, and you’re getting past the regulation. You’ve been incredibly innovative here, based on some of the things I’ve heard.”

Regulations are in place for a reason.

San Diego’s former City Architect Michael Stepner, who now teaches at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design, served as a dissenting voice throughout the talk.

His main point: Lean urbanism proponents need to acknowledge that the regulations they see as mindless were put in place for specific reasons.

“Architecture is not about drawing blueprints,” he said. “It’s a political process, it’s a social art, and we have to be engaged … I teach politics. Politics is development. (Architects) can complain all they want about some regulation, or some rule, that affects them, but the fact of the matter is if they’re not there to change that rule, then they deserve it. Every regulation in every city and every municipality in this country and everywhere else has a constituency. Because somebody built something that was a real piece of crap, and they identified it as a problem and they created a whole set of rules around it. And we have to get rid of that, because many of them are counter-productive, but we have to be engaged in order to do that.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misattributed the You Are Here apartment project to Ted Smith.

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    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.

    Peter Brownell
    Peter Brownell subscriber

    So should we follow Houston's example and not have any zoning at all?

    If you talk to neighbors of Foundation for Form's "You've Got Mail" project at the former North Park Post Office, I think you'll find that they are pretty uniformly shocked that the developer was able to build at a height that towers over everything for blocks without so much as a public notice.  Yes, it is what the zoning allows, but you've got to read a lot of fine print to figure that out.

    I actually think there is some value to a process in which design professionals present their design to the community and get feedback, even if they are not required to make accommodations. Somehow I think that's more than just "red tape."

    And I am still totally in the dark about how "You've Got Mail" is going to provide the required parking for 33 units and 5000 sq. ft. of retail. Presumably they've got a plan which meets the City's requirements, but no one in the neighborhood is clear on what that plan is, because they've never presented it to us.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Peter Brownell It need not be a choice between oppressive zoning versus unrestricted freedom. As long as negative externalities are corrected, zoning is not necessary.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    What a great concept. Build what the community wants, in a manner that comply with the community plan and doesn't demand exemptions in order to cram more density or height into the neighborhood than the neighborhood wants. No muss, no fuss, no problems with regulations or red tape. Why can't the other developers figure this strategy out and follow it?

    Bill subscriber

    @Jim JonesYou surely are familiar with my own favorite ancient people, the Garamantes of the Fezzan, what is to us Saharan Libya. Where most built up, they built down. The Garamantes' knowledge of hydraulics was unequaled, archaeological evidence indicates, until the modern era. The Romans, no slouches when it came to engineering, clearly imported Garamantean engineers to build some underground irrigation in, if my memory serves, Spain.

    "Thousands of years" may be stretching it, though, depending on the size of the population and amount of untapped water underground. Garama got a good 6-plus certuries on their run, though.

    Without doubt, the coolest of all ancient peoples.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    "Lean urbanism proponents need to acknowledge that the regulations they see as mindless were put in place for specific reasons."

    That's true. Richard Willson (1996) surveyed planning directors in 144 cities to learn how they set parking requirements. The two most frequently cited methods were "survey nearby cities" and "consult Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) handbooks".

    So the "specific reason" this particular regulation was put into place is because other places have the same regulation or because it's written down in some standards book somewhere. But that's not a very satisfying reason.

    Andy Kopp
    Andy Kopp subscribermember

    @Derek Hofmann sure, but for every one regulation based on "standard", is another regulation with a genuine local constituency. The Mid-City Interim Height Ordinance, for example, doesn't exist because planners merely copied all the construction codes of other medium-sized cities. I disagree with it, but the proponents of the ordinance are sincere in their desire to maintain low rise buildings to preserve a perceived character in their neighborhoods. I think this is the point Mr. Stepner was trying to make. And he's right, some of these are obvious and fair political disagreements.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Andy Kopp Taller buildings bring the city more net tax revenue per unit than shorter buildings. But because each neighborhood has to pay the full cost in traffic congestion, crime, noise, littering, and so on, and then has to turn around and share the tax revenue with the rest of the city and county, of course the individual neighborhoods will oppose something that would benefit the greater good.

    Fix the tax code to make each neighborhood more self-sufficient, and even Mid-City might take a second look at their height ordinance.

    So you can say this is an example of a regulation with a genuine local constituency, but really it's a predictable result of a bad public policy.

    Sharon Gehl
    Sharon Gehl subscribermember

    @Derek Hofmann

    The City of San Diego agrees that new developments should pay toward the facility improvements needed because of their project. The City therefor charges each new project a DIF fee that goes toward local facility upgrades. Increases in property taxes that result from the project go into the City General Fund to be spent city wide.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Sharon Gehl Facility improvements will not do much for crime, noise, or littering, so neighborhoods will continue to oppose investments that benefit the greater good. I'm not blaming them--it's a perfectly rational response to a bad public policy.

    And if the city stopped forcing developers to overbuild their parking lots, there would be less traffic (and less crime, noise, and littering), and then the city wouldn't also have to force developers to pay so much to widen the streets. This would increase investment in our neighborhoods.

    The whole situation is pretty ridiculous.