Until now, there wasn’t any objective understanding of the system by which the city decides where and what can be built around San Diego. Discussion around the system has been entirely anecdotal. But after a sustained push from Voice of San Diego, the city has released records from its permitting system. We’re using the newly released data to get solid answers to basic questions, and see what else we can learn about the city in the process.


Well, they weren’t wrong.

Ever since Civic San Diego, a nonprofit owned by the city, lost its primary funding source when the state ended the redevelopment program, the group has been trying to reinvent itself. Topping its list of dream jobs is to take over planning and permitting authority from the city in neighborhoods like Encanto.

SeekingApproval_1A big part of Civic San Diego’s sales pitch is that it approves development permits faster than the city’s Development Services Department. Faster approval time, the thinking goes, helps spur economic development.

Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, who represents Encanto, made the case when she was running for office.

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

“We want to make the permitting process more streamlined, to attract developers and that’s what Civic San Diego will be doing, and that will help, because investors did not want to come into our district because it took them so long to develop and it cost them so much,” she said in a KPBS interview.

Civic San Diego CEO Reese Jarrett said before he took over the group that its faster permitting could invigorate areas like Encanto or City Heights.

“We have an opportunity that creates a certainty of outcome, for potential investors and developers,” Jarrett said. “The mayor (Kevin Faulconer) has made that an essential part of his One San Diego plan, that there is certainty of outcome.”

All along, though, I kept coming up empty with a basic question. Did Civic San Diego have any evidence that it’s faster than the city at permitting new development? It didn’t. (Though no one seemed to be rushing to dispute it, either.)

Now that we have access to the city’s permitting records, we can answer that question.

Civic San Diego is faster.

This chart shows how long it took to approve development proposals that required special permission from a city official in downtown, which Civic San Diego controls, compared with how long it takes DSD to approve three types of development permits in the rest of the city.

Civic San Diego was more than twice as fast in 2013, the most recent year with useful data.

Slow down before jumping to any conclusions about what this says about the competence of city staff.

Even a Civic San Diego executive acknowledges the driving factors have more to do with downtown’s unique dynamics than it does with DSD and Civic San Diego.

Updated Plans — and Community-Wide Environmental Review

Downtown is something of an anomaly among San Diego neighborhoods. Its community plan was updated after the Clinton administration (2006 to be exact) – that makes it recent by San Diego standards.

A recent-ish plan means downtown has already gone through the process of sorting out what types of developments should go in which places.

More importantly, all the different development possibilities spelled out in that plan have already been through an environmental review. If developers propose projects in line with what’s considered in the plan, they don’t need to do another environmental review of their own.

“The largest thing driving that discrepancy is, we’ve effectively taken the (environmental review) burden off of developers,” said Brad Richter, assistant vice president of planning for Civic San Diego.

Joe LaCava, chair of the Community Planners Committee — a group that oversees community planning groups — said the same.

“Because of its new community plan and its (community-wide environmental review), you have less environmental issues,” he said. “You’ve taken that off the table.”

This is an element of downtown’s unique circumstances that can be brought to the rest of the city — regardless of whether Civic San Diego expands to handle permitting in other neighborhoods.

An environmental review covering projects up to a certain level might not be as effective in every neighborhood as it is in downtown, LaCava said, but it could still provide some relief to the rest of the city.

Downtown Is Different

“You have greater buy-in with the community what they’re trying to do downtown,” LaCava said. “You have little if any neighborhood opposition.”

Few disagree that downtown San Diego is meant to have tall buildings, dense development and an emphasis on public transportation.

Civic San Diego, unlike planners in the rest of the city, doesn’t have to approve or reject projects that make residents think their neighborhood’s character is under attack.

Laura Garrett, chair of the community group for downtown, said she can only remember a few projects where Civic San Diego approved a project that her group had opposed.

“More often than not, we are in alignment, and when we do disagree, I always feel we are listened to,” she said.

Disagreement slows things down, and Civic San Diego has less of it to deal with.

Developer Selection Bias

Downtown projects are big and expensive. It’s not a good place to cut your teeth on your first development.

Civic San Diego’s almost always dealing with relatively sophisticated developers whose plans are well ironed out before they’re submitted. Reviewers have less work to do.

“If you do a 30-story building downtown, it’ll be built by someone who knows what they’re doing,” LaCava said.

Experts in One Area

It almost seems tautological, but one of the reasons Civic San Diego is so effective downtown is that it only has to worry about downtown.

DSD must approve projects all over the city, yet every community has slightly different regulations, and slightly different reactions to new development.

“Our developers are focused on one community, they aren’t distracted by lots of different things in lots of different communities,” Richter said.

This part might not be true all that much longer. It’s been slow to happen, but Civic San Diego wants to take its same responsibilities from downtown to Encanto. It’s also discussed taking on a similar role in City Heights and San Ysidro.

Damon Crockett contributed data analysis to this story.

    This article relates to: Land Use, Must Reads, Permits

    Written by Andrew Keatts

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

    Cindy Conger
    Cindy Conger subscriber

    Civic San Diego appears to be 'taking over all the former Redevelopment' around town...that assures all of us of little 'input' and 'fast-tracking' by this 'unaccountable' group with the ability to transfer its 'created liabilities to taxpayers.' Bad news.

    Having been a Planning Board President for 5 of 6 yrs.,I've seen that many of the City's 'Planning Dept. employees' know Nothing of the Community Plans on their projects (woefully inadequate way to 'run' a business or a city!), nor are they even required to 'view' the project sites or proposals when they vary from city codes..despite 'active community understanding of the codes (& misuse),' and subsequent complaints or  requests for Code Compliance. Civic San Diego will have more of this.  As such, developers who have used 'smart growth' tenants, LED, or even 'Green' promises-avoid having to really 'do' anything to benefit the communities that, in San Diego for the past 35 yrs., have been severely 'short-changed' in any 'planning', updating of aging infrastructure or added infrastructure- as opposed to 'stated needs of' or 'demands' of wealthy hoteliers, sports teams and/or those who benefit mainly from the tourist industry. 

    We are a region that depends on its locals as well as its visitors.  Why is only 'one side' of this problem being analyzed for its 'needs'?

    In order to 'work', All of us require effective 'planning and enforcement at the city level' and our involvement to mean that we are listened to and our 'needs' responded to ...by the city...by developers..at the community level!  As an early winter '01 On Common Ground National REALTOR publication quotes extensively, "People expect more of planning nowadays. Citizens now expect to be engaged in community planning processes, and when they participate, they expect to see results."  National REALTORS did Not name their publication after 'smart growth', because of the ways, nationally, that 'development' has abused its name.  Only when local 'community needs' are Met, can 'effective growth, planned growth' or 'sustainability' truly occur.  Advice such as ONLY when you have "a mix of people who can commit ...for the long haul - you have to live land use planning before you can become an expert on it," must be followed...it IS "What Works!" Including "developers and no growthers to the group; work together!" is a 'minimum requirement' of this process...vs. the unaccountable "Civic San Diego"...a group with Zero Accountability to the Liability that the Taxpayers will end up with!  "Look at naysayers in other communities and see what they have to say...don't get stuck in the 'cookie-cutter' rut'....Involve politicians-most don't live in your city, so drive them around; let them see what's really going on. ...take account possible increases in roads, needs for busing, more fire and police, plus town water & sewer," are all parts of nationally learned 'successful processes' in 'what works' in our country.  To listen solely to developers is not only to be 'foolish', it is a recipe for Failure.

    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage subscribermember

    Managed Competition requires the City to open up the contracts for Permits at Development Services Department (DSD) to go onto the open market, not just a No-Bid contract to costly and expensive Civic San Diego staff.  Meet and Confer Negotiations with the City Unions are required. 


    From 2004 to 2011, Civic San Diego, the former CCDC, had access to unlimited Administration funds and underwrote all permit costs for Developers downtown.  From 2012 to the present for the Successor Agency administration and management,  Civic San Diego borrowed more than $25 million from the General Fund Reserves.  Civic San Diego is a Blended Component Unit of the City and part of Neighborhood Services, backed by the City's General Fund.  

    Compared City DSD is an Enterprise Fund who staff is funded by Developer Fees which run out, and have to be replaced before work can continue uninterrupted. Money to push projects  through fast is non-existent at DSD. 

    For Successor Agency work for 2012-2013, Civic San Diego borrowed $20.4 million for extra Administration costs for itself, City Attorney, Comptroller, Financial Management, etc.  Then the Comptroller wrote off and erased $20.4 million  as part of the $211 million of Successor Agency Debt erased in the FY-2013 CAFR.  See Page 11 Item 200 FY-2014 First Quarter Budget Monitoring Report December 9, 2013. 



    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage subscribermember

    Civic San Diego gets around many basic seismic planning issues. As part of the Federal Navy Broadway Complex (NBC) lawsuit, the City Attorney and Judge Ronald Prager ruled that San Diego is not subject to the State's Seismic Hazard Mapping Act (SHMA).  In the Downtown Special Study Alquist-Priolo Fault Zone, not one approved Fault Investigation with reasons for approval by the City Engineer has ever been sent to our State Geologist John Parrish to update the Seismic Hazard maps.  

    Back in 2006 then-CCDC promised to ask our State Geologist Parrish for help in conforming to Seismic Hazard laws. CCDC never called the state for guidance.  Also because the City does not have a Climate Action Plan (CAP), Civic San Diego does not have to take Sea Level Rise in San Diego Bay into consideration when approving projects. Including the already California Coastal Commission approved Convention Center Phase III Expansion. 




    Also as part of the 1992 EIR for Expansion, Civic San Diego promised to solve the downtown Homeless problems. Instead through a purposeful misinterpretation, the City Attorney and Civic SanDiego staff  ruled that Redevelopment Agency Tax Increment could not be used for the poor downtown.  

    Shameful. Nothing has changed. 

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    I have a comment and two questions.

    Issuing permits faster is not necessarily a good thing for the City. The time savings is usually achieved by cutting out or reducing public input, which allows Civic San Diego and developers the opportunity to control everything.

    My questions are:

    Why is any other entity beside the Development Services Department of our structured municipal government  in the City of San Diego allowed to approve permits?

    How did Civic San Diego obtain the authority to grant permits?