One way to avoid big fights between developers and communities is for the city to play mediator before a project is even proposed.

Updating community plans is meant to do exactly this. A fresh blueprint calls out stuff neighborhoods need and paves the way for a reasonable amount of new development to help satisfy a growing region.

NeighborhoodWatchDone right, it saves everyone involved — developers, residents and the city — lots of time and money, because some of the biggest and ugliest development fights never happen.

The city knows this. That’s why it’s spent more than $15 million over the last 13 years trying to update community plans in 12 neighborhoods, including Barrio Logan, North Park, Encanto, San Ysidro and Ocean Beach.

But the city has just one fully adopted plan to show for it.

This fix for delay and dysfunction within communities has itself been marked by delay and dysfunction. It’s been plagued by poor consultant management, trying to do more work than is really necessary, bad decisions and inconsistent funding.

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

Now, the city’s starting new updates in Mission Valley, Clairemont Mesa and Kearny Mesa. Planners say they’ve learned their lesson and this batch will be different.

How We Fell Behind

In 2008, San Diego finished putting together its citywide outline for new development, called the general plan.

It solidified “city of villages” as the mantra for growth. For the good of the environment and its own economy, the plan said, the city needed new housing located along transit corridors and near job centers.

That marked a big change in where development was supposed to go. Instead of new homes cropping up in the city’s northern and eastern edges, they were now targeted for long-established neighborhoods near the city’s core.

But when the general plan was finished, those urban neighborhoods weren’t ready to accept the new growth they were supposed to have. The development guidelines in those neighborhoods had been collecting dust.

San Diego Community Plans

Since 2008, efforts to rewrite those plans haven’t amounted to much.

In December 2012, well into the process, the planning department tried to explain why things were taking so long. It set new deadlines for each community. It’s since blown past all those deadlines, too.


Some of the delays came, ironically, from the planning department’s bad planning.

The department acknowledges it didn’t handle technical things like traffic and environmental studies appropriately. It wasted lots of time trying to be too detailed with both of them.

And it wasted more time locking up consultants to complete those studies. Every time the department needed to hire an outside firm, it issued a call to everyone who might be interested, ran a full selection process and negotiated a new contract. Every one took about a year to process, city officials said.

Delays often came down to money. When the economy tanked, so did the city’s budget, and funding for plan updates went away.

“You had the city go through a really difficult financial time where there weren’t resources to hire the people and complete those community plan updates,” said David Graham, the city’s COO in charge of planning. “To some extent, they were effectively suspended for a period of time.”

Of the $15.36 million the city’s spent trying to update community plans, 44 percent—or $6.8 million—has gone to contractors. The rest has paid for staff time and administrative costs directly related to working on the updates.

But nothing exemplifies the city’s missteps more than what happened when it tried to simultaneously update plans in North Park, Uptown and Golden Hill.

Planning staff refers to that bunch of updates as “the cluster” because the neighborhoods are contiguous, not because it’s been a disaster. Both definitions of “cluster” fit the description of what’s happened.

Come July, the city will have spent five years updating the cluster.

To date, planners till haven’t released final drafts for the plans — preliminary decisions on zoning maps, economic studies and policy determinations that go into environmental review and are the basis for future debate.

“It’s obvious we need to acknowledge it has taken way, way too long,” said Nancy Bragado, the city’s deputy director for long-range planning.

The communities themselves are past antsy.

“I can say, for us, this is getting stale,” said Leo Wilson, chair of Uptown’s community planning group. “You’re hearing the same comments and conversations we’ve already had. It’s time to get a draft out.”

Bragado agrees. That’s one thing the city’s learned: It’s possible to have too much community input.

Vicki Granowitz, chair of the North Park planning group, had always hoped the group could get each section of the plan as it was finished, so it could provide detailed feedback on each one. Now, it looks like it’s getting a full dump all at once, just what Granowitz feared.

“Now it’s going to be rush, rush, rush to get it done,” she said. “Honestly, I’m ready for it to be over, but I’m concerned that we get it right.”

The North Park, Uptown, Golden Hill experience has convinced the city it shouldn’t try to handle adjacent neighborhoods as a group.

“We shouldn’t call them clusters,” Bragado said. “You have different communities, different planning groups and different consultants. You should treat them individually. That’s a lesson learned.”

The city says drafts are coming by the end of the month, and it hopes to start having final public hearings on the plan next summer. That’d give it a chance of finishing before the end of 2016, eight years after it started the process.

The city’s pulled together some other improvements it hopes will lead to better results for its next batch of updates in Mission Valley, Clairemont Mesa and Kearny Mesa.

It says three years is its new benchmark to get a new plan written.

Getting Better

Some of the reasons plans haven’t been fully completed weren’t because of anything city planners did.

The City Council approved a new plan for Barrio Logan in September 2013. Then the shipbuilding industry funded a campaign to veto it, and voters overturned the plan last June.

And the Ocean Beach plan is effectively finished. The Council approved it last summer, 13 years after the update started. It’ll become official once the Coastal Commission signs off.

Beyond figuring out that community input eventually reaches diminishing returns, the city’s learned other lessons it hopes will make things go smoother.

• Managing Consultants

City staff relies on consultants for a lot of the technical work that requires specific expertise for each plan. In the cluster, for instance, the city spent $664,347 with outside firms.

“We had a previous philosophy to use a lot of consultants for creative balance, to create a diversity of ideas,” Bragado said. “It was an administrative nightmare.”

Rather than planning, planners spent their time juggling contracts and shuffling paperwork for every project.

And they needed to go through the yearlong process each time they needed some consultant work. The city’s adopted a new system it hopes will address the problem. It’s inking five-year contracts with a small list of consultants in three different areas: environmental work, traffic engineering and general land-use planning.

Since all the consultants are under contract, the city can just issue them work assignments for whatever they need. The only requirement is that they all end up with the same amount of work at the end of five years.

Bragado said it could shorten the wait-time to approve contract work from a year to a month.

• Do Less

Granowitz, the North Park chair, said the city spent too much time planning for areas that weren’t going to change, anyway.

“They were overambitious,” she said. “Instead of saying we are going to rewrite the whole plan, let’s admit what doesn’t need to be rewritten. They could have saved an enormous amount of time.”

It gets back to the city’s acknowledgment that it was going into too much detail on traffic and environmental reports.

Bragado said city planners were accustomed to doing traffic and environmental studies for specific projects, not entire communities.

For a specific project, they’d try to figure out every car-related impact it would have on the surrounding area. They tried to bring that same precision to every intersection in every community.

Now planners are shifting their focus to key, representative intersections and places they know are going to be home to lots of new development.

“It’s about getting the right balance of analysis,” Bragado said.

It’s the same story on environmental analysis.

One big benefit of new community plans is having environmental oversight for new development done upfront. That saves developers the time and money of doing it themselves, and residents know ahead of time what’s permitted and what benefits they’ll get in exchange.

But too often, Bragado said, the city tried to cover every possible project that might ever be proposed.

“Our standard now is (do enough environmental review) to cover reasonably expected development, with a bit more done in village areas to act as incentive to develop there,” she said.

Developers that want to build more than that will have to handle it on their own, but they’ll build off of the city’s review for a less intensive development.

The city’s also trying to build a data-driven rubric to decide which communities need new updates the most.

“If there are a lot of amendment requests, something’s wrong,” Bragado said.

But first, it hopes to hold its three new communities to the new three-year update standard. That’ll mean the mayor and Council funding the new updates, as they did for Mission Valley in last year’s budget, and not shifting priorities as they had when the city’s budget got tight in the past.

    This article relates to: Community Plans, Land Use, Must Reads

    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.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember


    "Bragado agrees. That’s one thing the city’s learned: It’s possible to have too much community input."


    Were not dust ups a few months ago over building heights, trolley stop densities, etc, because really involved community members and leaders were non in the early planning process?

    Plans now are obsolete from an e "We've got it made" prosperous era.

    Nowit's innovation, productivity, etc, to help the nation's economy back on track

    Ted Brengel
    Ted Brengel

    What a fantastic article! But you know, this dilemma is not just the fault of the Planning Department. It's the job of the City Council to direct the Executive Branch (the mayor) and it's our job to let our City Council representatives know our priorities. I know for a fact that John Horst has been in the ear of every council member he could reach on this topic, but we all let him be a lone voice in the wilderness. We all need to let our representatives know that this is a priority and that current and relevant community plans are far more than important. Remember, the squeaky wheel gets the grease which hopefully isn't associated in any way with something that can be called a "cluster..."

    John Horst
    John Horst

    There is one massively obvious - at least from a Planning Group perspective - thing missing here.  And it shows that some of the excuses for delays are just that - excuses.

    We have too many terrific universities here in San Diego to list here.  And many offer urban planning degrees.  In Mira Mesa we regularly see students from these schools visiting our meetings.  There is a tremendous resource here for the City.  They can invite Planning Groups to work together with urban planning faculty and students (as well as environmental science faculty/students) to start drafting sections of an update while the City works through other plans.  Once the current batch is complete, the City has a draft largely ready for fine tuning.

    I have personally mentioned this to Todd Gloria.  I had mentioned it to Carl DeMaio staff when he was our City Councilman.  I have mentioned it personally to Chris Cate.

    The only question is when the City will get serious about this.  The current controversy over One Paseo was entirely avoidable if we had leadership actually interested in seeing San Diego's forward leaning, innovative urban planning protocol work as it was designed to work.

    John Horst

    Chairman, Mira Mesa Community Planning Group

    LynninBayHo subscriber

    Great overview.  Love the line about the cluster!  Hoping the upcoming Clairemont process can go more smoothly.

    Founder subscriber

    Community Plans are a huge make work project for City Staff and it is no wonder that they take forever and then are outdated as soon as they make it through the approval mill.

    Most of the time our Community Plans are just an excuse used to justify why something occurred that should not have, as everybody involved looks the other way with a smile on their face and winks at each other.

    Founder subscriber

    The reality is that Developers are now using OLD Community Planing rules info to push projects into neighborhoods that should not belong there.  DENSITY bonuses are yet another vehicle that can increase projects heights far beyond what those that wrote the old Community Plans ever dreamed would possible.

    RE: "a growing population" this is yet another vehicle that is being used to slam DENSITY/GROWTH into some areas while completely skipping other areas, which is why I have been pushing for DIVERSITY in San Diego's housing stock with all neighborhoods having an equal share of Low and Low-Moderate housing, not just the areas along "transportation corridors", which just happen to be in older neighborhoods which also have the least infrastructure and social amenities which never seem to get built despite neighborhoods being promised by all those pushing DENSITY.

    North Park was promised many improvements when it became one of the "City of Villages" but then then when they got more housing DENSITY increases the improvements never appeared.

    IDEA: Demand the City build the needed parks and amenities FIRST before any new housing DENSITY… 

    Some of the above posted at :

    richard brick
    richard brick subscribermember

    All of these wonderful comments, yet nothing gets done, as the comments have said. The reason nothing gets done is because the city is run by the developers and they call the shots. If the community plan is not liked by the developers the plan is ignored.

    The city council and the mayor are bought and paid for the by the developers and the hotel owners. It doesn't matter who you elect the 1% control development and if they can't make lots of money from a community plan it isn't going to get done, period.

    Cindy Conger
    Cindy Conger subscriber

    Having been a Planning Board President for 5 of 6 yrs., I concur with comments on this 'process.'  So many of the City's 'planning Dept.' 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. 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 the 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 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.

    richard brick
    richard brick subscribermember

    @Cindy Conger Love your well thought out comment, but it would have been much more forceful and easier to read if you could have used paragraphs. IMO

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    "The City Council approved a new plan for Barrio Logan in September 2013...voters overturned the plan last June."

    Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.

    Walter Chambers
    Walter Chambers subscribermember

    Sadly, after millions of dollars and many years, Community Plans are mostly pipe dreams that sit on the shelf after they are finished. They have no legal teeth and the DSD and DOT rarely refer to them during review or design of projects. A good example of this is a 100 year old house (deemed not historic) which is being torn down in Hillcrest to create a surface parking lot. Even though the Community Plan says that parking should be shielded from view, and that the street wall should be maintained - not to mention the many references to "community character" - neither the community or the DSD is able to stop this type of (un)development from happening based on the edicts of the CP.

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    @Walter Chambers Exactly.  I've been on a planning board for some time and came to the same conclusion, unless these plans are made a part of the Municipal Code and DSD is REQUIRED to consider them in its reviews, this is a waste of time and money.  Right now, if you ask a plan reviewer downtown if they have looked a a project using a community plan, you'll get a blank stare or they will say no, that is the planning group's responsibility.  Planning groups do this well but their recommendations are ignored if they vote against a project.  If they vote for a project, you can bet that information is front and center.  One Paseo was one of the worst examples, FOUR community groups voted against it and were ignored so what good did their community plans do those people?

    Bob Gardner
    Bob Gardner subscriber

    Spending money on studies and blue ribbon panels is probably one of the things government does best.  Of course 95% of the studies are a waste of time and money because nothing ever gets done as a result.