For years, Civic San Diego has been held up as the model of government efficiency when it comes to approving development projects.

In fact, as Andrew Keatts found, Civic San Diego issued permits more than twice as fast as the city of San Diego’s Development Services Department.

This efficiency is critical because delay can kill development projects. Developers and investors are making big bets when they build projects. They need to be sure the process works well and quickly. But it’s not just developers who benefit from a more streamlined and efficient process. More approved projects translates into more construction jobs created, more tax dollars generated and more investment in our local economy.

So the fact that Civic San Diego is able to move projects along at a steady clip should be considered a good thing, right?

Apparently not.

Instead of trying to take what Civic San Diego does right and replicate it to benefit other urban neighborhoods, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez has proposed AB 504, a bill called Local Government Accountability for Planning, Zoning and Permitting.

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

While AB 504 promises “accountability,” it actually upends Civic San Diego’s whole permitting process, adding unnecessary layers of bureaucracy while creating uncertainty that could scare off developers and inhibit investment. In short, AB 504 is not just a solution in search of a problem – it’s a problem, and a big one for anyone who cares about revitalizing our older neighborhoods.

With the death of redevelopment, Civic San Diego has worked hard to establish programs and funding sources to reinvest not only in downtown, but also in City Heights and Encanto.

Civic San Diego’s efforts have reaped huge dividends, as it has been able to secure some $58 million in new markets tax credits, which have helped fund such important community projects as the new YMCA in City Heights.

But AB 504 seeks to undo those efforts by making it more difficult to have projects move forward by requiring the City Council to weigh in on every project.

Gonzalez’s claim is that, under the current system, residents have little say or recourse if they don’t agree with the direction Civic San Diego is taking on a project.

But that argument belies the very reason why Civic San Diego has been so successful downtown. Civic San Diego has been able to streamline the process, not because it has sidestepped the community, but rather because it worked closely with the community to develop its community plan. Because of this input and collaboration, there are very clear rules about what projects should be approved and how – including the requirement that every project go before the Downtown Community Planning Council.

AB 504 removes that certainty and replaces it with politics, flying in the face of what the downtown community has identified as priorities for its neighborhoods.

It also undercuts the work Civic San Diego is currently doing to help community planning groups in Encanto and City Heights identify their priorities so they, too, can update their community plans and benefit from a streamlined and sensible permitting process.

Civic San Diego is, of course, not only accountable to those communities through its planning process. The group is also under the oversight of the city’s Economic Development Department and Civic San Diego’s board of directors serve at the pleasure of the mayor and City Council.

It is clear that AB 504 has nothing to do with accountability. Rather it is just another example of government letting some ill-conceived notion of process get in the way of real progress.

Kris Michell is president and CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership, and Jerry Sanders is president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. Michell and Sanders’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

    This article relates to: Civic San Diego, Opinion

    Written by Opinion

    Op-eds and Letters to the Editor on the issues that matter in San Diego. Have something to say? Submit a commentary.

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    Any value in this message is completely negated by those delivering it. 

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    I am unclear about what this group is intended to accomplish that cannot be effectively accomplished by our existing government structure. Is the bureaucracy run by Mayor Faulconer really that slow?

    The writers emphasize the benefits of Civic San Diego to downtown. That is not surprising since the writers are officials of the Downtown San Diego Partnership, which basically advocates for downtown development. Presumably downtown has benefitted substantially from Civic San Diego. What about the rest of the city?

    Andrew Keatts, in his fact check, stated, “… one of the reasons Civic San Diego is so effective downtown is that it only has to worry about downtown.” He noted that there are limited pushbacks from community groups and more sophisticated developers involved. In fact, this seems like something of a boutique planning department for lucky neighborhoods. It pays at least four staff members over $150,000 each in total compensation. It paid over $275,000 in legal fees in FY 2013. Does San Diego need a shadow government entity to oversee select areas of the city? Is it fair that select areas get priority attention?

    The writers state of the proposed law, “AB 504 removes that certainty and replaces it with politics.” In my view, that’s a euphemism for saying, “AB 504 undercuts a system that benefits our narrow interests and replaces it with a system that ensures citywide balancing of financial expenditures on development.”

    Joe LaCava
    Joe LaCava subscribermember

    In advancing Imagine Downtown DSDP has correctly positioned Downtown as unique among San Diego's neighborhoods. Downtown can deliver on the aspirations of San Diegans in way that no other neighborhood can. So too CCDC (now Civic San Diego) under Redevelopment in Downtown was unique. Unique opportunity, unique rules, unique context. 

    Amid all the success, let's not forget how basic necessities were ignored trying to jump start redevelopment. But that was okay because there were little residents to complain and the ones that did nobody listened to or cared about. Does that model transfer to our existing neighborhoods outside Downtown? Hardly. These are neighborhoods fully developed still waiting on the promises of basic city infrastructure yet to be delivered. They might not yet have realized their economic potential but these are vibrant neighborhoods that need to be approached carefully and thoughtfully.  

    The so-called successes highlighted are not relevant to permitting authority which is yet to be granted. Community Plan updates are being handled by the City's Planning Department. The Community Benefits is hardly an effort worth praising although I remain hopeful. And the market credits were gained without permitting authority.

    And railing against bureaucracy seems odd since that so-called bureaucracy is in fact the City Hall of the prior and current administrations. Are you giving up on this administration and city council to make City Hall and DSD more effective and efficient while still protecting our neighborhoods? And that is my point--if government is not working fix it, don't outsource it.

    It is a mistake to conflate a quote in a news article with the actual language of the bill. The bill adds no complexity or layers of bureaucracy.

    If you want to push back in light of this bill, rail against Civic San Diego who outwardly gives the appearance of being more concerned with preserving their existence rather than listening to legitimate concerns. What worked under Redevelopment won't work for those neighborhoods. The world has changed, so too must the City and Civic San Diego. 

    We can and must do better in neighborhoods that are hungry for change. There are lots of ways to do that by using the City's permitting authority, capitalizing on Civic as non-profit entrepreneur, and listening to the neighborhoods.

    PS Perhaps Andrew Keatts can fact check whether it is reasonable to compare turnaround time to permit projects in Downtown versus permitting every other project city-wide.