The approval process for downtown projects has often been cited by developers as a model for other neighborhoods. That’s why it’s important for the public to read the fine print.
In Downtown San Diego, the planning and permitting functions have been delegated to a nonprofit owned by the city, called Civic San Diego. A consulting agreement between the city and CivicSD contracts out the administration of the land development laws, and the consultant is compensated based on the projects and services rendered. These laws implement the Downtown Community Plan, which was adopted in 2006.
CivicSD is a one-stop shop for downtown developers. Any development downtown needs a permit issued by CivicSD. It may need other city permits (for historical buildings, for example) or coastal permits (for buildings near the bayfront) or use permits (for uses like entertainment). But if you develop in downtown, you need to come to CivicSD.
Downtown developers do not need to analyze or mitigate environmental impacts of individual projects. The environmental impact report for downtown was approved in 2006 by the City Council. The report covers all projects planned within the district. That does not mean that the impacts of these projects are mitigated. In fact, direct impacts to land-use planning, transportation, circulation, access, parking, cultural resources, aesthetics/visual quality and noise were found to be significant, yet were not mitigated to below a level of significance. The plan was challenged due to its significant impact on transportation, with a settlement on the promise to study transit-oriented alternatives to the plan. Unfortunately, transit ridership is still in the single digits, with little progress on transportation alternatives that connect downtown commute trips.