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New Planning Director Gets Acclimated to a City in Turmoil

Rock star planner Bill Fulton took over the city’s planning functions last week. He’s diving into big jobs while the rest of the city is focused on the mayor’s office.

Bill Fulton picked a hell of week to start his new job with the city.

The former Ventura mayor, a big-deal planner announced last month as the director of the city’s newly reconstituted planning department, officially took over on Monday, July 8.

Photo via Creative Commons license

Photo via Creative Commons license

Two days later, City Hall was turned upside down when Mayor Bob Filner’s former supporters began publicly demanding the resignation of the man who hired Fulton in the first place.

After visiting the North Park Planning Committee Tuesday night — his 438th community meeting in the nine days he’s been in town, he joked — Fulton said he’s focusing primarily on getting up to date on the status of the community plans making their way through a long-delayed update process.

“There’s a clear directive from the mayor’s office: Job No. 1 is to move these plans through the update process,” he said. “I don’t have a magic wand, but I can say that in the first five minutes I talked to the mayor, this is what he talked about.”

The mayor’s office, mainly through now-departed deputy chief of staff Allen Jones, had been pushing the Planning Department to get updates done on an 18-month timeline. Fulton said he didn’t know whether that was possible.

“I don’t know what’s possible at this point, I just know we need to move them along,” he said.

Fulton’s other major task now that he’s getting started is to put together a plan to reconstitute a standalone Planning Department, after it had been incorporated into Development Services under Mayor Jerry Sanders.

Filner has put together a draft restructuring of the departments — including a new role for Civic San Diego, the nonprofit group formed when the state shuttered redevelopment agencies — but Fulton says he’s working with Tom Tomlinson, interim director of Development Services, to see which functions will fall under which departments.

He’d like to have a plan drawn up by August, he said, so everything could take effect in the fall, possibly as early as September.

The city’s planners already report to Fulton, but other functions will eventually fall under his purview as well. He specifically mentioned economic development and historic preservation as functions likely to move to what’s now called the Planning and Neighborhood Restoration Department.

“We’ll try to build into next year’s budget additional staff positions and new revenue, so we can do some of the things that we haven’t been able to do over the next few years,” he said.

“A lot of the delays (with the updates) are due to the staff cutbacks that you saw, that led to the merger of the two departments, and now that we have a little better budget situation, and these things are a little farther along, we will be able to move them along.”

Fulton, who is temporarily living in Bankers Hill but will eventually move downtown, said he was most familiar with the San Diego communities that have community plans being updated, mostly because when he was a private consultant he visited those neighborhoods to put together bids to conduct technical work on the updates.

At the North Park meeting, he advocated for the community to embrace the same smart-growth, infill-oriented development perspective for which he is known, first as an author, then as the mayor of Ventura, and later as an employee of the D.C.-based nonprofit, Smart Growth America.

El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue have “tremendous potential to strengthen these neighborhoods,” he said.

“What I am a big advocate of is when you do have new development, you should concentrate it in the areas that can take it,” he said. “Those are typically areas along the corridors, and with strong transit. Although you don’t have rail transit in this part of town, you do have really strong bus service, and you’re going to have stronger bus service eventually.

But, he said his job isn’t ultimately to enact his vision for San Diego; it’s to implement the vision of city residents.

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