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Q&A: Why Bill Fulton Came to San Diego

The 57-year-old best-selling author and national planning expert took a few minutes to discuss his first job in charge of a city’s planning decisions.

At least he set the bar nice and low.

Bill Fulton, former Ventura mayor and new director of the city’s reconstituted planning department, said his goal was simple: make San Diego the most prosperous, sustainable and equitable city in the world.

Courtesy of Fulton, Creative Commons.

Courtesy of Fulton, Creative Commons.

The 57-year-old best-selling author and national planning expert will begin the job on July 8.

Fulton has a degenerative eye condition that’s left him with tunnel vision (yes, there are easy jokes about a planning director with tunnel vision), so he says he’ll end up living in Little Italy, East Village or downtown.

“Due to my condition, I don’t have a car, so I’d have to live somewhere where it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a car, and those are the best places for that,” he said.

After Mayor Bob Filner introduced him as the director of the Planning and Neighborhood Restoration department (or “PLANR,” as Filner maintains his infatuation with handy acronyms), he took a few minutes to discuss his first job in charge of a city’s planning decisions. Following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

You must have been offered planning director positions with other cities many times. Why was this the right time to finally do it?

San Diego’s such a great opportunity. Here’s one of the largest cities in America. It’s extremely diverse. I think the fact that Mayor Filner has come in inside the strong mayor system gives us an unusual opportunity to really re-establish planning with a visionary approach. But particularly, the basic work has been done on the transit system, on downtown, on some of the close-in neighborhoods, and it’s time to radiate that out to every neighborhood in the city. And that opportunity does exist in some other cities, but not like here. This is just a tremendous opportunity.

You wrote a book subtitled “planning for the end of sprawl.” San Diego certainly has a reputation as a very sprawl-oriented city…

Yes, but essentially all of the land in San Diego is now accounted for, so any additional growth and development and improvement in the quality of communities in San Diego, maybe with the exception of Otay, is going to come from within, and from reinvesting in existing neighborhoods. That’s what’s so exciting. Sprawl already has ended in San Diego.

You were one of the few leaders in California who supported …

I was the only mayor who supported the end of redevelopment, as I recall.

OK, the only mayor who supported the end of redevelopment. Now we have the question of the future of Civic San Diego, which is a relic of that program. What role do you see it having? What can it do?

CCDC (the Centre City Redevelopment Corp., which became Civic San Diego) was very effective over the years, more effective than most other downtown redevelopment agencies. Without the tax increment part of it, which is essentially what they now lack, their ability to maneuver is diminished. Everybody in the state is looking for what the next sort of public-private model is, and I don’t know the answer to that. I expect Civic San Diego will still play a role, an important role. They may play a more important role in the neighborhoods; the mayor has talked about that. Civic San Diego will be separate from what I do, though I expect to interact with them and I hope that I can help figure out what that model is. I’m not sure what that model is, but there’s definitely an important role for that organization. I’m not sure what it is, or where the line is drawn between the city and them. That’s what we’ll have to figure out.

San Diego hasn’t really used specific plans that much compared to other places in California, and that seems to be what Civic San Diego is going for. Do you consider specific plans an effective tool?

Generally yes, I like to use specific plans. Community plan areas are quite large. If you want to get something done on a street level, a specific plan is often the best thing to do. It’s often a way to get everyone to buy into an actual development plan. It’s a little bit more difficult to do in an urban area with lots of land owners. It’s more typically been used out in greenfield areas, and San Diego hasn’t had to do it as much partly because it’s mostly built out, and partly because you’ve had these structures in place: community plans, facilities financing plans, and so forth. Things that a specific plan typically does, San Diego has gotten done in other ways. So we’ll have to see what the best way to use specific plans is, but I’m generally a fan of them.

I’ve been told the zoning ordinance is in need of a re-write. Is that something you’d be in favor of?

I want to take a look at the zoning ordinance. I’m not sure it’s in need of a complete re-write. The zoning ordinance is the implementation tool for all these plans. You have to make sure then that the zoning ordinance accurately reflects the plans, so that when you apply the zoning ordinance, you’re getting the city you want. I think that’s generally true in San Diego, but I want to take a closer look at it. I’m not sure whether I want to do tweaks, or a major re-write.

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