RIP City Lab, We Hardly Knew Ye | Voice of San Diego

City Budget

RIP City Lab, We Hardly Knew Ye

Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s budget proposal would kill off the mini-department created to identify and solve problems in the city. There’s still time for someone to fight to save it, but no candidates have emerged yet.

Just as San Diego’s nascent Civic Innovation Lab was getting its footing, it took a tumble.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer has recommended eliminating the lab and reallocating its roughly $700,000 budget to the city’s planning department. The project had been up and running for just over three months, but Faulconer’s ready to move on from the lab — envisioned by former Mayor Bob Filner last year — after it failed to convince him it had produced any results, or was close to making some.

The budget won’t be official until mid-summer, so a City Council member could still come to the lab’s defense. But the two most high-profile Democrats in town don’t seem to be leaning that way. Council President Todd Gloria didn’t mention it at a press conference announcing Faulconer’s proposal, and Councilman David Alvarez, Faulconer’s opponent in the mayoral election, didn’t mention it in his official response to the proposed budget.

If everything goes according to Faulconer’s plan, the money would be used by the planning department to finish updating community plans — growth outlines for specific areas that guide future development and infrastructure decisions.

Updating community plans has bipartisan appeal and fits with Faulconer’s “neighborhoods first” campaign platform.

His office said the money would be used to finish plans in Grantville, Southeastern San Diego and Encanto in this fiscal year, and to move along plans in Uptown, North Park, Golden Hill, Old Town, Midway and San Ysidro so they can be finished early in the 2016 fiscal year.

The hope is that updated community plans will curb disagreements between residents and developers over new projects, and make it easier and faster for developers to get projects approved. The plans also let communities assemble a wish list for things like parks, libraries and fire stations.

“You’re seeing a reprioritization of dollars … and capacity and bandwidth for community plan updates,” Faulconer said. “Finishing these community plan updates is something that I heard time and time again, council members have known that the city is lagging behind on that. We have to get these updated, and we’re going to.”

Faulconer spokesman Craig Gustafson said the Civic Innovation Lab’s four full-time employees would be offered other jobs with the city, and the idea is for them to be part of the shift toward community plan updates. The group employed an architect, urban designer, data specialist and a landscape architect. The lab will continue its projects through the end of the fiscal year.

Though Faulconer and Filner both pledged to focus on neighborhoods, Faulconer framed the lab as a roadblock to accomplishing that goal, while Filner billed it as a tool.

But Filner and the UCSD professors brought in to put the project together struggled to explain what it would actually do. It got less money than Filner original planned, and went through a relaunch — where it was dubbed City Lab — before it finally brought in its staff earlier this year.

One of its program managers, Howard Blackson, said at the time they were going to focus on things like bike infrastructure, small parks and turning forgotten places like vacant lots and alleys into community amenities.

“We’re the guys who want to make your neighborhood fun and interesting,” Blackson said.

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