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San Diego Is Pioneering 'Lean Urbanism'

Nationally renowned urban planner Andres Duany came to San Diego to learn from a group of developer-architects who champion small projects with as little red tape as possible. We tagged along for the discussion.

This story has been updated.

Here’s a newish urban planning buzzword: lean urbanism.

So how is it different than tactical urbanism or new urbanism or smart growth or transit-oriented design or any of the other bits of euphemism used to describe new projects?

This one refers to projects that are small, can be approved quickly and can revitalize areas (or change them, depending on your perspective) without going through large-scale fights. Small projects don’t just mean faster decisions, they also limit the effects of gentrification or strain on local resources, proponents say.

It’s similar to the tactics used by a group of architect-developers associated with the Woodbury School of Architecture and Design in Barrio Logan, who’ve completed a number of projects in the city’s first ring of urban neighborhoods mostly by building within the confines of existing community plans and zoning regulations.

They make a habit of not asking for variances or plan amendments that would rope in decision-making entities like the planning commission or City Council.

That’s why nationally renowned urban planner Andres Duany came here to learn from them.

He’s received a $600,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to study and spread the “lean urbanism” movement, and came to San Diego for two days because developer-architects like Ted Smith and Michael Burnett are actively practicing it, even if they don’t use the term to describe their work.

Here are four highlights from a few hours spent listening to Duany and San Diego’s architect-developers talk about “lean urbanism.”

Make “red tape” into “pink areas.”

What people can build and where they can build it comes down to what’s written in the city’s development code.

Smith, who runs the Woodbury school, teaches his students to fly under the radar, to build as much as they can without causing commotion.

Master the city’s development regulations, build as much as the building code lets you without seeking special approval and call it a day, he says.

Duany refers to this type of thinking as finding “pink areas” in the development code, or finding areas where red tape has been lightened over the years (read: regulations have been weakened) by previous precedent-setting decisions.

You might think that’d mean Smith wants the city to change its regulations to make it even more permissive, but he tells his students not to bother with that fight.

“I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Yeah we want all that fixed, but … I don’t want turmoil. I’m all about status quo. I know where the magic is. And the more we mess with it, the more I lose the advantages in the ordinance that allow this room to be a porch, instead of a living room.”

The meeting was held in a Smith-designed building, in a room that qualifies by the city’s definition as an outdoor porch, even though it looks and feels like an indoor room, because it doesn’t have things like heating or insulation. By playing with the city’s zoning rules, he can find chances to build more living area but at a smaller cost and on his terms.

San Diego is ahead of a national trend.

San Diego’s architect-developers have lessons for like-minded urbanists all over the country, Duany said.

“Your regulatory environment is so heavy, and has been so heavy for so long, that you have some of the most sophisticated bypasses in the country,” Duany said. “You’ve actually figured out how to get around things. The rest of America is just getting the regulation, and you’re getting past the regulation. You’ve been incredibly innovative here, based on some of the things I’ve heard.”

Regulations are in place for a reason.

San Diego’s former City Architect Michael Stepner, who now teaches at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design, served as a dissenting voice throughout the talk.

His main point: Lean urbanism proponents need to acknowledge that the regulations they see as mindless were put in place for specific reasons.

“Architecture is not about drawing blueprints,” he said. “It’s a political process, it’s a social art, and we have to be engaged … I teach politics. Politics is development. (Architects) can complain all they want about some regulation, or some rule, that affects them, but the fact of the matter is if they’re not there to change that rule, then they deserve it. Every regulation in every city and every municipality in this country and everywhere else has a constituency. Because somebody built something that was a real piece of crap, and they identified it as a problem and they created a whole set of rules around it. And we have to get rid of that, because many of them are counter-productive, but we have to be engaged in order to do that.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misattributed the You Are Here apartment project to Ted Smith.

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