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Urbanism Took a Beating in 2014

New efforts aimed at making the city a more urban place, with denser development and increased use of public transportation, didn’t fare well over the past year.

This time last year, I took a look at all the things happening in San Diego that suggested the city was accepting its role as a major metropolis and embracing urbanist thinking.

“Urbanism seems to have taken hold of San Diego in 2013,” I wrote.

That seems to have been absurd.

In the year since, some of the crumbs that led me to that conclusion have been dismantled or dismissed. New efforts aimed at making the city a more urban place, with denser development and increased use of public transportation didn’t fare well.

The biggest piece of evidence to suggest San Diego was getting serious about planning and development — the hiring of nationally renowned smart-growth champion Bill Fulton as the city’s planning director — was also the biggest counter-argument in 2014. He was welcomed with open arms in 2013.

He’s already gone. He was pushed out, left unsatisfied or took a can’t-pass-up job, depending on who you ask. He’s now running a university planning institute in Houston.

In Fulton’s last months, Mayor Kevin Faulconer elevated the Economic Development department so Fulton no longer oversaw it and the City Council created a position above him that limited his decision-making ability.

One thing he was left in control of — the Civic Innovation Lab — was born in 2013, and shut down this year.

The brainchild of former Mayor Bob Filner and two UCSD professors, it was meant to be an ambitious mod squad working between city departments to solve urban problems.

Faulconer stripped its funding after it had only been operating a few months. His office said the four full-time employees weren’t fired – but they were.

San Diego’s pivot away from urbanism isn’t all about personnel, either.

Fulton’s planning department this spring unveiled plans in Bay Park near two planned trolley stations in the area.

The new development plan would have increased the number of homes and the height of buildings that could be built in the area. Residents did not like that idea. At all.

Former Councilman Ed Harris organized a three-hour town hall meeting for residents to protest the whole thing. The few plan supporters who got on stage were shouted down, and the city frantically tried to back away from the plan. Fulton said the city would no longer pursue an increase in building height limits, though that change isn’t official yet. A Council race under way at the time became a competition to declare who hated the plan the most.

A few months later, Fulton took the gig in Texas.

And while the city’s ever-hopeful urbanists won a second court victory in their lawsuit against the region’s transportation plan — which they say is too reliant on cars, highways and sprawl — the regional planning agency SANDAG’s board last month voted to go for one more appeal to see if they could avoid making changes to the plan.

But the news wasn’t all bad for urbanist in 2014.

Significantly, Faulconer threw his support behind the Climate Action Plan, a city outline to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions dramatically by 2035.

The plan would do that, in part, by committing the city to direct new development so that 61 percent of people living within a half mile of a major transit station — as many as 470,000 people — will walk, bike or take transit to work.

It would do that by building lots of homes in dense clusters around transit stations.

And on the micro-scale, the city did see another parklet this year, plus the imminent opening of a temporary commercial space made out of shipping containers downtown from a vacant lot, meant to revitalize the area until it can be developed.

And the city’s oft-delayed bike-share program is tentatively scheduled to open in January.

Nonetheless, 2014 showed anyone looking to make San Diego more like San Francisco, Portland or Denver that they have their work cut out for them.

Correction: The City Council created the deputy chief operating officer position prior to Faulconer taking office.

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