What We Know About the Mayor's Think Tank - Voice of San Diego

Bob Filner UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

What We Know About the Mayor's Think Tank

There’s not much information out there about Mayor Bob Filner’s Civic and Urban Initiatives program. We reveal what we could track down.

The mayor who’s earned the Twitter hashtag #filnereverywhere constantly shares exciting concepts about planning, neighborhoods and the border.

The question remains how many he can implement. But now Mayor Bob Filner, a former San Diego State University professor, is getting a think tank he hopes will help him deliver on some of them.

This week, the City Council approved a budget that includes nearly $1 million for a Civic and Urban Initiatives program in the mayor’s office, a concept Filner and his staffers proposed.

Filner publicly detailed his plans for the idea incubator last month but provided more soaring terms than specifics. Even its name hasn’t been consistent.

We pulled together some facts on just what the mayor hopes to put together and who will be in charge.

Here’s what we know:

It’s all about ideas and trying to implement them, but it’s still confusing.

A big idea and a light bulb

Filner hopes to fast-track big ideas with the help of universities, residents and business leaders. He wants his think tank to serve as a breeding ground for new innovations and a central hub to ensure the best ones aren’t tangled in red tape.

From a recent memo obtained by Voice of San Diego:

To produce a platform where innovation and collaboration occurs inside the City, facilitating and integrating the best thinking on public policy and planning across sectors, that will produce exemplary Neighborhood projects on public space, environmental infrastructure and socio-economic entrepreneurship for the betterment and prosperity of our binational region.

But a lot is still unclear. The program has already taken on a couple different titles. At times, it’s been referred to as the Civic and Urban Initiatives program, and other times as the Incubator for Civic Imagination and Neighborhood Initiatives.

Filner and program boosters speak in glowing terms about the group’s possibilities. Vince Hall, Filner’s chief of staff, said outside grants could even make the initiative self-sustaining in the future.

But about 40 speakers at a council meeting where Filner first discussed the idea had nearly as many interpretations of just what the initiative should be.

Filner has a spot picked out.

Perhaps the most certain aspect of the think tank is where it will be housed.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

Former city planning staffers left the fourth floor of the City Administration Building behind after their department merged with development services in 2011.

Filner has repeatedly spotlighted that space to emphasize the city’s lack of attention to planning in recent years. He invited photographer Sam Hodgson to that vacant space late last year to make that point, resulting in the unforgettable photo you see above.

There are lots of ideas.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

Organizers have listed a dozen goals and another dozen potential projects. Many are focused on neighborhood planning.

Possible projects include adding small parks known as parklets, revamping vacant lots into public spaces and promoting walking and bicycling.

Binational efforts also get repeated mentions. There’s a much-publicized Olympics bid with Tijuana, a space for cross-border collaboration dubbed the “Binational House” and a task force to “creatively re-think” border wait times and their impact on San Diego’s economy.

That’s just a sampling.

This guy is going to be in charge.

File photo by Rob Davis
File photo by Rob Davis

Teddy Cruz is a UC San Diego visual arts professor who’s spent his career studying the urban landscapes of San Diego and Tijuana.

Filner said this week that Cruz will direct his fourth floor incubator. The mayor may bring in at least five additional staffers to work there.

A group that includes Cruz, former city architect Michael Stepner, mayor’s office binational affairs director Mario Lopez and UCSD professor Fonna Forman have met multiple times to discuss which concepts deserve top priority  and how to implement them.

Cruz has long said that San Diego should learn from Tijuana when it comes to neighborhood development.

In a 2008 Q&A, Cruz called San Diego bland, homogenous and an example of “beige urbanism.”

By contrast, Cruz said, Tijuana residents enjoy communities that incorporate mixed uses, more personalized structures and yes, more color.

Cruz designed and championed two housing projects in San Ysidro with the nonprofit Casa Familiar, both of which will marry housing with the group’s services and plenty of outdoor space. The plan for one space, known as Living Rooms at the Border, integrates an alternative arts learning center with housing.

Cruz shared some of those concepts on Wednesday at TEDGlobal .

Filner joked this week that he’ll need to rein Cruz in a bit.

“I mean, his ideas are flowing over everything and I gotta try to manage them into to at least the fourth floor and keep them contained a little bit,” Filner said.

The incubator isn’t an entirely new concept in San Diego.

A good idea

Stepner, a former city planning director, recalled at least two past suggestions that the city pull together an initiative to implement big ideas.

He said similar pushes came in the wake of “Temporary Paradise?,” a 1974 report that proposed ways to manage growth in San Diego and a 1990s workshop held under former Mayor Susan Golding’s watch.

In both cases, the city made some progress on its planning vision and implemented some concepts but never created the program that was envisioned.

Stepner hopes Filner’s new initiative is sustainable.

“What we have right now is a very vocal mayor who is out there talking about this all the time and pushing these ideas,” he said.

Not everyone is thrilled with the mayor’s plan.

Councilman Mark Kersey was skeptical about the mayor’s approach when he initially presented the idea but didn’t speak out against it when the council voted on the mayor’s budget this week.

Councilman Scott Sherman remains unimpressed.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

Sherman calls it adding more government to deal with government problems.

“You know, the mayor lets us know in no uncertain terms on many occasions that he is in charge, that he is the one who calls the shots here in San Diego,” Sherman said before rejecting the mayor’s proposed budget this week.

“If you’re having problems with bureaucracies and departments inside your government initiating ideas that come from the community, why not show leadership and go down to those departments and tell them, ‘This is what I want?'”

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