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Downtown Is for Everyone — Not Just Developers

Yes, Civic San Diego issues permits faster than the city. But that means there's less meaningful public involvement on a project-specific level.

The approval process for downtown projects has often been cited by developers as a model for other neighborhoods. That’s why it’s important for the public to read the fine print.

In Downtown San Diego, the planning and permitting functions have been delegated to a nonprofit owned by the city, called Civic San Diego. A consulting agreement between the city and CivicSD contracts out the administration of the land development laws, and the consultant is compensated based on the projects and services rendered. These laws implement the Downtown Community Plan, which was adopted in 2006.

fix san diego opinionCivicSD is a one-stop shop for downtown developers. Any development downtown needs a permit issued by CivicSD. It may need other city permits (for historical buildings, for example) or coastal permits (for buildings near the bayfront) or use permits (for uses like entertainment). But if you develop in downtown, you need to come to CivicSD.

Downtown developers do not need to analyze or mitigate environmental impacts of individual projects. The environmental impact report for downtown was approved in 2006 by the City Council. The report covers all projects planned within the district. That does not mean that the impacts of these projects are mitigated. In fact, direct impacts to land-use planning, transportation, circulation, access, parking, cultural resources, aesthetics/visual quality and noise were found to be significant, yet were not mitigated to below a level of significance. The plan was challenged due to its significant impact on transportation, with a settlement on the promise to study transit-oriented alternatives to the plan. Unfortunately, transit ridership is still in the single digits, with little progress on transportation alternatives that connect downtown commute trips.

Over a billion dollars of public taxpayer funds have been expended to support downtown projects. From subsidizing Horton Plaza, to the Convention Center, to Petco Park, public funds have been used to both create the market demand for hotels, restaurants and condos, and to build the supporting public infrastructure. During the three decades of redevelopment, increases in property taxes would be diverted to downtown, away from schools and neighborhood services. With the demise of redevelopment, however, development impact fees – money developers pay to go toward infrastructure in the areas where they’re building – are starting to ramp up downtown.

In comparison, the rest of the city is riddled with a gaping infrastructure deficit that continues to grow. Community plans are often outdated, and the resources to improve the quality of life of residents are stretched thin. Consequently, the citywide process for project approval is bifurcated between permits that need special approvals, and those that can be issued over the counter. For those projects that need special approval, the city has experts in planning, transportation, ADA compliance, fair housing, sustainability etc. that review the project. A public hearing is then conducted. For projects that can be approved over the counter, no development permit is needed. Therefore, the permit issuing time for special approvals alone does not represent the actual permit time for all projects outside of downtown.

The table below highlights the key approvals needed for a development permit for a 50-unit, 85-foot project in a non-coastal area. To simplify the comparison, I have excluded those projects that need a variance, zoning change, conditional use or community plan amendment. I have also excluded community planning group hearings, since they are advisory.

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So what is a design review? It is a review of the design and aesthetics of a project, such as massing and elevation, window treatments, exterior color, facade and street frontage. Over the past two years that I have served on the CivicSD board approving dozens of these design reviews, this is what I have learned:

We cannot consider the environmental impacts of a project, such as air pollution or traffic.

We cannot require a developer to provide affordable housing or community amenities, if the developer does not agree.

We cannot reject a project if we feel it does not comply with elements of the general plan.

We cannot compel developers to provide a different density or building type.

We cannot compel developers to provide sustainability features, even if we feel the community plan calls for them.

There is extremely limited discretion of the CivicSD board in design review (this is my own opinion, not one that represents the board’s). We are at the mercy of the economics driven by developers doing cosmetic changes in response to public input. And then we pass the buck on to the CivicSD president, who determines a project to be consistent with all plans, and promptly issues the permit. The environmental consistency determination for an administrative decision is exempt from the state’s environmental laws. This raises the lingering question on what the environmental impacts of specific projects are, and if they can be appealed.

The speed of issuing permits masks the process for meaningful public involvement on a project-specific level. Every taxpayer in the city has invested in downtown’s growth. Moreover, the land-use planning and permitting process in the city is derived from the police power of the state to regulate the public health, safety and welfare of its residents. It is therefore important to use discretion in issuing development permits for large-scale projects, not just to ensure compliance with the law, but to use subjective judgment to further the public interest. Downtown is for everybody, not just for developers.

Murtaza Baxamusa is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, and a Civic San Diego board member. Baxamusa’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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