Urban Acupuncture – Homelessness

San Diego, Urban Planning

Homeless Americans are not illegal refugees to be incarcerated and deported. While a criminal element has easily exploited our homeless poor’s predicament, they too are being supported by our current haphazard hand-out response to our homeless economic issue. Fortunately, homelessness doesn’t directly affect a majority of San Diegans, but these citizens are in desperate need of an alert and immediate response from those of us able to help.

In our neighborhoods, seeing people sleeping or living on our streets is painful. It is a reminder of our need both small-scale built form response as well as a large-scale health and human services responses to the too visible problem in our city. Doing a little as possible to date has only exacerbated the issue and we now having linger ramifications that bring out both the best and worse in us.

For 2016, I recommend the City of San Diego enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with various Homeless advocacy groups to allow the public facilities necessary to provide basic human services in the public street’s right-of-way, such as portable restrooms, bathing and shelter facilities. This MOU is similar to the agreements the city has with utility companies to allow for electrical boxes to sit permanently in our sidewalks, and would legally allow parking spaces and street frontages to be utilized for transitioning homeless people to more dignified living arrangements faster. This is similar to how we treat our refugees of natural disasters, such as New Orleans after Katrina and New Jersey after Sandy.

This simple paper agreement is intended to transform our first response to homelessness from a being crime into a humanitarian effort in order to get our people off the streets and into homes in a streamlined and morally responsive rather than combative manner.

Beach Density

San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

San Diego’s Missing Middle

The Bay Area’s housing disaster tells San Diegans that our housing crisis will only get worse and doing nothing is not an option. We have to decide whether we want more neighbors or to pay more taxes as we desperately need money to fix our city’s crumbling infrastructure.  The conundrum is that we despise taxes and the mere mention of ‘density’ polarizes any discussion into either demands for no new growth or building tall towers. Fortunately, we have a housing model that fills the ‘missing middle’ that more responsibly grows our city.

San Diego’s beach areas are home to our most vehemently defended neighborhoods. It’s healthy, outdoor-oriented lifestyle, when coupled with parking constraints, begs people to walk and ride bikes year ‘round. Our beach density model is essentially a residence or shop with three (3) to five (5) units on each lot that are no more than two (2) to three (3) stories tall. All of these homes and businesses are mixed together every few blocks or so. While housing prices are very high in the beach areas, this is mostly due to its finite land availability and layers of regulatory constraints, but those are lessons to be learned. Our beach density’s real value to the rest of San Diego is found in its mixed-use walkable urbanism pattern/model that creates more housing and economic development opportunities.


South Mission Beach’s Gentle Density (Image Creative Commons)

The best places to test this middle ground housing model would be any neighborhood in and around our existing Urbanized Areas. Such as, Southeast San Diego, Golden Hill, South Park and along our major corridors, such as El Cajon Boulevard, University Avenue, and Bay Park, City Heights, and the cities of La Mesa, Lemon Grove, and National City.  Hurtles to allowing for this gentle uptick in housing would primarily be our citizen’s natural ‘fear-of-change’ reflex, which is why using a local model makes sense (as opposed to an imported Portland or Vancouver model). This is somewhat due to our quality of life being ‘precariously’ high, as our home values are a major part of our personal wealth. Therefore, we are very leery of any change that may affect any of that value. 

Another issue will be found in unbundling the many layers of inconsistent development rules and regulations. Today’s zoning rules are based on a 1960’s suburbia building model while Pacific, Mission, and Ocean Beach areas were built in the pre-zoning traditional neighborhood era. In addition, outdated traffic calculations are still in use to measure and mitigate for new housing wrongfully giving us suburban infrastructure facilities and financing estimates. Finally, we would need SANDAG to allocate meaningful funding of pedestrian and bicycle facilities to improve our sidewalks, street trees, lighting, bike lanes, cycle tracks, and transit stops.

The benefits of urbanizing ‘elegantly’ are more urban housing choices with healthier lifestyles that lead to less demand for new suburban housing in the back country, and a spreading-of-the-wealth as local land owners will build most of these units, as opposed to international developers, ensuring that rents are recirculated within our economy. With average lot sizes in traditional San Diego neighborhoods ranging from 5,000 to 6,800 square feet, five (5) units on these lots on a typical lot would support regional transit service, neighborhood scale shops, restaurants, and professional office. And, assurances in maintaining the beloved character of mixed-use walkable places will be found in making any deviations from more precise zoning rules impossible.

Our city is in desperate need for ‘attainable’ housing and our beach density model provides the most fitting solution. By allowing every lot in San Diego’s urbanized areas to have up to five (5) units’ by-right, we have the opportunity to solve for our critical housing and infrastructure financing deficiencies without dramatically altering our city’s character. Ultimately, we can all enjoy and benefit from our healthy, outdoor lifestyle the beach model provides us.

4 Square - 3

2.1.2 - 5

2.2.1 - 3

Wide Variety of Design in a Narrow Range to Respect Neighbors Privacy (Images by David Saborio)

UPDATE (12.28.2015): How to Allow for Beach Densities:

  • Eliminate off-street parking minimums (Transit/Bike/Walk);
  • Eliminate minimum lots sizes and minimum lot dimensions;
  • Up-zone any parcel that allows a single family house to 2-5 units;
  • Covert per unit development impact fees to per SF impact fees and eliminate development impact fees in the places where you want development;
  • Take Main Street back from the State DOT. (increased revenues from getting on-street parking back and taming the overly wide arterial will more than cover the increased maintenance costs);
  • Amend your adopted fire code (zero lot line for sideyard setbacks);
  • Adopt City of San Diego endorsed NACTO Street standards;
  • Allow for self-certification by Licensed Architects. Building permit issued by the Architect with required notification of the municipality to keep the assessor’s records current.

“San Diego Urban Planning !”… now go wash your mouth out with soap.

Urban Design, Urban Planning

“A fundamental aspect of planning…is the disjuncture between individual rationality and collective rationality. […] In certain situations, individual preferences aggregated to a societal level produce illogical or undesirable outcomes, including rubber-necking delays on highways and hockey players’ reluctance to wear helmets. In such situations, if the group made a decision as a whole, it would be far different from the sum of the individual decisions of the members. In a market-oriented economy, planning’s reason for being is fundamentally tied to this disjunction between individual rationality and collective rationality.* 

Isn’t that the role of planning in governing our cities, mediating short-term, long-term, and emergency decisions? Having a plan limits and manages risk in the market place by providing the vision, codes, and certainty to the legal entitlement process and economic responses to building the city. City building innovations and managing their risk set the baseline economic value for the market to respond to. Managing these elements is our city’s planning department’s policy and regulatory responsibility.

However, because creating a vision and then coding that vision is an iterative public and political process, the collective preference is usually at odds with the individual… be it the “no-change neighbor” or the “starry-eyed developer.” In the end, the built results illustrate the values of what our ‘group decision.’ We can drive along Harbor Drive to see the results of what San Diego collectively values over time (hotels, convention center, baseball parks, and other economic silver bullets).

I’ve previously written about Urban Design and Planning’s precarious position between a rock and a hard place in the City of San Diego here. After coffee last week with Michael Stepner, FAIA, FAICP, we came to the conclusion that San Diego’s planning history is actually a culture of trying to “get out of the way”. Our city leadership will support planning in good times, but then we are just as supportive of throwing it out in bad times. Mike‘s opinion was formed by seeing several iterations of its rise and demise over his award-winning career.

Stepner Experiencing a Re-Organization of Planning (image: MStepner)

Stepner Experiencing a Re-Organization of Planning (image: MStepner)

My opinion of our planning-as-little-as-possible approach is formed by empirical observation and review of San Diego’s historical planning documents, and their negative connotations. Kevin Lynch and Donald Appleyard gave us, A Temporary Paradise?, with its title illustrating that San Diego is missing its opportunity to take advantage of our cultural and natural assets (canyons, border, bay). Plus, we started planning in 1908 with John Nolen stating upfront, “Notwithstanding its advantages of situation, climate, and scenery, San Diego is to-day neither interesting nor beautiful. Its city plan is not thoughtful, but on the contrary, ignorant and wasteful.” I get it.

We are still having a hard time with planning today as needed Community Plan Updates go through referendums and delays. Transit-Station Areas plans turn into protesting mobs fearful of 60-foot tall ‘towers of terror!’ And, add in the fact that two nationally-recognized urban planning / smart growth gurus, Bill Fulton and Bill Anderson, were un-ceremonially relieved of their planning director’s duties, its time for cultural shift of planning expectations here. That said, I am very fond of local planner, Jeff Murphy, and am pleased he accepted the director position this week.

Canadian planning director rock stars, Brent Toderian (Vancouver) and Jennifer Kasmit (Toronto), both recently stated that “Planning Directors need to be truth tellers.” Telling the truth builds trust, and it is trust that is lacking between San Diego and its professional planners. Our profession has historically been vilified as consultants to evil developers, administrators of wasteful regulations, and stooges for unjust political agendas. I get it. 

Part of our cultural problem with planning is that in good economic times, San Diego historically tends to value planning as a tool to slow or mollify development spikes. For when money is flowing, it floods our city. And, in bad times, we eliminated planning for it then gets in the way of continues to slows any new building, because thats how it had been used before the sudden crash. 

Therefore, we need to learn how to use planning as tool to guide our city buildings, and providing public services as well as limit private investment risks, in both good times and bad. This change will take a cultural shift, and it takes time cultivate culture. The following points are how I think we can start this shift:


No, I do not mean scatter downtown’s high-design residential towers across the city (we tried that 40 years ago and it got us the 30-foot height limit along the coast). I mean review the tools that changed its culture from a 9-to-5 business district into mixed-use, more walkable urbanity. The tools were a carefully localized zoning tool (its PDO), a defensible environmental document, and a predictable permitting process.

Throughout the rest of San Diego, we have a problem with implementing our big policy documents (General Plan, Community Plans, TOD Guidelines, Climate Action Plan) because we then treat everything at zoning/regulation level with a one-size-fits-all approach. One of downtown’s best lessons is the value of detailed plans and planning at the neighborhood scale. As a matter of fact, today’s Community Plan updates are replacing local PDOs that need to be updated for new city-wide zoning. Downtown should teach us to avoid this approach and try to localize our rules to better limit conflicts between neighbors over details such as how new buildings face onto the street and backs up its neighbor, and the character of that street, from Main Streets to quiet residential streets.

Streets are for cars, people, bikes, shops, homes...

Streets are for cars, people, bikes, shops, homes…


We need our leadership to discuss where we are going with our city planned. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Today, we rely too much on our short-term political leadership to move projects from idea to building permit. And, without enough capacity to equitably provide the same attention to everyone, only a few get this excellent service.

Mr. Stepner reminded me that former Mayoral icon, Pete Wilson, set broad goals and used his professional staff to do their best duty of care to make the right decisions. These decisions use to be based on best practices and national models modified to the local context. Somehow we’ve lost that trust. I recommend our local professional and advocacy groups shift from preaching the choir to directly engaging local political leadership in lectures, workshops, and presentations on best practices from around the world (but don’t lose your 501c3 status).


Ok, San Diego, we’ve got 1980 suburbia down… We know how to designated the use of a building, disclose its impacts on the environment, measure its Average Daily Trips, calculate the financing needed to build a new traffic signal at the intersection down the street these new trips will drive through, and collect Development Impact Fees for a future park that is expensive to build. While this system works well in a new residential pod out in Rancho del Rancho, it is impossible to use in our older, urban neighborhoods. This partially why our new policy goals mentioned above are difficult to implement. We’re using 20th century tools, such as land-use based zoning, to build a 21st century city. There are 21st century planning tools, such as context-sensitive, form-based, and place-based zoning tools and street typologies, available to make connections between policy and getting the places we want built. 

In our market-oriented economy, we must shift our reluctance to plan towards being a tool that bridges our city’s ongoing disjunction between an individual’s wants and our collective needs.

*National ACIP Examination Preparation Course Guidebook, 2000

“Just Get the Ground Floor Right…” Modernisms Last Stand

Urban Design, Urban Planning

It was Luxembourg’s Leon Krier whose transformative polemic in the 1970’s and 80’s shaped America’s New Urbanism of the 90’s and 00’s and our reformation of traditional mixed-use, walkable, urbanism today. I’ve watched my city take baby steps from outlawed urbanism (’60s single-use zoning), to downtown sub-urbanism (’80s drive-thru Jiffy Lubes), to ‘safer’ Vancouver urbanism (’00s single point towers surrounded by suburban townhouses). And, over these 40 years this one truth has been drummed into our downtown urban design consciousness, “just get the ground floor right” and everything else will be fine.

Leon Krier's Studies of Traditional Urban Patterns has Decidedly Influenced our Cities of Today (Image Courtesy of LKrier)

Leon Krier’s Studies of Traditional Urban Patterns has Decidedly Influenced our Cities of Today (Image Courtesy of LKrier)

So, we’ve stopped clipping the traditional, walkable, grid with new freeway off/on ramps. We are returning fast, one-way streets leading to those freeways into more humane, shopping promenades. We’ve added streetcars, jitneys, car and bike share stations, and protected bike lanes to help us get around. Small parks, plazas, and parklets spout up in vacant lots and street corners to slow us down and smell the coffee and craft beer. We are seriously endeavoring to repair our urban street pattern with infill redevelopment projects filling in and firming up our street walls as this interface supports the vitality and exhilaration of being downtown.

With this 2-dimensional base being well laid, downtown agencies are successfully getting new developers to build their 3-dimensional building’s ground floors in a more humane manner. The market supports this trend and every project’s ground floor has clear window shopfronts, and detailed transoms and awnings have returned with restrained signage, public restrooms, and shops spilling out onto the sidewalk. And nobody dares to dispute getting this first ground floor layer right. The 2D traditional urban street pattern has crept up to shape the 3D base of new architectural design… again, in a more traditional, humane manner.

New Ground Floors that Work (Americana - Rick Caruso)

New Ground Floors that Work (Americana by Rick Caruso)

Rebuked Modernist Ground Floor Ideal ('39 Expo Futurama)

Rebuked Modernist Ground Floor Ideal (’39 Expo Futurama – Wikipedia Image)

And, here is where we find the last bastion of of the modernist architecture… fighting for survival in the materials, shapes, forms, and style of the building’s upper floors. Garish, look-at-me architecture still reigns in this narrow 25 to 140 feet range above the ground floor.

Seen This Proposed for Your Downtown Yet?

Seen One of These Proposed for Your Downtown Yet? (Image: LA Streetsblog)

I find it interesting that modernism has evolved from being a very big idea, to its ubiquitous mid-century development standard, to its now marginalized position between the ground floor and roofline. I completely agree with Witold Rybczynski that modernist architecture fits best in a natural setting, as well with Leon when it sits in juxtaposition to traditional architecture and urbanism.

Bilbao's Big Idea Wasn't,

Bilbao’s Big Idea Wasn’t, “Hire a Starchitect!” It was Learning How to Architecturally Tune a Place to Create Visual and Cultural Complexity! (Image Unattributed)

John Nolen, San Diego’s original urban planner, once wrote in 1907 that city planning finds, “A place for everything, with everything in its place.”  Having been tested and vetted over three generations, maybe modernist architecture has finally found its appropriate place in our everyday life… within a very narrow range pushed as far away from people as possible.

Good Riddance! (Image by HBlackson)

Good Riddance! (Image by HBlackson)

Stand in the Place Where You Live… Being Context-Sensitive

Urban Design, Urban Planning

Every city and town are formed by its neighborhoods, districts, corridors, and its downtown. Each of these place types range from a more urban extreme, such as downtown, towards its more suburban, rural, or natural boundaries. And, each of these include a broad spectrum of public and private functions and places.

Looking in more detail, each neighborhood has its own set of more urban centers, general areas, suburban, and rural edges. For example, in my San Diego neighborhood, our center is the 100% shopping corner with coffee shops, boutiques, bars, mixed-use buildings and bus stops. And, my neighborhood boundary is formed by canyons and Balboa Park. In between are a variety of housing types ranging from garden apartments, bungalow courts, and small lot homes nearer the center to large lot homes along the canyon edges.

Single-use districts are places of industry, education, and regional institutions. These include airports, hospitals, and military bases. I tend to put suburban sprawl in these single-use districts with their ubiquitous pods of housing and strip centers, and nary shall the twain meet.

A city’s corridors are either natural, such as rivers, beaches and protected habitats, or urbanized, such as railways and thoroughfares. Thoroughfares may link one side of the city to the other, or one side of a neighborhood to another, and often change character as they transition from downtown, through older streetcar neighborhoods, and finally to a city’s suburban edge.


Neighborhood Core, Center, General, and Edge Areas (Image by DPZ and Center for Transect Studies)

These thoroughfare corridors are made up of two main elements: centers at key intersections and those segments in between. Thoroughfares may range from well-connected primary streets to less-connected secondary streets. Their centers may range from more intense vertical mixed-use, on at primary cross streets, to less intense horizontal mixed-use at secondary street intersections. A corridor’s intensities and patterns depend upon if they have service alleys and lanes or not, and/or if they have rigid gridiron pattern, a curvilinear network, or are auto collecting arterials in a dendritic hierarchy of streets from freeways to cul-de-sacs.

Intersections have differing intensities depending on street type(s) and number of connections.

Intersections have differing intensities depending on street type(s) and number of connections.

All of which means that context matters.

Using place type elements begins a context-sensitive approach to place-making allows for both understanding the existing conditions, such as discerning if the site is on a primary avenue in a downtown neighborhood or on a secondary street in a suburban residential district, as well as being able to plan for the most appropriate design intervention if it is located in an older streetcar neighborhood with rear alley access. And with that said, a well-connected street will change its character over many miles.

In short, general thoroughfare types range from Highways (connecting regions), to Boulevards (connecting cities), to Avenues (connecting neighborhoods), to Streets (connecting blocks), and then to Alleys (connecting lots).  Each of these support a variety of transit, bicycle, pedestrian, car facilities. By understanding a corridor via its place and street type proponents can use this context-sensitive approach to retrofitting our auto-dominated streetscapes, as well as to explaining changes to local stakeholders and decision-makers (I hope…).

Avenue Plaza 2

Seattle Retrofitting and Transforming its Streetscapes.

San Diego’s Salk Institute

Urban Planning

The Salk Institute is an other-worldly place as I had seen it on posters and calendars for many years before I experienced it first hand. At certain times of the day, nearer sunset, the space can take your breath away. The concrete and granite buildings and plaza are much more transcendental than harsh. The travertine pavers have pulpy texture, and the Roman-esc ‘pozzuolanic’ concrete has a glowing softness too. While mid-day is rarely as nice, the site is never hot due its ocean front location (Mitt Romney couldn’t buy a better lot in La Jolla).

Its power comes from the dynamic tension between its very formal/classical plaza + excellent contemporary architecture + the forced perspective on the mesa edge/ocean natural setting = Wow.

I agree with Witold Rybczynski that modernist architecture sits best in nature and this is such a place looking in one direction (but, don’t turn around). Adding the sound of the plaza’s water rubicon/falls, and scent from its formal rows of orange trees, the experience can be sublime… then you get back in your car and drive through suburban office park hell to go home.

If it wasn’t perched on the side of a cliff, I would bet this space would be the only recognizable place to a San Diegan today a 1,000 years from now…

This is inspired by a terrible article critical of ‘placemaking’ written by James Russell (I’m purposely not providing a link as it was simply a hit on Fred Kent’s excellent Project for Public Spaces group) who states that the Salk was an example of a great ‘public space’ generated without public input. Well, it is not. The Salk is a private institution and the space is only open to the public during work hours and patrolled by security guards. This type of semi-private/public space was discussed thoroughly during the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ summer and their squatting protests on public/private Zuccotti Park.

The idea of ‘public space’ is a relatively new with its revolutionary genesis in our country found in Frederick Law Olmsted’s ‘Central Park’ and Yosemite Valley national park plan. Abraham Lincoln appointed Mr. Olmsted to ‘create a place where all men are equal,’ and these very large public spaces are literal metaphor of this very big idea… We are the land of the free.

While the Salk Institute is a powerful place, true public space is decidedly more powerful, transcendental and revolutionary. And from this, I better appreciate why people such as Lincoln, Olmsted, Lou Kahn, Jonas Salk become historical figures as we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

The Spoken Word… (Podcasts)

Social Media, Urban Planning

I sincerely appreciate the following dedicated podcasters who allowed me to speak on various place making topics… all of whom I admire and hope everyone subscribes to.

This month, March 2014, Andy Boenau’s Urban Speakeasy was a dreamcast of being asked my thoughts on how to create walkable urbanism and I blab away here… Andy makes great movies too.

Last fall of 2013, I talked with Voice of San Diego’s Andy Keatts, Scott Lewis and Rage Green about the resignation of City of San Diego’s Planning Director, and my former boss, Bill Fulton (starts at minute 22:10) here, as well as other San Diego issues, such as our favorite freak out topic: ‘Density!’ I thoroughly enjoy this teams weekly discussions and reporting on all things San Diego.

At CNU 21 in Salt Lake City, Strong Towns leaders Chuck Marohn and Andrew Burleson talked with me twice, for which I am grateful for our conversation here (about Big Ideas starting by minute 16:00) and here. These are weblinks that may not connect for everyone. Know that Strong Towns podcasts are on iTunes. The organization is taking on and changing our nation’s suburban development patterns with rational exuberance. Chuck Marohn is pure gold.

The cover image is something I made for Bike San Diego, but it could very well be an image of an iPhone recorder with its operator who seeks out opinions, perspectives, and insight on issues that affect the quality of our every day lives. With the recent ‘Serial‘ being the next ‘Snow Fall,’ and changing the Podcast game, I’m excited for the future of Urbanism Speakeasy, Voice of San Diego, and Strong Towns.


Photo: Mario Covic

Stop Talking about Density and Start Talking about Place.

Urban Planning

When I say, “density,” I picture a place like Little Italy. It’s a mix of townhouses, walk-up flats, small shops, churches, markets and restaurants. I can walk and bike around or drive my car when I want. I envision bumping into friends, enjoying our new Waterfront Park, drinking craft beer and eating from a variety of restaurants with a smile on my face. 

But, when I say “density” to my mom, who lives in the a country ranch house and rides horses, she pictures downtown towers filled with people, an outright oppression of her outdoor lifestyle. And to my granny, “density” means the Huffman six-packs looming over her North Park neighborhood bungalow. These are the hastily built six-or-so apartment unit complexes on single-family lots throughout San Diego’s Mid-City. Granny’s still bitter.

You can measure the density of all of those things, because that’s all density is: a measurement of how many homes fit within an acre of land. That’s all. An that’s all it should be.

My mom’s ranchettes could be between one home per 20 acres or four homes per acre. My granny’s bungalow is between eight and 14 homes per acre, depending on whether she builds a secondary apartment or “granny flat” in her backyard. The townhouses and condos in Little Italy are between 20 and 60 acres per acre, and downtown’s towers are 80 or more homes per acre. 

That’s how we use “density” to measure different types of homes.

But “density” cannot do more than that. It doesn’t tell us what we need to know to make decisions about the places we want to live, and it misinforms the development discussions we have about our future. We see this in our city needing all of sorts of other restrictions, aside from density, to create different places, such as suburban Sabre Springs, more urban North Park, Little Italy or downtown. We have to add in restrictions for height, setbacks, parking ratios and how the property can be used. These many other requirements are what makes a zoning ordinance an unwiedly tome, perfect for bedtime reading.

San Diego is now open for business and dreams of being a corporate business hub, but housing for middle management is hard to find an build. And, focusing on density alone skews the market for building homes we know we need and the market will build.

Community groups will demand the city’s planning department to keep densities artificially low in the hopes that it will keep new housing away. These lower densities intended to stop growth actually push developers towards building just enough very expensive homes to make their profits. These larger, more expensive units aren’t appropriate for our older streetcar neighborhoods. This creates an unintended consequence: introduction of a different building type that conflicts with a community’s character, or skips a step in transitioning from less urban to more urban.

And, high density itself does not make for better development. Density doesn’t tell us anything about context, such as being in located in the center of a neighborhood, or its edge. Neighborhood-scaled, modest, well-designed density is almost impossible to achieve because of all of those other restrictions mentioned above being out of sync with its context. 

Instead of addressing the issue head on – creating new codes and regulations that would allow the market to build a variety of housing types – we continue to rely on density measurements and conventional Land-Use Based zoning and hope for the best. So far that’s produced luxury towers, Huffman six-packs and large tracks of bland apartments in Kearny Mesa and Mira Mesa. The 50-year history of doing it this way has led to our collective mistrust in our neighborhoods between developers, locals, City Hall, and planning professionals. 

Density and land use zoning were borne of conflicts with the industrial revolution and propagated by old insurance companies’ discriminatory “redlining” practices against minorities in the 1930s. These companies outlined certain areas in red on maps and homes within these areas couldn’t buy insurance, which then became the neighborhoods where marginalized minorities were allowed to live. Having insurance allowed homes to become larger and more expensive, which came to mean lower densities in those neighborhoods. While these discriminatory policies have stopped, our current zoning and density maps reflect and continue old redlining practices to this day.

We need better tools to discuss how we build anything new in San Diego. 

I have long advocated for development regulations called “place-based codes” or “form-based codes” to replace the outdated zoning codes we use today. As seen in Denver, Austin, and Miami, they work better because they are built to help us understand that the type of places we want matters more than arbitrary measurements or ratios. 

We should allow the market to set how much retail, residential or office spaces there is on a given street. We should protect our valuable historic neighborhoods. We should control how buildings transition from new to old. We should understand how to transition between different types of buildings to maintain and cultivate a community’s character. It is clear that our long-held conventional approach isn’t achieving these goals, and we have new development tools that can do these things.

But focussing a conversation on “density” can’t. Remember, it is just a number.

(Thank you Andy Keatts for editing help. First published by Voice of San Diego here)


Urban Planning

We understand that by paying our taxes we can leave our private home, in our private car, and drive down a public street, pull into a public parking space and enjoy a beautiful public park or shop on main street. Cities across the nation are trying to figure out how to finance the ongoing maintenance of these existing public services, utilities, streets and parks. This volatile political issue is in desperate need of innovative solutions as we only have two standard approaches today.

The primary approach, in overly simplistic terms, is cities providing citizens the “general benefit” of public infrastructure via taxes placed in its general fund. State funds and gas taxes fund a majority of our street maintenance. This year, our city of 1.3 million people will generate $1.18 billion in taxes/fees and will use approximately 18% of that to maintain 35,000 acres of parks and 2,800 miles of streets. Additional regional/state/fed revenues help to pay for streets along with new development fees and construction requirements. For reference, police and fire protection costs approximately 68% of my city’s total tax revenue.

The other approach Californians have is the ability to vote for Maintenance Assessment Districts (MADs). Assessed property owners are levied an extra fee on their annual property tax bill to pay for “maintenance of district-wide public facilities.” This increased service is called a “special benefit” beyond the City’s basic “general benefit.” These properties are paying for the public life.

The purpose of a MAD is to generate money to pay for public services. These include the upfront installation and long-term maintenance of parks, landscaping, rights-of-way, street lighting, security, flood control, and stormwater drainage. MAD districts are formed with a higher upfront tax to pay for installation, which is then dropped after two-years to pay for maintenance over many years. In 2015, the city of San Diego’s Parks and Recreation Department will spend $35 million maintains services 62 individual MADs in perpetuity.

The advantage of a MAD in California is that our property taxes are capped under Proposition 13, but MAD funding is outside of this cap so MAD revenues fund MAD projects, and not siphoned off to Sacramento. Another advantage of MADs is that these self-funded districts are protected from the economic pendulum swings that affect municipal budgets. 

The disadvantage of a MAD is that a public vote needed to raise the assessment. It is always considered politically difficult to raise taxes. In addition, due to dropping assessments over time and keeping them at the same rate over many years, older MADs typically underfund the maintenance necessary to keep up with the expected quality of the service.


When planning a long-term investment, it is easy to lose track of how valuable public spaces are in terms of social equity, environment protection, and economic value. Frederick Law Olmstead conducted a study from 1856 to 1873 to track how the City of New York’s initial $13 million investment created a $209 million increase in property values on private land immediately adjacent to Central Park. This increased value stands today. As a rule of thumb, private property is 10 – 20% more valuable when fronting onto a civic space.

While we have well-known rules regarding a city’s inability to ‘take’ property value, we have fewer options for a city’s ability to ‘capture’ increased land values due to the public investment of a new public benefit. To spur economic growth cities tend vacillate between short-term direct financial incentives that subsidize private development (tax exemptions, loan programs, expedited entitlement processing, investing in convention centers and stadium for example) and longer-term investments in public infrastructure (via Development Impact Fees, acquiring land, and building new civic spaces for example). With California leaving the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for Urban Renewal era, we are now on the cusp of a new self-taxing Infrastructure Financing era, which will need innovative models.


The first is a newer MAD model. Since 1994, California has allowed for Property-based Business Improvement Districts (P-BIDs), but few cities have participated in the program. Conventional Business improvement Districts (BIDs) generated revenues from business license fees. These property-based tax assessments are approved in shorter 5-year increments, and are therefore more flexible in increasing, decreasing or eliminating property assessments. These P-BIDs are also more responsive to funding building to maintenance and operation set in specific master plans agreed upon by local stakeholders and city planning departments.

Second, the governor just this week signed SB 628, to update our Infrastructure Financing District program. Cities are able to establish a district, adopt an infrastructure financing plan, issue bonds, and fund projects through tax increment financing upon approval by 55% of the voters. These are intended to be a new era redevelopment districts that finance public capital facilities, brownfield restoration, environmental mitigation, low income housing, transit priority projects, and projects to implement a sustainable communities strategy. With the new low voter threshold, from the 2/3rd majority, these districts should become very popular with cities working to leverage the value of its transit investments.

Third is the Lean Urbanism concept introduced by Andres Duany. Being Lean means to reconfigure the future of urban planning towards lighter, quicker and cheaper approaches to development and entrepreneurship in order to deal more agile with the limits of the 21st century. Lean Urbanism is about innovation and allowing City Halls to streamline the processes that hinder socioeconomic development. These types of places exist in slightly different forms in new Innovation Districts/Zones created in San Francisco and New York. These municipalities recognizes that to appeal to new technology markets it must act in a hands-off fashion as these innovative markets change faster than large municipalities can adjust to.

And fourth are Decision Districts. Admittedly my idea, these districts would reconfigure conventional top-down planning department entitlement and financing processes into neighborhood-based mini-planning departments that coordinate public realm streetscape elements (parking, street trees, walkways, signage, lighting, and encroachments) directly with adjacent private realm elements (building frontages, shopfront improvements, entrances and ground/upper floor building functions). Located one lot deep on a Main Street or neighborhood center, these Districts would self-permit and generate fees to supplement P-BIDs, economic development programs, and Main Street Associations. The goal is enable local authority to implement a specific district-level master plan over a set period of time.


Our cities have the opportunity to craft new financing tools that better reflect our cultural shift towards walkable, bikable, lingerable, sitable, and public transit supported urbanism. Moving from the older, larger-scaled, slum clearing, urban renewal models towards finer-grained financing tools is necessary to build and maintain more complex urban places. For we understand that building towards the social and cultural value found in parks, streets, transit stations and main streets enables our cities to continue generating economic value in the 21st century.

City Planning’s Balancing Act

Urban Planning

A city makes many investments, such as infrastructure improvements, life and safety services, and in their employees. To fund such, cities rely upon new development and construction to fuel its economic generation engine with new jobs, housing, shops, parks, fees, and tax revenues. We all know too well the difficulties to build new development in Southern California, as cities usually have to overcome a history of segregated land uses and allowing deplorable new development in our older neighborhoods that challenged its valued character.

All new public and private development is guided by city policies, rules, and standards. New development is valued by cities as financial investments and economic generators to pay for city services, such as streetlights, fire trucks, and retirement pensions. Cities basically have two development-as-investment tools.

The most common tools are found in citywide rules that allow for new development to happen on private property without city review beyond building safety inspections (by-right). These rules are outlined in the General and Community Plan policies and within Zoning and Subdivision regulations. It must be noted that cities allow any property owner to request changes to any of the above rules through a risky and expensive decision-making process (discretionary review). Because of this expense, it is usually well-financed developers with large-scale projects who apply to amend these rules, which make these proposals politically volatile, polarizing, and well documented in the local press and local blogs.

The other investment path is found in city-targeted areas for new types of developments, such as new transit station areas, convention centers, or sports stadiums. These tools are found in Master Plans, Corridor Plans, and Specific Plans, which are vetted through an onerous environmental impact review, multiple city decision-making boards and commissions, and finally with a City Council vote. While the by-right development tool is an easier path, these city-targeted projects usually have local political backing to be built.

In addition, the State instructs California cities to continually update their General and Community Plan policies and requires that these be both internally consistent with each other as well as in alignment with more detailed Zoning and Subdivision regulations. All of these updates must be “disclosed” through the California Environmental Quality Act review process, which we all know and love to manipulate. For example, unions challenge projects to ensure labor contracts; environmental lawyers threaten lawsuits to enrich their cause; and, neighbors will argue “water supply” as proxy to not allowing any changes to happen in their community. Because of this reality, these city-initiated policy and regulation updates are politically volatile, are rarely updated, and rarely in conformance.

Unfortunately, when these convoluted by-right rules end up staying on the books for generations, such as segregating land use born from historic insurance redlining practices, they make present-day development models illegal and very difficult to build. Because this circle of planning life is admittedly broken and difficult, developers and cities prefer to negotiate directly with city leadership.

Honestly, new development changes a neighborhood, either gradually or radically. Californians are fortunate to have a high quality of life, and change can be a very real threat to such. Because change is fearful, local citizens are seemingly against all new development, which as noted above is allowed by right, by amendment, or by city initiative. And while change is constant in our cities, we all want to manage that change in order to limit its risk, leverage its value, and fulfill its expectations. I know this because I am raising teenagers.

An important question to be answered is, “does the fear of change outweigh the pain that new development intends to fix?” For example, while there is consensus on the need for attainable housing in southern California, is it worth an oversized, out-of-character apartment block to achieve it? In answering this question, a city’s planning staff is often seen as the agent of change to be vehemently opposed, rather than as a mediator for vetting proposals.

I believe this is because the general public has a hard time understanding the nuanced difference between a privately initiated development proposal and a city-initiated development proposal. Most folks do not understand that private landowners have the right to make a proposal and that city planning staff must respond and process it. Add in the city’s convoluted planning processes, and too many folks end up not trusting any planning efforts, projects, and proposals. Opposing new projects is now sport, with cheerleaders, players, and scorecards.

The lost art of the planning profession is in aligning short-term private development proposals with long-term public investments to realize a city’s vision, goals, policies, and rules. The great recession revealed how many cities dismissed the value and role of planning in generating economic development. They formed blue ribbon committees to cut red tape and scale back policies, regulations, and staff, deemed to be in the way of new investment. While these cities held private investment in a higher regard than public investment, good city planning practices teaches that both are necessary for a city to thrive.

I suggest the planning profession track the quick transition of Redevelopment Agencies from 1950’s urban renewal practices towards 2015’s infrastructure financing mechanisms. A standard practice for 50-years, redevelopment is now being realigned with the cultural shift of people today wanting to live, work, play and shop in older, urban neighborhoods. Urban blight has been replaced by finding money to fix our crumbling streets, sewers and transit systems. If planning continues to use its same long-standing planning practices it will continue to marginalize its value and be misunderstood and mistrusted by residents and politicians.

Former City of San Diego Planning Director, Bill Fulton, and current City of Los Angeles Deputy Mayor, Rick Cole reinforce these points here and here.