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Guest editorial: Neighborhood planning groups are not closed off to new voices

By Vernita Gutierrea, Stephanie Jennings and Kate Callen

[Editor’s note: The op-ed first appeared on the Voice of San Diego website at bit.ly/vosd-planning-groups on June 28, 2018.]

So far, 2018 has been the year when San Diego’s community planning groups became an endangered species.

The all-volunteer advisory boards, established in 1966 to involve citizens in decisions affecting their own neighborhoods, have come under fire these past six months for being anti-progress, anti-inclusivity, undemocratic, unscrupulous and just too darn old.

The siege began with a Jan. 19 Union-Tribune story titled “San Diego Slips to 32nd in builder interest: Planning groups at fault?” It featured complaints from two real estate leaders that advisory groups impede growth because members are “mostly … white and gray hairs” and “housewives who walk dogs.”

Circulate San Diego entered the fray with a Feb. 12 report, “Democracy in Planning,” charging that planning groups too often are cabals that “are closed off to new and diverse voices,” “make it difficult for new residents, often renters,” to participate and “short-change the housing needs of younger generations.”

The County Grand Jury joined in with an April 18 report that planning groups have so many flaws — from lax recruitment to slow deliberations — that they need close monitoring and probably should be consolidated.

Merging these 43 groups into a central panel hand-picked by elected officials is a popular idea at City Hall. But it doesn’t play well in communities where planning groups, whose members are elected, represent the front line of self-government.

We know this because we’re three of the co-founders of a nonprofit for residents in Golden Hill and North Park. Our group launched in 2016 because our neighborhoods were facing high-impact housing density, and we wanted to stay informed about that.

Our community groups, the Greater Golden Hill Planning Committee and the North Park Planning Committee, are models of democracy. Members capably shoulder a mountain of work, from analyzing draft policies to reviewing environmental studies to soliciting community input.

This spring, for the first time in memory, the Golden Hill and North Park planning committees gave planning group voters the same access to candidates that San Diegans have always had in county and city elections. At pre-election forums, planning group candidates explained where they stand on key issues. The resulting exchanges of ideas and views displayed the vital role the groups play in the democratic process.

The County Grand Jury report’s list of interviewees included members of city departments and “representatives of development contractors” but no community residents nor representatives of resident-run groups. To correct that omission, we offer the following insights from our conversations with millennials who rent, working-class families who staked everything to buy their homes, fixed-income retirees living in the same homes for decades and immigrants in affordable ‘70s-era apartments.

Housing density is inevitable. But city officials and builders need to get serious about mitigating the impacts of density, especially on traffic and parking. We are not seeing plans to ramp up enough infrastructure to accommodate new housing, and this is ominous.

Trying to pit renters against homeowners, or seniors against millennials, shows a complete unfamiliarity with residential quality-of-life issues. If the natural light that streams through a window is blocked by a four-story condo tower, the resulting darkness will be just as depressing for renters in their 20s or owners in their 60s. And weekday commuters of all stripes will suffer equally when new housing stacks up traffic and further clogs rush-hour roads.

The biggest hindrance to affordable housing is the ease with which builders buy their way out of sensible set-aside requirements for lower-income units. And let’s not forget how many existing affordable units will be razed to make way for market-rate projects.

Developers eyeing up Golden Hill and North Park for future projects should think carefully about speed-building oversized bunkers that will mar the historic character and human scale of these neighborhoods.

In the forum exchanges between candidates and voters, ideas surfaced about how people with disparate views about growth issues can meet somewhere in the middle. The goal was that participants walk away with the sense that, if we keep talking constructively and respectfully, we can find ways to clarify land-use laws, build consensus and avoid protracted battles over controversial projects.

In the subsequent elections, voters chose planning group members who are diverse in age, background, interests and life experience. We are eager to work with these representatives on behalf of the neighborhoods we love.

—Vernita Gutierrez and Kate Callen are North Park residents. Stephanie Jennings is a Golden Hill resident. All three serve on the board of the SoNo Neighborhood Alliance, a group informing and engaging residents about quality-of-life issues.

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