Planners’ new slogan: Winner or dud?

‘Complete community’ offered as replacement for ‘smart growth’

Roger Showley • UT


The Urban Land Institute panel included, from left, Diego Velasco, Reese Jarrett, Joe LaCava and Darin Dinsmore.

The Urban Land Institute panel, from left: Diego Velasco, Reese Jarrett, Joe LaCava and Darin Dinsmore

Urban planners and developers, always on the hunt for a new catchphrase, admitted Wednesday that they have largely failed to tell the public what’s ahead as San Diego enters an increasingly urbanized future.

“It was instructive to me about how we are perhaps not communicating with the average person,” said Joe LaCava, one of the panelists at an Urban Land Institute breakfast panel Thursday, recalling the feeling after one explosive neighborhood meeting earlier this year.

The group toyed with the latest buzzword, “complete communities,” as a new way to communicate what they’re up to. The phrase is meant to entice the public to accept growth by offering a higher quality of life that’s free of congestion, full of housing they can afford and closeby shopping, recreation and workplaces.

Previous slogans have apparently fallen flat: smart growth, city of villages, transit oriented development.

Mary Lydon, executive director of the local ULI chapter, said the search for a new way forward began last year, when a larger meeting reviewed six case studies and eight cities’ stories in how they coped with neighborhood opposition and produced a successful project or program.

“How do we move forward to realize that vision?” Lydon asked the four-member panel, moderated by Voice of San Diego’s Andrew Keatts.

LaCava, chairman of the city’s Community Planners Committee, said too often community planning meetings attract the in-crowd of professionals and civic activists, while the grassroots, silent majority remain absent and unheard.

Then it’s the developer who unwittingly must implement the new rules in the face of skeptical citizens, who have been disappointed when completed projects look nothing like the pretty renderings previously released.

“To me it’s unfair burden on the private developer,” LaCava said.

To Diego Velasco, a Barrio Logan planner at the M.W. Steele Group and president of the Citizens Coordinate for Century 3 good-planning group, the debate about San Diego’s future is muddied by generational disconnects — young people want to live in urban centers and do without a car, while their elders like the suburbs.

But with little open land left to develop new suburbs, the projected growth of San Diego by a million people over the next 30 years means suburban life will change.

“We’re living in an increasingly urban world and San Diego is no different,” he said. “There’s a disconnect between that group of people (in the suburbs) and that group of people who are choosing to live in urban neighborhoods.”

To bridge the gap, Darin Dinsmore, CEO of the Crowdbrite consulting firm, said new technology allows for more broad-based, online community participation in public policy.

“One of the biggest challenges is how to engage people in an authentic way in planning the future of cities and communities,” he said.

That’s one of the goals at Civic San Diego, said its president Reese Jarrett. The city’s development arm for downtown and inner-city neighborhoods is trying to find new funds and partners to make improvements while involving local residents and business leaders.

“We need to spend more time asking them how to complete their neighborhood and make it better,” Jarrett said.

The complete communities concept was promulgated by the Reconnecting America public transit advocacy group, which has since disbanded. It rated how complete America’s 366 metropolitan areas, including San Diego County are in four key areas — living, working, moving and “thriving” in the 21st century

Its 2012 report — “Are We There Yet?” — rated 366 metropolitan areas, including San Diego, in four key areas — living, working, moving and “thriving” in the 21st century.

San Diego earned three C’s and a B, while six other metro areas got all A’s — Denver, Honolulu, New York, Portland, San Francisco and San Jose.

In San Diego the debate over what Jarrett called the “D-word” — building density — reached a fever pitch earlier this year when residents of the Clairemont-Bay Park area objected to preliminary plans for development along the trolley line that will link Old Town and University City in the next few years.

LaCava cited that experience as an example of how not to roll out a visionary plan to the public before educating them on what the benefits might be.

He said once plans are approved, elected officials and other civic leaders need to share the concepts with the public and win their support.

“They need to stand tall and defend what they do,” he said.

Click here to download the PDF, “Are We There Yet”