As with all of my posts, some of these links are informative, some are fun and some are just random. Getting some basic information about how our community works doesn’t have to be mind-numbingly boring, so please be a good sport if you are used to reading “serious academic works” and this is a little more relaxed than that. Warning aside, let’s get started.
Usually I write about food, travel and craft beer (an industry that had a $3 Billion impact on California last year, by the way). But the ‘give’ portion of my site is not just about giving money–it’s about giving time in service to the things we care about. For me, that means young people, economic opportunity, homelessness and civic engagement and, relevant here, my community. I’m starting a separate site to deal more specifically with San Diego issues, you can check that out here. But for now I want to keep updating about various civic affairs and things that seem important. With so much talk about outdated community plans and with my own community going through an update, I thought it might be interesting to help others engage in the process. Here’s goes…
A Community Plan is kind of like a blue print for how a community wants to see itself grow over time. Plans are important because they shape what type of community you live in and because they are legal documents that establish what types of things can and can’t be done in a neighborhood. For example, in San Diego the local laws (called the Municipal Code) show that certain types of projects are not allowed unless they are in line with the Community Plan. Here’s the city of San Diego’s explanation of Community Plans. Each of the Community Plans builds off of the City of San Diego General Plan, which has a similar role for the entire City of San Diego as the Community Plans have for each community. The most recent General Plan was passed in 2008, and you can read the whole thing here.
Even though volunteers in North Park have been busy working on the update to our Community Plan for a couple years, there are still opportunities to get involved and help think through what our community is going to look like 20-30 years from now. Click here for the vision that the neighborhood’s Community Planning Group has described for North Park. I want to provide some background on why a Community Plan update matters to you in case you do want to get more involved. One thing to bear in mind about even the most well-intended Community Planning Group is that they are typically elected by no more than 1-200 members of the community, so unlike your City Council person, we (I am a member of the North Park CPG) are not elected to represent the wishes of the community in a broad sense and are better viewed in my opinion as neighborly advisory assistance to the elected officials and city staff. I don’t want to minimize the work that I or others do as volunteers, but context matters so I hope this helps frame Planning Group limitations. (Update: my point is not to invalidate CPGs, it’s to understand that being elected by 200 people is not the same as being elected by 200,000. We are an important aid in the process, but we don’t hold community coffees, we don’t have staff who spend every day hearing from people across the community the way an elected official does. The CPG is important, but it has limitations, I think sometimes it’s good to remember that.)
I will focus on a concept called land use because it is one of the basic building blocks to every other aspect of a community. Land use is a concept that really just describes what a person or company can do with their property. For example, we probably don’t want oil refineries next to day care centers or residential homes, but we have a Constitution that protects everyone’s individual property rights, so a balance must be struck between what you can do with property you (or someone in your family) paid for versus a broader social concern about what type of community is healthy and appropriate for all its residents. Lots of people have written about this balancing act, you can read a perspective from someone who favors property rights versus one who favors community-level planning. But now let’s get back to North Park.
Here’s the existing North Park Community Plan, which was adopted by the City Council in 1986 (yes, it’s old). The plan covers things like what kind of transportation we need, how to preserve open space and parks, what types of cultural resources we have and, of course, land use. Here’s a look at the current land use map.
The map shows each of the separate pieces of land in North Park (called parcels), and it is color-coded by the different type of use allowed on each piece of land. The point isn’t to understand every single shade of grey, it’s just to get the idea. I’ll explain the colors more below.
Here’s the draft proposed new land use map for North Park.
There are some differences. One difference is that the new map has more allowance for population density along El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue. Population density is the term for the amount of people who live in a certain amount of physical space. For example, if your five-person family owns a farm that covers one square mile, you have a population density of 5 people per square mile. The City of San Diego, by contrast, is 372.4 square miles and has a population density of about 3,561 people/square mile. So, you know, a lot more dense than my farm example. According to one news source, San Diego County will grow by 1.3 Million people over the next few decades, so we probably need to think about where those people will go. And it turns out that most of them will be born here, not moving in from other places. Managing density is important and the North Park Update Committee has been reaching out to as many people as possible to find a solution that works for as many neighbors and businesses as possible.
In the current map, the properties are shaded from light to dark according to increasing density. For example, light brown areas have less population density than very dark brown ones. The proposed map adds slightly different shading and cross-hatching, but you can tell by the key that it allows for increased density around the major east/west streets. This map is just for housing and open space, but similar maps exist for businesses and other land uses. The business map is important because it impacts what types of businesses are allowed in certain areas. If you’ve walked down El Cajon Blvd and wondered why you can’t leisurely stroll from The Lafayette to Pizzeria Bruno without passing auto shops and sales yards, it’s because the local laws currently allow for these types of businesses to exist next to each other. If you grew up in Barrio Logan you might have wondered why businesses that release chemicals into the air are next to residences. These are the types of issues that Community Plans must grapple with and why participating is important.
Whether your preference is a better business climate or more walkable, pedestrian-friendly areas, getting involved is the way to make sure that perspective is heard. I have a bias for bikes and walking and independent small businesses. If you live in Rancho Bernardo you might prefer driving around in your car to a strip mall or a large chain restaurant or shop. For the life of me I couldn’t understand why that might be, but you might be wondering why I’d want to bike somewhere if I can afford a car. Diff’rent Strokes, I say. Still, our preferences are reflected in these Plans and that’s one reason they are important.
Another difference between the old map and the planned new map is the attempt to set aside more open space (like parks and canyons). You can see that in the green color differences. One question you might ask is what kind of rules do we want as a community for the types of things people can do with their property. Do we want to keep as many single family homes as we currently have? Do we want a transportation system that focuses on cars? Bikes? Walking? Do we want to be preserving historical items like the Water Tower or replacing it with more park space or something else? These questions don’t have inherently right or wrong answers–no matter what some of our more vocal neighbors might say–they just have the answers we as a community give them. And, for North Park anyway, now is the time to help decide what those answers are going to be.
One important consideration in updating North Park’s community plan is how to make sure the rules that are established are easy to follow. I know first hand from my day job that this is frequently not the case. Real estate developers are people or companies who build the homes and apartments that people live in. One of the less obvious things a Community Plan is supposed to do is make clear what the standards for building new homes will be. Will there be height limitations? Are there styles of homes that are preferred over others? How many homes can be built on a single piece of property? These are the types of questions that a Community Plan helps a real estate developer to answer before they invest in a new project. Ideally, if the rules are clear and easy to follow, that will decrease the cost of building the homes because the planning and design phase will be shorter and the cost of the loan to buy the property will be lower. If everything works well, not only will the developer make a little more money to invest in other projects but the cost of the homes to people who would ultimately buy them will be lower, too. It doesn’t always work that way, but that’s the hope.
All the information for meetings about the North Park Community Plan update and the background can be found here. Getting (and staying) involved isn’t easy when you have a job and family and hobbies and other things that also matter to you. But whether you live in North Park or some other community, if it is the place you intend to call home for the many years to come, participating in conversations like these is one way to ensure the future of the community matches your preferences. Thanks for dropping by, let me know what you think. To read the second part of this series click here.