To Save Community Planning in San Diego, Let's Kill Community Planning Groups

In San Diego, most development projects and other big planning decisions make a trip to a Community Planning Group, or CPG.  Currently, we have over 40 CPGs in San Diego.  The CPGs are a creation of the City Council and are currently operated under a Council Policy.  The groups, however, date back to 1966, when local residents became wary of the City's booming growth and were concerned that the City was ignoring the opinions of locals by listening only to developers.

The vote of the CPG is purely advisory and is merely presented to the City Council as one form of community input.  Despite the advisory nature of the vote, developers want a vote in favor of their project and are often willing to tweak a project to get an approval.  If the CPG happens to be NIMBYish, this means projects are downsized or altered before they ever reach the Planning Commission or City Council.

Generally speaking, there are three main purposes for a community planning group: (1) serve as a general town hall where local residents can voice their concerns and city leaders and other politicians can listen and share information, (2) a forum for developers and city planners to present proposed projects to the community, and (3) an voice for the community to provide an opinion on whether they approve or disapprove a proposal.  These main goals apply not only to specific projects, but also in forming the Community Plan for each area and providing other input to the Council and other parts of the city government on a variety of topics related to planning.

When you consider how to achieve these three main goals, the current conception of CPGs makes sense when you think about when they first came into creation.

Imagine the 1960s, long before the internet and other modern methods of communication.  For a point of reference, here is some weird-looking building under construction in Mission Valley in 1966:

In 1966, if the City was interested in getting the input of residents, the CPGs were the obvious method:  hold scheduled, noticed meetings, elect community representatives to serve on the CPG board, and have formal votes to recommend projects to the City Council or Planning Commission.  The goal of seeking community input is, and always was, important, and the CPG structure fit the times.  There was no way to easily disseminate information to all community residents: photocopiers were barely in existence and the cost of postage would be enormous.  Thus, open meetings were required to present the information.  Because not every resident could be expected to make every meeting, it made sense to have an election to appoint representative board members.  The residents could trust that they voted for someone that represented their views and would vote accordingly. 

Even if the CPG format was the best means available in 1966, however, does not mean it was perfect.  Many CPG meetings are held once a month, either in the middle of day or in the early evening.  These one-shot opportunities to be involved means that anyone that can't get off work or that needs to make dinner and watch the kids can't make it.  The result is predictable: CPGs are notoriously full of older retired people or owners of local businesses.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with these groups being involved, but it's a stretch to say they are truly representative of the community.  Also, everyone but the Board in most circumstances isn't given the opportunity to see the proposal before it is presented to be voted on.  Again, this made sense in 1966, but it limits the reach of the groups.

Fast forward to 2016, and CPGs still exist and operate in mostly the same manner as they did 50 years ago.  CPG Boards are elected, meetings are held, and recommendations are made.  The idea is wonderful, and although the CPG votes are purely advisory, there can be no doubt that CPGs are an important institution in San Diego.  The question, however, is whether they are the most effective means to achieve the desired ends.

So how could we make the CPGs more effective at reaching the highest number of community members and getting the opinion of as many residents as possible?  If you asked nearly anyone about the best way to present ideas to a large, diverse group and gather input, I would be willing to bet that you may hear the word "internet."  But with today's CPGs, the use of the internet is minimal: the posting of a few general plan documents, an agenda for the upcoming meeting, and past minutes.  Some groups are good about having an online presence, while others barely exist online.  But what if CPGs were to fully embrace the internet?  What would community planning look like?  Could we lower the "cost" of community involvement?

First, community meetings serving as "town halls" are great and fine.  As Howard Blackson likes to point out, this function is important, but should be separated from the advisory positions of the CPG.  The town hall function doesn't need to change, although it could be supplemented.

But let's focus on the goal of providing information to the residents about proposed planning matters.  Instead of presenting these matters to the Board,  all developers could be required to post their proposals online, including all supporting materials.  The applicant or city planner could prepare videos of the presentation that would have otherwise made to the CPG and post all materials in clear, colorful PDFs.  Residents could sign up to receive any new materials and have them delivered right to their inbox. Because the proposals are online, residents could ask questions and the developer could respond. Likewise, if each community had a managed Facebook page, important community information could be posted quickly and easily.  Today, the North Park Planning Group has a Facebook page with 685 followers.  Just this week, the Uptown Planners had an election where 540 people showed up and it was considered "exceptional."  A far lower number is coming to every meeting.  Although the people that are on a planning group Facebook page may be different than those attending the meetings, there can be no question that it reaches a larger percentage of the population than nearly all CPG monthly meetings.

Second, let's look at the output from the CPG.  In 1966, elected boards made some sense: it would take forever for people to mail in their comments. People can't make every meeting and needed a representative Board member to make their voice heard.  In other words, the "cost" of attending meetings and providing advice to the City was high and in light of this cost, it made sense to have representational Board members selected by a vote.  But today, with the internet and the ability to instantly create polls and forms, why does there even need to be an elected Board?  The cost of collecting input has plummeted to the point where it is effortless to provide an opinion.  Proposed projects could be posted in a way that allows people to annotate the materials and make comments, either in favor or to criticize a plan.  The application or other planning materials requiring a vote would have to be posted for at least 30 days and then a vote could occur at any time in those 30 days.  Instead of restricting the vote to the elected Board, anyone could vote.  The results and comments could then be collected and presented in a standardized form to the City.  These results would be much more "loose," but where is the harm if the input is only advisory?  The same can be said for draft Community Plans if put online in a way that allows annotations and comments.  By allowing for nuance and greater community involvement, the advice presented to the City would be much more valuable.

Some people may say that an online vote would be hard to control to ensure that only residents are involved.  My response would be: why do we need to control the vote? The CPG vote is merely advisory and the power is still vested in our actual elected leaders on the City Council to make a decision.  When the goal is to only obtain the advice of residents, there is no reason to restrict the ability to vote.  Why does someone who rents an apartment in Golden Hill but work 12 hours a day in Sorrento Valley get to have a say in projects involving Golden Hill, while someone who lives in North Park but walks to Golden Hill where he works all day not have a right to be involved?  If I am interested in buying a house in Mission Hills someday, why can't I express my opinion about what the community should be?  If I am 65 and lived in Little Italy all my life but just retired to La Jolla, why is my input on the community not valued?  If I am a tourist and visit Pacific Beach each year, shouldn't I be entitled to have an opinion? If I ride my bike through Hillcrest every day to get to work, can't I comment on the design of those lanes?  Why do business owners get a say, but not longtime employees?  The list could go on forever.  When we are dealing with the amorphous concept of a "community," it makes little sense to try and define the members as only residents and business owners.  We can categorize the input based on resident versus non-resident, but let's everyone contribute.

A normal reaction these days to using the "internet" is that it excludes older residents.  In 2016, I don't see how this can be credible.  Nearly everyone has email, owns a computer, and even people over the age of 60 are regularly reading online and commenting on pictures of their grandchildren on Facebook.  But even accepting that this is true, why is it a problem?  The current CPG format makes it very difficult for anyone with a job and/or children to participate.  Why is that preferable to a method that makes it more difficult for elderly residents?  If we were forced to choose, shouldn't planning for the future be focused on gathering the voices of our younger residents?  But in the end, I think it is a false choice.  The Internet in 2016 is used by everyone, young and old.  There is no reason to cling to the status quo because of vague concerns and fear of change.  Moreover, if we are still having townhall meeting of the CPG, there is no reason that people who refuse to use the Internet couldn't vote in person.  There is no need to limit the input anymore.

Bottom line, the goal of community planning should be to inform as many residents as possible and provide input to the City from as many residents as possible.  There may be a better way than I am proposing, but it's hard to make the case that the current procedures are the best methods to achieving the goals of community planning. It's time to move on.