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Trip to San Diego Shows the Value of Planning

By Eric Richardson
Published: Monday, August 25, 2008, at 11:28AM
Bringing Back Broadway SD Field Trip Group Shot Eric Richardson [Flickr]

The Bringing Back Broadway group poses for a photo next to CCDC's model of downtown San Diego.

What can the redevelopment of San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter teach us about how to foster Broadway redevelopment? That was the question that a group of more than fifty stakeholders from Downtown Los Angeles set out to answer last week, taking part in a two-day trip organized by the Bringing Back Broadway effort.

While there were plenty of options for good conclusions to take away, perhaps the most important theme was the value of a strong planning process.

A major issue to revitalization in Downtown Los Angeles is the time and uncertainty involved in opening any sort of a business that requires a Conditional Use Permit (CUP). It can often take a new restaurant or bar a year to get the necessary permissions to open.

For a new business, that delay can be a killer. How is a new restaurant, for instance, supposed to pay rent on a space for a year when it has no money coming in? Even more, how can it be expected to do so if the CUP isn't a sure thing? The uncertainty creates a situation where opening a business in Downtown Los Angeles has an uncertain cost, and that makes it harder for those who would open businesses to find backers, get spaces, etc.

Consider the cases of the Pacific Electric and Santa Fe Lofts, both at the corner of 6th and Main. PE Lofts applied for six liquor licenses in May of 2006. The licenses were granted without much fuss. The Santa Fe Lofts applied for a similar mix of permits in July of 2007, and its applications were rejected, due to political whims and a zoning administrator who had a different plan for the neighborhood.

In San Diego, three planning tools create a far different landscape for those who would wish to start businesses.

First, San Diego has strong community plans. Whereas Los Angeles' Community Plans have traditionally been extremely generic, San Diego's Downtown Community Plan offers much more fine-grained detail on the sort of uses and the type of development that should occur in each of its neighborhoods. Additionally, the "Gaslamp Quarter Planned District" has even more specific rules on design and usages.

Second, a Master Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was done for the Downtown region. This cut the timetable for new development by taking a step out of the process and giving an incoming developer a clearer sense of what mitigation would be required for the project.

And finally, approval responsibility for most projects Downtown was handed over to CCDC, with only appeals going to the city's Planning Commission and City Council. Again, this streamlined the process of development and reduced the number of meetings and approvals that a project would need to get in order to commence.

This final step was only possible thanks to the first two. Having clear rules for what was and wasn't allowed reduced the complexity of the approval process. The City Council and Planning department were heavily involved in the plan development, and were then able to allow CCDC to take charge in implementation.

These planning documents have the effect of making development and business planning a much more straight-forward endeavor, offering a checklist that a project must meet and allowing certainty about the acceptability of a project.

The bottom line? Where it can take a year to get approvals here in Los Angeles, the process takes perhaps three months in San Diego.

Here in Downtown we've taken early steps toward some of these items. The Planning department is in the process of redoing many of the city's Community Plans, and Planning head Gail Goldberg has brought this eye toward plan detail with her from San Diego. The Downtown Center BID has been working with the city on a blanket CUP to cover 7th street, hoping to drastically simplify the approval process on a street the group hopes to see turn into "Restaurant Row."


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