For those that have ever attended a Community Planning Group meeting in the city of San Diego, I salute you. CPGs function as advisory bodies to the city on land use, development and transportation decisions for their neighborhoods. The meetings can be intense, especially if a controversial housing or transportation project is on the agenda.
As a former City Council representative for District 3, representing downtown and the neighborhoods surrounding Balboa Park, I can attest to the inconsistencies in how these groups operate. I sat through countless CPG meetings, some pedestrian, some very contentious.
After serving in the District 3 office, I was elected to my neighborhood CPG, the North Park Planning Committee, and will serve until March 2023. I know CPGs from both sides of the table and I know there must be a better way to include community members in decision making.
Like many participatory components of our local government, the process to get involved is convoluted, inaccessible to most, and lacks the ability to gather input equitably. Each neighborhood group has its own bylaws, requirements, and modes of operation. Some CPGs require that you attend past meetings in order to vote in the board election. Surely there is a way to make them more uniform and more equitable.
For me, the need for reform also centers on the reality that these groups can minimize the voices and input of lower-income community members, renters, families, and other marginalized groups. These groups are most impacted by the housing crisis and lack of transportation options in San Diego and their perspectives are often skipped over.
When comparing CPGs pre-pandemic to their current forms, however, we can see a great deal of improvement in terms of accessibility and opportunities for involvement. Instead of people having to physically attend a meeting — commonly held at city facilities or community centers — San Diegans now have the option to log into a virtual meeting and still engage in topics of discussion that are important to them. This is a step in the right direction.
There are also numerous irregularities in these groups that make them out of compliance with the City Charter. A 2018 San Diego County Grand Jury report rang the alarm about CPGs governance and transparency. That same year Circulate San Diego outlined solutions in their Democracy in Planning report after detailing how the CPG process is not only anti-democratic, but illegal.
Then in 2019, the City Attorney issued a memo outlining suggested reforms and the previous City Council set some of those reforms in motion. Now, District 1 Councilmember and CPG veteran Joe LaCava has taken this on as a policy priority.
LaCava has laid out ways we can and should reform planning groups. These reforms include making CPGs responsible for their own documents and website, removing attendance requirements to vote and run for the board, and requiring CPGs to pay for fees if they appeal a development project.
While not a requirement in the proposed reforms, there will be strong encouragement for CPG boards to reflect the demographics of their neighborhoods, specifically when it comes to property owners and renters. As you can imagine, being a renter versus a property owner can give you a very different perspective on housing and transportation planning.
Pro-housing perspectives, often shared by renters, can be met with accusations of being in the pockets of big developers. In North Park, about 70% of residents are renters, which means of the fifteen seats on the North Park Planning Committee, ten of them should be held by renters. With today’s current board makeup, I am the only renter.
My voice feels mostly welcome at North Park Planning Committee, but I know that is not always the case. I’ve attended many a planning group meeting where renters are stigmatized, treated as if their opinions don’t matter or as if they are not invested in their community.
As a renter who is highly invested, I welcome more neighbors and know that more housing in North Park increases my chances of being able to purchase property in my neighborhood one day. Many folks who rent may not be familiar with CPGs and very little outreach is done to engage this population, so encouraging boards to reflect their neighborhood demographics is vital.
The proposed changes by LaCava will bring CPGs into compliance with the City Charter and bring consistency to these advisory bodies. With clearly communicated expectations and uniformity, these groups can function better, build trust, and deliver more neighborhood benefits.
I firmly believe that we need more voices in our city government, but they need to be engaged in a way that is pragmatic, equitable, and constructive. These reforms are a great start.
Tyler Renner is director of media for People Assisting The Homeless (PATH) and served on the District 3 council staff.