Advocates See Room For Improvement In San Diego's 'Placemaking' Program
One year ago, a community nonprofit in City Heights installed four picnic tables on city-owned right-of-way at 50th Street and University Avenue. Since then it has become a popular gathering place for the neighborhood's Somali community.
The benches and tables — which are decorated with an East African board game — were one of the first projects approved under San Diego's "placemaking" ordinance. Placemaking refers to small-scale beautification projects meant to enhance a neighborhood's cultural identity.
Anastasia Brewster, strategic partnerships manager at the City Heights Community Development Corporation, spearheaded the project. She said it also functions as a traffic calming measure on one of the city's most dangerous streets.
"When you see people here, there's a lot more dignity brought to the community," she said.
A year-and-a-half after the placemaking ordinance was approved by the San Diego City Council, city officials have issued three permits under the program. The other two were for signage in Old Town and lighting in the Gaslamp Quarter. Another four projects are still in review.
Brewster said when City Heights CDC first approached the city with its idea, it was told the tables and benches would require a development permit costing some $20,000 — a price she said was "completely out of our budget" and exorbitant for such a small and simple project. The placemaking permit cost only $1,500, and the nonprofit got reimbursed through a city grant program.
But Brewster said the group still had to hire a consultant to help with paperwork, and that it decided not to include art in the project to avoid having to jump through one more bureaucratic hoop: The city requires projects with art to first secure approval from the city's Commission for Arts and Culture before applying for a placemaking permit.
"That is just another hurdle to just very simple community-driven work," she said. "I think that with a creative solution, we could change that."
Projects in the city's coastal neighborhoods also need an additional permit after the California Coastal Commission forced the city to amend its ordinance.
Elizabeth Studebaker, who oversees the placemaking program in the city's Economic Development Department, said the city plans on reviewing the ordinance's effectiveness and presenting its findings to the City Council. But she added that the ordinance was crafted to avoid half-baked projects.
"Most of that review process is ensuring that the applicants have a plan, and they can tell us what their plan is, and they can tell us what materials they're using," she said.
Studebaker also defended the city's decision to exclude neighborhoods restricted to single-family homes from the streamlined approval process. She said commercial districts and neighborhoods that allow apartment and condo buildings are understood to be shared public space.
"Single-family unit residentially zoned areas are generally considered a little bit more private," she said.
The push to amend city laws to facilitate placemaking started after the failure of a project in Lincoln Park. In 2015 the nonprofit Urban Collaborative Project installed benches and planter boxes to beautify the blighted intersection of Euclid and Imperial avenues. But city officials ordered the benches removed, saying the nonprofit failed to secure the proper permits.
Barry Pollard, the group's executive director, shifted his efforts to a vacant lot one block away. The lot is now a community gathering space that hosts parties, spoken word events and yoga classes.
Pollard said he hoped the city does more proactive outreach to encourage placemaking projects. And he said city staffers should go out to see the projects when they're completed so they more deeply understand how placemaking can build community pride.
"We're talking about empowering the communities," he said. "Things like this is what makes them feel better about themselves."