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City planning process clouded by confusion

DEL MAR — “Uncertainty is the only certainty there is.” When Temple University mathematics professor John Allen Paulos made that comment he could very well have been referring to form-based code.
When the concept was proposed in early 2009 as a means to help revitalize downtown Del Mar, City Council members and residents weren’t quite sure about the process. The nine volunteers selected to serve on an ad hoc committee charged with developing a plan were also unclear.
Thirteen months and 26 meetings later, when the committee made its first public presentation at the June 14 council meeting, residents remained uncertain about the planning process.
Most of the 20 or so speakers at that meeting, including past mayors, said they supported revitalization but not necessarily form-based code, mainly because they mistakenly assumed the Design Review Board, or DRB, would not be part of the process and the final plan would not be put to a vote.
Council and ad hoc committee members all agreed the DRB should be involved in revitalization, although its role has not yet been determined. They also said any final decisions on form-based code would be subject to voter approval even though it is not required.
After that two-and-a-half hour discussion, council asked staff to return the following week with a detailed community outreach program to educate residents and encourage public input. But even that caused skepticism among some council members.
“I’m sorry to be a contrarian but I think it’s important to draw a distinction between what form-based codes are and what they are not,” Councilman Carl Hilliard said. “In reading the staff report I get the sinking sense that they are proposing a sales job and that’s not going to work in Del Mar.”
Many structures in the downtown area have become “physically and functionally obsolete,” according to a report on the city website. They are also legally nonconforming, which means property owners would have to spend a significant amount of money to make any upgrades or changes.
As a result, they do nothing. The buildings continue to deteriorate, the area becomes increasingly unattractive to new businesses and customers, more and more vacancies occur and sales tax revenue used to provide city services declines.
Using form-based code, each building would potentially be redeveloped on a parcel-by-parcel basis rather than being treated basically the same, as is the process with existing zoning regulations. The focus will be on form, scale and character of development and not dimensional standards such as setbacks, height limits and parking ratios.
The city began looking at downtown revitalization more than a decade ago. Ad hoc committee members reviewed nearly half a dozen previous studies and discovered the goals haven’t changed. Residents want the area to become more pedestrian friendly.
Committee member Al Corti, a commercial Realtor, explained why earlier efforts may have been unsuccessful. “The current zoning precludes revitalization,” he said. “There’s no incentive.”
He said there are three major obstacles — building density, parking requirements and building setbacks. “If we truly want revitalization, those are the things we need to address.”
Council members agreed the recent discussions were a good starting point, but they acknowledged that community input is the most important next step.
“We do need to hear what people have to say now — good, bad or worse,” Mayor Richard Earnest said. “Getting people’s reaction and asking questions and listening is what we really need to do.”
With that, council directed staff to come back once again with a community outreach plan that includes less of a sales pitch and more information, opportunities to provide input, pictures and 3-dimensional interactive programs if possible.
There was also talk of creating a detailed project website to provide before and after scenarios. Council members plan to schedule as many community conversations as possible to meet with residents in their homes and discuss form-based codes and the need for revitalization.
“I don’t think we can have too many community conversations,” Earnest said.
After all, as British mathematician Jacob Bronowski once said, “Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”

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