So, You Want To Be A City Planner?

OK, so you really want to become a City Planner. Right? But before you do you’ll need to first understand the role of a City Planner and what she/he actually does in the private and public sectors. You’ll also need to acquire planning skills such as writing, analytical and presentation tools, the ability to confront opposing opinions, handle public sentiment, spend numerous hours at public meetings, and have a real sense of humor. You will also need to review and interpret building plans in light of urban design principles, city codes and ordinances.

It is the intent of this planning blog to provide you with some of the planning challenges you can expect as you enter the Planning field. I wrote this blog to share my experiences with you and help you grow and accomplish projects in this interesting and exciting career. I also included some of my own “tip boxes” and opinions in the planning field.

So let’s first discuss what is Urban Planning. According to Wikipedia Urban planning is a technical and political process concerned with the development and use of land, protection and use of the environment, public welfare, and the design of the urban environment, including air, water, and the infrastructure passing into and out of urban areas, such as transportationcommunications, and distribution networks. Urban planning is also referred to as urban and regional planning, regional planning, town planning, city planning, rural planning or some combination in various areas worldwide. It takes many forms and it can share perspectives and practices with urban design. Or as one of my colleagues so eloquently put it: planning is simply creating a “nice” place.

Why did I enter the planning field in the first place? Well, I wanted to be a neighborhood City Planner in San Francisco and “save the world”. The big environmental movement was starting to explode in the 1960’s and I wanted to make sure I got on for the ride. I also enjoyed looking at building designs, understanding how neighborhoods function and how the built environment worked (or didn’t work) in general. Having grown up in North Beach in San Francisco, the “City” was my laboratory and my bible was the Death and Life of Great American Cities written by Jane Jacobs.

So I put together the Degree of Bachelor of Arts with a Major in Urban Development. For at the time there wasn’t any undergraduate city planning major at U. C Berkeley so I had to design my own . I made sure that the Major consisted of courses like “Urban Design“, ”Urban Sociology”, “Urban Economics”, “Introduction to Land Use Law”, and “Political Science”. I felt that these courses were important in development of an appropriate planning degree. Luckily my mentor at U.C. Berkeley agreed with my approach and selections.

So I graduated with a Bachelor Degree with a Major in Urban Development in 1977. I also graduated with a Master of City Planning at U. C. Berkeley in 1979. I was very proud to have graduated with two planning degrees. How appreciative and happy I was for my mentors and teachers who helped me along the way!

It was great news that I graduated with two Planning Degrees from U.C. Berkeley. But you see there was still a small minor problem. I needed to get a job and fast.

My fiancée and I decided to get engaged in the midst of finishing my Master of City Planning. In the meantime we needed to earn some income and find a place that we could both could agree on.

As mentioned earlier my dream was to find a job in San Francisco and work as a City Planner. But I soon realized it wasn’t that easy. Competition was pretty stiff.

I was happy to say that I did get my first job soon after graduation, but it wasn’t in San Francisco. My Planning world was about to detour from San Francisco to the small suburban town of Pleasanton, California.

“Where are we?” my wife asked as we took a ride from San Francisco to the East Bay. “Can we find Pleasanton on the map?” The answer was “No”. In the 1950’s and1960’s the City of Pleasanton was still a small farming town consisting of walnut trees, hops, attractive landscaping and signs of encroaching suburbanization. It was about an hour east from San Francisco and there was NO FOG. For those who care it was also the home of the Alameda County Fair. Wow!

My wife fell in love with the small and intimate ambiance of Pleasanton, while I missed the active city life of San Francisco. As a compromise we chose to live in the unincorporated part of Hayward (and lived there ever since). Rent was cheap and it looked like a great place to raise children. The City of Hayward had all the conveniences we wanted including good public transportation to both Pleasanton and San Francisco (where my wife worked). However, needless to say Hayward wasn’t as attractive as some of the other fast growing East Bay cities (e.g. Walnut Creek, San Ramon, Danville, etc.)

Also the office boom was about to explode in Pleasanton. Ever hear of Hacienda Business Park? At that time developers were trying to build new office buildings in Pleasanton to meet pent up office demand. Research and Development offices became the norm in these business parks.

So there I was, thrown to the lions and ready to be a “City Planner”. Bob Harris was the Planning Director at that time (1979), and I was fortunate that he hired me to do some entry-level Planning work.

My first job was to act as the liaison between the City of Pleasanton and Alameda County Housing Program. I made sure that the City completed its housing projects and spent the appropriate Federal Funds in a timely manner. I also began to review some projects with the Planning Director, including parking and design review. I also performed some code enforcement, which I wasn’t too crazy about. But at least I was exposed to a large variety of planning work that would help me in the future.

During that time I also worked with two Planners (who were also attorneys) and who provided good direction and taught me some good planning skills. My colleagues were Richard Glenn and Brian Swift. Both attorneys helped me to understand and get through my early years as a City Planner. Brian always quizzed me by asking: “Tom, what is planning?” The answer of course was “Planning is the law”. I will never forget that question (and correct answer). Although I wasn’t an attorney at the time, I always kept this question in mind.

Several years following my employment we hired several more planers to work on “Mitigated Negative Declarations”, Environmental Impact Reports and other Planning Documents and studies. They were my great friends who I learned from them over the years (Larry Lew, Michael Church, Maureen Riordan, and others).

A New Job in Redwood City

It was time to move on from Pleasanton. I had worked there for seven years and I learned a lot. However, I felt that I was not appreciated and had been overlooked for planning promotions. Looking back, I realize that sometimes I lacked the skills and needed to work more on the Zoning Ordinance. I thanked the Pleasanton Planners for their support and hard work, and I moved on to a new job in the City of Redwood City.

Joel Patterson was the Planning Director for Redwood City during the mid 1980’s. At my job interview I immediately noticed that Joel had a funny sense of humor and really thought “outside the box”. What made him hire me was the fact that I had done some work in Pleasanton on fence guidelines, and he was looking for someone to take an innovative and new approach on Redwood City’s existing fence ordinance. He wanted to dump the old fence ordinance and start a whole new program from scratch.   It was estimated that 1,000 to 2,000 fences in Redwood City were illegal, i.e. did confirm to the existing zoning ordinance.

We decided we had to make the new Fence Ordinance simple and easy to use. We abided by the simple rule of “Keep it Simple, Stupid (KISS)”. So we prepared a video and used other visual equipment to make the new ordinance fun and humorous, We even changed the name from “Fence Ordinance” to the “Streetscape Ordinance”. We wanted no association with the old past Fence Ordinance! The City Council and Planning Commission approved the Streetscape Ordinance with little debate. Also all the existing illegal fences were allowed to remain, i.e. grandfathered in.

Redwood City Downtown Precise Plan

There was now a new kid on the block who would significantly change the direction of Downtown Redwood City forever. There was a new Community Development Director, Bruce Liedstrand, who worked with staff and consultants to develop new street designs and land uses for the downtown.   All of this was to be a part of a grand visionary document entitled the Redwood City Downtown Precise Plan. The Precise Plan spoke about the vision for the downtown, including new urban design goals and principles. It spoke about “reviving downtown” by creating a beautiful and memorable urban district interwoven with the City’s identity.

Redwood City used to be called: “Deadwood City” because it lacked activity in the downtown. Walk through Downtown Redwood today and you will see that this has dramatically changed incorporating new housing, restaurants, and other activities. Also Redwood City now has more “boosters” that promote and support the new direction of the downtown.

The Precise Plan also recognized the preservation and importance of Redwood City’s historic resources. I must recognize Charles Jany or Mr. History, as he is fondly known, who worked on preservation projects in the downtown and elsewhere. The Precise Plan speaks to “convenience” of living and making the Downtown Redwood City the entertainment center of the Peninsula, and making the pedestrian the top priority. It calls for new urbanism and high density residential uses in the downtown.

Most people were on board with the Downtown Precise Plan, including the dynamic Redwood City Planning Director, Jill Ekas, and Dan Zack, Downtown Development Coordinator. My role was to work with planning consultants to prepare the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Downtown Precise Plan. All future development would be covered within the scope of this EIR, meaning that no other significant environmental work would be required. This process saved time and money for developers. Both the Planning Commission and City Council approved this approach. The City received a planning award for the Downtown Precise Plan.

Today, you can walk downtown and see the fruits of the Downtown Redwood City Precise Plan. Look at all the high-density apartments and condos that are being built around the downtown together with new restaurants and theatre row. People stroll through Courthouse Square enjoying the scenery and the theatre entertainment and enjoy an urban experience.

Should Downtown Redwood City Be This Congested?

Some people believe that Downtown Redwood City has grown too fast, creating traffic and congestion problems. I would argue that the new development is just fulfilling what the Downtown Precise Plan calls for: mixed uses with ground floor retail and above ground residential; restaurants; an entertainment district, and other uses. Congestion is a good thing, as you want people to come downtown, shop, and linger no matter how busy it is.

Tip #6: How does a City Planner make a great downtown? Staff must first determine the characteristics of a great downtown and prepare the appropriate planning document (e.g. Downtown Precise Plan) for the Planning Commission and City Council. You must agree to the vision and guiding principles for your downtown development. Once you have prepared such a document do not deviate from it, but rather carry it through the planning process. Be willing to support and approve the Plan through a thorough public hearing process. Be ready for opposition to your project. Not everyone will share in your excitement. In fact don’t be surprised if there are appeals and lawsuits.

Redwood City General Plan

Every jurisdiction is required by State Law to prepare a General Plan that covers at least seven planning topics: land use, circulation/transportation, housing, conservation, open space, noise and safety. The General Plan reflects a community’s shared vision of what a City is today and plans to be in future years. It is often referred to a Community’s “blueprint”. It serves as the basis of the zoning ordinance and provides guidance in development proposals. The General Plan guides:

  • What the City will look and feel like?
  • Where and how we live?
  • How we will get around?
  • What will do for enlightenment, entertainment and fun?
  • Who we will live with ad preserve natural resources?
  • Ways we will improve our quality of life?

The General Plan is both a living document and a work in progress. Redwood City’s General Plan was adopted on October 11, 2010. The State approved a land use award for Redwood City’s General Plan.

Role of the City Planner

The general plan is a major undertaking required for every City Planning Department in the State. There is a significant number of public hearings, subcommittees, report writing, and evaluation of data.

Tip #7: In preparing a General Plan the City Planner needs to be prepared to write many reports, attend numerous public hearings, and organize a process which is both inclusive and transparent. This can be very difficult to do, so you might be better off to hire some consultants, and also use existing staff for help.

Redwood Shores: A New Neighborhood.

In the meantime a new development was springing up in Redwood City located east of Highway 101. It was called Redwood Shores. Redwood Shores was a somewhat isolated parcel of land located in east Redwood City that was eventually planned for approximately 12,000 residents.

The parcel had previously been used as the home of Marine World. Marine World was an aquatic theme park that consisted of picnic areas, zoo animals, rides and other forms of recreation. It was only meant to be a temporary recreational use until the landowner relocated Marine World to Vallejo (which was completed many years ago).

Today some of the most famous software companies are located in Redwood Shores including Oracle, Electronic Arts and Shutterfly. A shopping center, school, fire station, and open space are all located in Redwood Shores. There is an attractive lagoon system that winds its way through Redwood Shores with abundant wildlife. Due to its attractive layout and job growth, it’s not surprising then to find the median home value in Redwood Shores is about $1,341,800 million dollars. (Source: Zillow – on line real estate).

The new residents in Redwood Shores are covered by a homeowners association to guarantee that the properties are maintained and well-kept. The parcels follow very strict design standards i.e. Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs) and City guidelines. CC&Rs also cover room additions, new and major landscaping, decks and other physical improvements).

During the build out of Redwood Shores the role of City Planners was to review the building plans and made sure they conformed to CC&Rs and City guidelines.

Tip #8: Planners should develop a good rapport with developers and be sure that all parties review together and approve internal CC&Rs and City requirements.

Geographic Information System (GIS)

The 1990’s brought forward new and improved computerized mapping tools to Planning Departments. These tools were commonly referred to as Geographic Information System (GIS). Essentially GIS was the integration of maps with graphics and text. Planners use these tools to analyze new projects and provide zoning and project information in a graphic format that is easily understood by staff and the public. I must admit that I was not very versed in these new computer tools.   However, I understood what we wanted to accomplish and what we needed for GIS. At my urging we went out and hired a GIS technician.

The GIS technician prepared colorful maps and graphics for planning uses. He taught us how to use these maps and also made it simple for the public to use. The GIS technician was a great asset to the Planning Department and helped prepare colorful exhibits for City Council and the Planning Commission.

Tip #9: Invest in a GIS system and hire a good GIS Technician if possible.   Take classes that cover basic GIS work and educate planners on how to use these tools.

Conclusion

I hope that you enjoyed this Planning article and took away some good information and tips. Remember that City Planning can be a very interesting and involved career if you have both the desire and skill set. Your career might have some setbacks, but if you overcome them and stick with your value and goals, you undoubtedly will become a good City Planner. Don’t give up and be open to new employment opportunities no matter where they are located.

Written by Tom Passanisi, a retired City Planner who worked for more than thirty-five years in the planning field. During that time Tom worked with the developer of Redwood Shores during its formative years; served as project planner for the infamous Redwood City Downtown Precise Plan; worked on numerous redevelopment projects; served as liaison to the Redwood City Planning Commission; and authored many land use Ordinances and General Plan Amendments. Tom also served as acting Planning Director. Tom and his colleagues were the recipient of planning awards for: the Redwood City’s Fence Ordinance; Downtown Precise Plan; and Redwood City’s Geographic Information system (GIS);

Feel free to Contact me at passfam5@comcast.net with your comments/and or questions.

Tom also want’s to recognize those planners who over the years contributed their vast skills and interest in the City Planning field