Confirming months of rumors, Bill Fulton, planning director for the city of San Diego, submitted his letter of resignation, according to a memo released Friday by Mayor Kevin Faulconer's office. Hired last summer by then-Mayor Bob Filner, the city’s top planner will step down Aug. 30 to take a position as the director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston.
“Bill Fulton brought the city a creative and fresh perspective at a time when we began investing more heavily in neighborhood infrastructure and community planning,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in an emailed statement. “His input and expertise were extremely valuable to the city during the past year, and I wish him well in his newest endeavor.”
Fulton called the situation “bittersweet,” adding that Rice University contacted him about his new position.
“This job is one of the most sought-after jobs that I’ve seen in academia in a long time," he told CityBeat. "On the other hand, I really like this town.”
While somewhat anticipated, the announcement is jarring for the city, which has struggled to sell so-called smart growth to communities resistant to increased density and planning innovation. While the Mayor’s office starts a nationwide search to find a replacement, solutions for how best to accommodate seemingly inevitable population growth remain in limbo.
“We’re still a city in transition, and we’re going to need strong leadership and the right vision to carry this city forward,” said Joe LaCava, chair of the San Diego Community Planners Committee. “So I’m very disappointed. This is a real loss for our city.”
While Fulton has praised Faulconer for his support, a series of decisions by the Mayor’s office suggest the two men had different priorities. Faulconer, who was elected mayor in February after Filner's resignation, nixed a project backed by Fulton called the Civic Innovation Lab. Then the mayor stripped Fulton’s control of the city's Economic Development Department.
“Fulton started out having a tremendous amount of power over planning, and within a year’s time, he lost his boss, he lost economic development,” said urban designer Howard Blackson, who worked as the program manager for the Civic Innovation Lab. “He got put into a smaller and smaller box.”
Over recent months, Fulton faced difficulty marketing smart growth—a job that would have most likely fallen to Filner had the gregarious politician remained in office. Against the backdrop of political transition, Fulton was charged with not only overseeing much-needed community-plan updates but also acting as the face of change.
“He was never able to take that leadership role,” Blackson said. “How can you sell something that doesn’t have the company behind you?”
However, Fulton dismissed these concerns, saying that the Mayor's office is dedicated to the smart-growth strategy laid out in the city's General Plan, know as the "City of Villages."
"The approach of a Mayor Filner and a Mayor Faulconer is somewhat different, but what we’re all trying to accomplish with this City of Villages strategy is not different,” he said.
The City Council will be notified “if” an interim planning director is required and chosen, Deputy Chief Operations Officer David Graham said in Friday’s memo.