The Ocean Beach Community Planning Group Was the Forerunner to OB’s Planning Board
By Frank Gormlie / OB Rag
On March 10, the Ocean Beach Planning Board will hold its annual election of Board members. It will take place at the OB Rec Center. Every resident, property owner and business-owner in Ocean Beach is authorized to vote – with ID proving residency.
One of the main reasons that this election is going forward in March – as it has been for the last 39 years – is because of the vision and diligence of a small group that existed back in the 1970s. It was the persistent push over a several-year period during the mid-70s for an election of this nature – a democratic election – to a neighborhood planning committee by an organization called the Ocean Beach Community Planning Group that was ultimately responsible for this democratic gain for communities.
The forerunner of today’s OB Planning Board, the Community Planning Group (CPG), led a campaign of achieving City authorization for neighborhoods to host elections to their planning committees – elections that even allowed tenants – non-property owners or non-business people – to vote – in regular grassroots balloting.
How did this all come about?
During the early 1970s, as OB was grappling with a construction and planning crisis brought about by a decades-long period of unbridled apartment construction, the San Diego City Council passed an ordinance authorizing the creation of “community planning groups” for identified neighborhoods of the city.
Not wasting any time, community activists in OB jumped at the chance to be first neighborhood in the city to exercise this initiative. And so it was on Feb. 28, 1973, that 80 people crammed into the OB Elementary School’s auditorium and founded a new organization they called the OB Community Planning Group.
A permanent steering committee for the group was democratically elected through a series of large, open meetings over the next few months. CPG’s first success – although limited – was for the City Planning Department to agree to slow down the process for a community plan they had initiated in order to wait for input from CPG. The City had been pushing for the approval of a community-wide planning guide, called the OB Precise Plan.
CPG representatives – including this author – joined the City’s effort to bring the different sides together in a negotiating process entitled “the Committee of 12″. The other groups that joined included the OB Town Council – which itself was split into a liberal wing and a conservative wing -, the merchants’ association, and a group called Peninsulans, Inc.
It was this latter group, Peninsulans, Inc, that had been responsible for drafting the original plan for Ocean Beach- a drastic urban-renewal blueprint called the Ocean Beach Precise Plan; it would have dramatically changed OB into a tourist mecca by demolishing nearly the entire north-west section to be replaced by highrise hotels and apartments. This plan had caused a rebellion amongst residents and small property owners.
From July into September 1973, the groups gathered around tables in the OB Rec Center for discussions on planning issues, all shepherded by city staff. The City felt that the Committee had reached sufficient consensus on a number of issues, and issued a new revision to the draft plan in mid-January 1974. The new revision had eliminated most of the worst of the original Precise Plan (highrise, marina, mass demolitions).
Meanwhile, the grassroots CPG worked to expand its base; it published a newsletter, put out position papers on planning issues; it held spaghetti dinners at the Rec Center to raise money; it even held a benefit movie in the old Strand Theater which was attended by 500 people.
At the core of the Community Planning Group’s beliefs was the “radical” idea that neighborhood planning issues needed to be decided by democratic methods. From its beginning in 1973 and over the next several years, time after time, CPG lobbied, cajoled and mobilized around this core idea of democratic elections to elect community planners. And over time, other individuals and groups warmed up to the idea and also supported the concept.
In a conscious effort to create a model for OB’s future planning committee, in October 1973 the group hosted an open community-wide election to its steering committee. With OB divided into 5 districts, with each district to elect three representatives to the steering committee, polling places were set up in front of stores around the community. At the end of the day the ballots were counted and it was found that a total of over 640 people had voted for the candidates. It was a genuine grassroots election, where a local architect by the name of Rob Quigley, as well as this author, were elected to the Steering Committee.
The “New” Precise Plan
In the Spring of 1975 the City published a brand new Precise Plan, which formalized the earlier drafts and revisions and confirmed once and for all the City’s Planning Department (and establishment) rejection of the worst of the original plan – most importantly – no plans for a mini-Miami Beach.
However, the new plan had a major fault. It lacked any outline for the democratic selection of representatives to a committee that would implement the Plan. What good would a new community plan be without some level of grassroots control over its implementation? If it was left up to city planning bureaucrats and elites, the whole effort would be back to square one.
It did have other problems as well, such as calling for a 33% increase in population density over 20 years; it called for the development of a one-way north-south street directly connecting to I-8 freeway running right through Robb Field. It also lacked any plans for the development of low and moderate income housing.
In response, CPG launched a petition drive to add its own amendments to the city’s new plan, with one in particular advocating for a community-wide election process for a planning committee. In 3 to 4 months activist volunteers collected 3500 signatures from OB locals. The Plan went before the Planning Commission in April 1975 and a City Council sub-committee in mid-June, and then appeared in front of the San Diego City Council on July 3rd – it was 1975.
The community planning organization and its friends mobilized a standing-room only crowd at the City Council chambers. Residents, property-owners and merchants from OB had come in support of the Plan and the amendments. After all the public testimony, speeches, and discussion among the politicos, the San Diego City Council – with Republican Mayor Pete Wilson at the helm – took a vote and passed the OB Precise Plan – and their vote importantly included a number of CPG’s amendments.
The most important amendment – the provision for a democratic, community election of a planning committee – was one of those included. The Mayor and Council ordered the City Planning Department to implement a Planned District for Ocean Beach, with the following language:
“The new committee formed for the purposes of implementing the Plan, should be elected by the citizens of Ocean Beach in a democratic fashion, using a process monitored by a neutral party to be appointed by the Mayor and Council.”
This historic vote by the San Diego City Council laid the basis for the creation of the OB Planning Board – and for all the other planning boards and committees that followed. 40 years later, there are nearly 50 planning committees throughout San Diego, organized around specific identified neighborhoods.
The Council vote that day in 1975 was indeed historic – for never before in the history of the city had a neighborhood been authorized to hold its own special election for its local planning committee. This was to be a first for any community in the city.
OB residents and small property-owners had won a significant victory, a victory over the plan of gentrification and urban renewal that had originated with Peninsulans, Inc. Led by this small group of volunteer activists inside CPG, and through the sheer weight of their numbers, signatures, petitions, and persistence over four years, Ocean Beach had upended the establishment plan for the community.
First Planning Board Election Scheduled for Early May 1976
The City Council set the date for OB’s first community-wide election of the new planning committee: May 4, 1976. All residents, all property owners and all business owners could vote. The election would be monitored by the non-partisan League of Women Voters.
The Community Planning Group set up a process whereby local residents could vie to be included on the group’s slate for the election. Fourteen candidates out of a field of 35 were elected as candidates to represent CPG – including this writer.
A campaign platform was hammered out by CPG’s membership – a platform that the group’s candidates had to endorse. The platform itself, looking back on it now nearly 4 decades later, was way ahead of its time; it was very idealistic, very green and populist.
For example, it called the creation of the Planning Board “a step toward community self-government”; it stated that urban planning meant more than density limits and traffic designs, that “economic, social, political, environmental and cultural aspects … are just as important. In a word, people.”
It stated community residents “should have the right to make decisions affecting all of their lives” which
“includes public utilities, health care, the police and fire departments, social services, child care, educational and recreational resources.”
Finally, CPG’s platform declared that the organization and its candidates,
“see the fight for a decent plan and environment for Ocean Beach as a struggle between the vast majority of the people of the community, who are tenants, homeowners, and … small business people, versus the small group of wealthy elite who would like to turn our community into a playground and resort area for the rich.”
It called for a system to funnel citizen complaints about city services, for staffing for the Board, declared “child care is a right,” and that “health care is a right.” It called upon the Board to take measures to ensure a “balanced community” to include people of various income levels, of “different ethnic and racial backgrounds” and lifestyles. The platform stated:
“We believe that our society is suffering from its present degree of racial segregation. … We support efforts to increase the racial balance of the community. We endorse an effort to recognize cases of racial discrimination in the housing market and seek legal solutions as well as less formal community efforts to abolish this discrimination.
We recognize that many other communities in our society are having serious racial conflict, however, we feel that because of the more open and progressive atmosphere of Ocean Beach, this could be a community where people of diverse ethnic groups could live together ‘and built a real sense of community.’”
It was the maturation of a grassroots movement that was reflected in the progressive views enunciated in the CPG platform of 1976 – a movement that had evolved from protest to then projecting a vision for “community self-determination.”
When the election and the campaigning began in earnest, CPG candidates went door to door in their districts, with individualized fliers and the group’s brochure. Interest among the villagers seemed to be very high. Dozens of volunteers were enlisted and trained to manage the election, register voters, and prepare for the vote and its count.
By the time the early May election day rolled around, it had been a long 10 months since the City Council had authorized it. Perhaps, the establishment had hoped that the passage of such a long time would water down the activism in OB. If so, they were sorely disappointed, for as the election date approached, an emotional intensity built up – and crested when it finally arrived.
Ocean Beach had been divided into 7 voting districts, with 1 to 2 voting sites per district, mainly in front of markets, large and small. The balloting took place all day – and at the appointed hour, ballot boxes were taken to the OB Recreation Center for counting, with everything monitored by the League of Women Voters.
As the ballot counters made their summaries, it became immediately clear that the grassroots election and voter turnout had been overwhelmingly successful. Thousands had voted – all told, nearly 4500 ballots had been cast.
The eligibility rolls included 6,100 registered voters, 2,100 property owners (1,100 inside the plan area and 1,000 outside the area), and 600 business license holders. OB then had a population of 13,000.
The numbers of those who voted are stunning, compared to planning elections today (or since). In District 1 alone, 851 ballots were cast. 1,108 voted in District 2. District 3 had 755 votes. Another 1,085 voted in District 4 – the business district (where this writer lost by 8 votes). The lowest turnout was in District 5 – with 696 votes.
But the big news of the day was that CPG candidates had nearly swept the election, capturing 8 of the 14 seats on the Board, a clear majority. Some of those elected – involved since the beginning in the battle for OB’s community plan – included a mix of Town Council types, counter-cultural radicals and anarchists, a “socialist”, professionals and small business people. The sweep by the planning group candidates was empowering and historic; a small neighborhood organization had grown to be the majority on the first planning board democratically elected in the city’s history.
It was their persistence from 1973 to the election in 1976 for democratic elections for planning that paid off, ushering in a new era of urban democracy that we still enjoy today.
And today’s modern version of the OB Planning Board continues many of the traditions established by that first planning committee. One of them is holding democratic elections to its Board. In one month, on March 10th, at the OB Rec Center is the Board’s annual election. Figure out what you need to have to prove your voting category and get yourself on over to the voting booths. Show your support by taking part in the election. Show you know your OB history.
The Peninsula Community Planning Board is also holding its annual election on March 20th at the Pt Loma Library. As are most of the fifty planning committees around town. And it all started right here in OB.
P.S. There’s an uncanny parallel between the OB planning movement of the 1970s and the campaign for OB’s current Community Plan Update. Perhaps this will be explored in a future post.