One Mayor’s Downfall Killed the Design Project That Could’ve Changed Everything – Next City

Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman (Photo by Katrina Ohstrom)

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One Mayor’s Downfall Killed the Design Project That Could’ve Changed Everything

Public Interest Design’s Wild Ride into City Hall

Story by Amanda Kolson Hurley

Photography by Katrina Ohstrom

Published on Feb 23, 2015

On June 29, 2014, the four city staffers who made up the San Diego Civic Innovation Lab were hard at work all around the city, never mind that it was a Sunday. Ilisa Goldman was in Encanto, hurrying along the buildout of Chollas Creek Crossing, a small park of colorful benches and trellises on what had been a vacant and crime-prone lot. In Linda Vista, her colleagues Howard Blackson and David Saborio were putting the final touches on a new plaza at the neighborhood library, while several miles to the south, in East Village, Xavier Leonard was presenting a showcase of community-led technology projects. San Diego’s planning director, Bill Fulton, shuttled from place to place to cheer his staffers on.

It was like one of those HGTV shows where the team is racing to beat the clock, but the fixer-upper was the city, not a house. And there wasn’t much time left: less than 24 hours, because the staffers had all been fired. Their last day as City of San Diego employees would be the following day, Monday, June 30th. They had been on the city payroll for less than six months.

Things had looked very different a year earlier. Then, the Lab was the brainchild of a world-renowned architect and the pet project of a mayor who wanted social change and believed urban design and planning could be the means to achieving it. Philanthropists were standing by to offer their support. The concept behind the Lab — a cadre of designers embedded in the mayor’s office, with the power to revive public spaces around the city and launch a broad campaign of civic engagement — was unique in North America, and almost unimaginable in conservative San Diego. It seemed to answer the long-held desire of architects, especially, for designers to play a role in the decision-making that shapes cities.

Community members dance at Linda Vista Placita (Photo credit: Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman)

Why the Lab failed is a story of grand plans cast into turmoil by the disgrace of the grand planner himself. Among other things, it reveals how difficult it is to hold on to a place at the table, once you’ve got it (assuming you’d even want to). In the end, it boils down to a question: Is local government really the best place for public interest design?

“A Story About Municipal Failure”

When I first catch sight of Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman sitting at a coffee shop in San Diego’s Mission Hills, they fit the architect stereotype to a tee. Both are clad in head-to-toe black, and a MacBook glows on the table beside them. They are here to tell me about the genesis of the Lab, which they led.

“This is a story about municipal failure,” Forman says soon after I join them.

Despite appearances to the contrary, Forman is not an architect. She’s a political scientist, and she made her name with a book about the economic thinker Adam Smith that reclaimed him for the political left. A suitcase waits next to our table. Forman is about to leave for Dubai, to attend a meeting about human rights with former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (who hails from the town of Kirkcaldy in Scotland, as Smith did, Forman points out).

At the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where she’s an associate professor, Forman co-directs a research center on global justice and development. Her research focuses on social norms, and especially how “norms change” can prompt communities to abandon harmful practices and embrace more positive ones.

Once a dangerous vacant area, Chollas Creek became a small park for people who lived nearby. (Photo credit: San Diego Lab for Civic Innovation)

Cruz, who is an urban designer and researcher, teaches in UCSD’s visual arts department and directs the Center for Urban Ecology. Together they direct the Blum Cross-Border Initiative, funded by the philanthropist Richard Blum, who also happens to be the husband of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Although not a household name like Frank Gehry or Norman Foster, Cruz has attained a different kind of celebrity as one of the world’s most respected activist designers. Born in Guatemala, Cruz studied there and at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, then spent the late 1980s and early ’90s working for San Diego architecture firms. In 1994, he started teaching at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles, and went to Harvard to get his master’s degree a few years later.

Cruz founded his own research-based practice, Estudio Teddy Cruz, in 2000. By then he had discovered the seam of architectural and urban ideas that he has mined, to great acclaim, ever since: the U.S.-Mexico border. Cruz became fascinated by the San Diego-Tijuana borderlands and the wall that bisects them, where a developing country and the world’s richest one slam into each other. But if the border is a stark division, it’s also a permeable one; lines of culture and trade flow across it, and one of Cruz’s specialties has been tracking material evidence of these flows — for instance, construction debris from lush subdivisions in San Diego often ends up in Tijuana, where it is cleverly remade into housing.

Cruz believes the U.S. has a lot to learn from urban conditions on the other side of the border. Over the past few decades, he likes to note, the populations of greater San Diego and Tijuana have grown at similar rates, but San Diego has exploded spatially too, and now occupies a land area six times that of Tijuana. This is hardly sustainable and a clear sign of inequity between the cities. The projects that have made Cruz famous seek to inject the spirit of Latin American urbanism — its maximization of space and resources and its flexible, bottom-up approach — into North American city-building. In 2011, this work earned Cruz a Ford Foundation Visionaries Award. (Disclosure: The Ford Foundation is also a supporter of Next City.)

Cruz’s plan for a pilot housing project in San Ysidro, California, an underprivileged and majority Latino suburb south of San Diego, will combine affordable apartments for different types of households (including multigenerational families, common in San Ysidro) with a public space sequence that is purposely under-designed — a concrete frame, more or less — so that it can morph with the community’s needs over time. Next door to this, Cruz hopes to put a senior housing complex with on-site childcare. It’s a radical rethinking of how people might live and work in American suburbia. It’s also a zoning board’s nightmare, and Cruz has spent years working with officials to amend the local regulations so his project, undertaken with a nonprofit called Casa Familiar, can move forward.

Cruz’s affordable housing prototype planned for San Ysidro.(Image courtesy of estudio teddy cruz)

The Museum of Modern Art included the Casa Familiar scheme in its “Small Scale, Big Change” exhibit in 2010. Cruz is brilliant at popularizing his ideas, despite (or because of) the fact that they still mostly remain on paper. Since 2006, he has organized a series of conferences under the banner Political Equator that attract designers, artists, urban thinkers and dignitaries from around the world. One year, Cruz led the group on a border crossing through a drainpipe — the mayors of San Diego and Tijuana included.

And that brings us to the Lab, which began as a glimmer in the eye of another mayor. Bob Filner, a longtime congressman who represented heavily Hispanic areas in south San Diego and along the border, ran for mayor in 2012 and won. He was the first Democrat elected to the post since 1992, and he campaigned on a platform of “neighborhoods first,” promising to put neighborhood revitalization ahead of downtown development, the city’s traditional focus.

He also pledged to bring urban planning back to city hall: His predecessor, Jerry Sanders, had gutted San Diego’s planning department, moving all planning functions into the development services division.

When Filner and Cruz met and got to talking during Filner’s mayoral run, they clicked. Cruz’s vision of neighborhood-driven, equitable urban development straddling the border fit Filner’s own political ambitions for San Diego and Tijuana, which are only 24 miles apart and have a combined metro-area population of 4.7 million. He wanted the cities to cooperate closely — irrespective of the polarized national debate about immigration — and to become a binational powerhouse.

“Bob saw himself as a transformational political thinker,” says Fulton, the planning director Filner later appointed. “He was going to upend everything.”

Filner, who has a Ph.D. in history, admired Cruz’s research. As Cruz tells it, Filner asked him, “If I win, will you come to us with a new agenda for public space, for engaging marginalized neighborhoods?” He said he would, but was as surprised as anyone by Filner’s victory. Cruz was already collaborating with Forman at UCSD and introduced her to the Mayor-elect.

“We basically proposed during the campaign to develop an Incubator for Civic Imagination,” Cruz recalls. “We thought it was a wonderful name — bringing imagination to bureaucracy.” The new incubator would foster ideas not just within government, but also outside it, and would give residents and community groups a stronger voice in city hall. It would also work closely with the municipal government of Tijuana. The incubator would serve as an urban design studio for a reconstituted planning department, but it would be housed in the mayor’s office, reporting to the mayor’s chief of staff.

Two days after the election, Filner texted Cruz: “I am eager to begin.” Cruz and Forman invited him to a dinner in Tijuana with Antanas Mockus, the former mayor of Bogota renowned for his performance-art style of governing. They told Filner about some of the work that had been going on in the “miracle city” of Medellín, where former Mayor Sergio Fajardo commissioned a slew of high-quality urban projects — new library-parks, schools and culture centers, built in poor neighborhoods with active community participation. The spate of building and the planning process behind it contributed to an increase in civic pride and a dramatic reduction in the crime rate.

“When I told this story to Bob Filner, he salivated,” Cruz says. They resolved to set up a think tank in the new Mayor’s office, and started shaping its contours. Cruz and Forman would lead the incubator as its director and associate director, on a consulting basis. They would hire six full-time city employees: an architect, a landscape architect, and an urban designer, to design and implement projects; a communications coordinator, focused on graphics and visualization; a data specialist; and a manager of cross-border relations.

Bob Filner was sworn in as San Diego’s mayor in December 2012. On May 7, 2013, Filner and his chief of staff presented the proposed Incubator for Civic Imagination to the city council. More than 40 people testified in support of the project. The following month, the council approved the request of $950,000 to fund the incubator’s first year of operations. It was expected that foundation support would follow the public commitment.

On June 11, 2013, Filner announced that he had hired Fulton — a nationally known urban planner, and the former mayor of Ventura, California — to rebuild the planning department. Hiring for the incubator was in full swing. Cruz and Forman had approached the well-connected local urban designer Howard Blackson to join the lab as its urban projects and neighborhood strategist.

Blackson remembers getting a congratulatory call from someone in the city in early July. The new positions were locked down, he was told. He called his in-laws to let them know he’d gotten a new job.

“The next day was … ‘What do you mean he’s grabbing women?’ Then that was the day it blew up,” Blackson says.

On July 11, 2013, three of Filner’s former supporters held a press conference to call for his resignation, based on numerous allegations that he had sexually harassed women. His chief of staff resigned the next day. Filner’s former communications director filed a lawsuit against him, and by late August, 19 women had come forward. In the face of a recall effort, Filner resigned, effective August 30th. City Council President Todd Gloria, a Democrat, became the city’s interim mayor.

Toast

The incubator had gotten its funding, but lost its all-powerful champion. San Diego had gained an acclaimed new planning director, but with Filner gone, he lacked a firm mandate.

Fulton urged Gloria, the interim mayor, to keep the incubator alive — the council had voted to pay for it, after all — and Gloria agreed, although he cut the budget to $700,000. He wanted to change the name, too, distancing the project from its association with Filner. It would now be called the Civic Innovation Lab. Gloria moved the lab out of the mayor’s office and into the planning department, Fulton’s territory.

Once the dust had settled from the ex-Mayor’s implosion, Cruz and Forman restarted the hiring process, in consultation with Fulton. The communications and cross-border relations jobs were cut. But four people started work at City Hall in January 2014.

The original vision for the incubator had a major physical component: Filner, Cruz and Forman wanted to take over the fourth floor of San Diego City Hall, which had sat empty since the planning purge. Filner even led a Voice of San Diego photographer around the empty cubes and spoke of the bustling ideas factory that would soon arise there. Cruz and Forman had planned to renovate the floor immediately, creating spaces for workshops, charrettes, public lectures and exhibitions. Even more ambitiously, they had hoped to turn the building’s first floor — the lobby of City Hall — into a public forum and gallery, an embodiment of transparent, collaborative government processes.

Instead, the whittled-down Lab was housed in a space on the 14th floor that multiple former staffers described as a closet. “No windows, no ventilation, no sign on the door,” Goldman, the lab’s landscape architect, remembers. “We like to really marinate in the innovation,” another former staffer joked.

The lab’s first weeks were occupied not with construction, but with the practicalities of getting set up, made more difficult by the fact that Fulton had just arrived and was resurrecting the department. “The first six weeks of us working was just [working] to start an office,” Goldman says. They struggled to get computers, business cards and other office supplies. When computers finally arrived, they didn’t have design software; until the end, the staffers had to use their own computers to create maps and graphics.

Several weeks in, the Lab members had learned the ropes of the planning department and were ready to begin the real work. A special election to replace Bob Filner was held in February 2014. On March 3rd, Republican Kevin Faulconer took office as San Diego’s new mayor. One of his first actions was to reallocate the Lab’s funding in the next budget, putting it toward updating the city’s long-neglected community plans.

The Lab was toast.

“We started in mid-January. By mid-March, we knew we were done,” Blackson says. “We had two and a half months to get our act together … then we had three months. We had more time to wind down then we had to start up.”

Blackson says he wasn’t surprised when the ax came down. Asked if she was, Goldman answers, “Yes and no. We all knew it was a possibility, but we were really shocked that they didn’t give us another year. We didn’t feel that we had a chance to even prove ourselves. They were cutting us based on politics and not on reality.” As quickly as it sprang from the crucible of Filner’s progressive politics, the lab ran aground in those of his successor.

In April, a spokesperson for the new Mayor told the Voice of San Diego that the four staffers would be offered other jobs within the city: “No one is getting fired.” That wasn’t true. As unclassified employees, they were simply told they could apply for city job openings with the rest of the public.

Agility Outside Government

All the upheaval in city hall, and even their peremptory firing, made the staffers determined to leave their mark on San Diego before June 30th, the last day of the fiscal year. This explains that frenzied day of activity on June 29th. And in fact, the Lab did bring a few small projects to fruition. There’s the park at Chollas Creek Crossing that Goldman oversaw, and the “plazita” at Linda Vista Library, which has since hosted food trucks and live dances. The Lab also improved a number of alleyways in public “take back the alley” events. Another legacy of the Lab was setting into motion an unprecedented cross-border collaboration between Tijuana and San Diego.

Community members paint a mural as part of a Take Back the Alley event. (Photo credit: Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman)

Then there are the projects it set in motion but didn’t have time to finish. Blackson and David Saborio, who was the Lab’s architect, described their efforts to find a new use for a concrete deck over I-15, where El Cajon Boulevard spans the freeway; it’s the site of a future bus rapid transit stop. The lab hosted a brainstorming session and came up with the idea of a bicycle-business incubator, and then produced, Blackson says, a “quick and dirty” design for the site. The neighborhood’s CDC and the city’s Office of Small Business liked the idea and are now working to implement it.

Fulton wishes he could have kept the Lab afloat for one more fiscal year. “Had we been able to give it even one more year, I think very demonstrable results on the ground would have come about,” he says. “Everybody would have seen the value.”

Those involved say it was neutered when it was turned into a division of planning. “We were the silo busters, stuck in a silo,” as one put it. The Lab sought to be fast and nimble, but it was working within a system where getting the smallest project permitted can take months. Xavier Leonard, the technology specialist, thinks the outcome would have been different had Filner survived (or had he been replaced by David Alvarez, Faulconer’s opponent) and they had stayed in the mayor’s office.

“It really needs to come from the executive office to be successful,” he says. “You need to have that kind of weight. Otherwise, it just becomes standard city stuff.”

Even Fulton, who recently left San Diego for a position at Rice University, concedes the point. “In retrospect, I realize it was much, much harder to try to operate this thing as part of the planning department than if it had been in the mayor’s office.”

Cruz finds it exasperating that some people were quick to throw cold water on the initiative. “How could you expect four to six people to do in two months what the city has not been able to do in decades?” he asks.

Of course, the Lab was not just about immediate, tangible results. Cruz and Forman had larger and longer-term ambitions for it, including the plan for binational engagement. Their proposal called for San Diego and Tijuana to study each other’s urban policies and initiatives, and for convening a special task force on wait times at the border. But the first step was to carry out a “citizenship culture survey” — a diagnosis of social norms across the whole border region, establishing a baseline so that expectations of public trust could begin to be nudged higher. The Culture of Citizenship (Cultura Ciudadana) is a signature program of Antanas Mockus. “The idea [is] that if you want to understand how to transform a city, you can’t just think about top-down interventions. You have to engage at the level of social behavior,” Forman explains.

Under the auspices of UCSD and with funding from the Ford Foundation, Cruz and Forman worked with Mockus’ consulting group, Corpovisionarios, to administer the survey. Its results will be displayed in graphic form at Political Equator 5. They are also continuing to work on the Lab’s vacant lots initiative, planning an outdoor education space with Groundwork San Diego, and perhaps finally getting some of Cruz’s ideas built in San Ysidro.

In effect, the Lab still operates as part of UCSD’s Blum Cross-Border Initiative, which has seven years’ worth of seed money from philanthropist Richard Blum — about $1.5 million in total. Cruz and Forman have more funding than the city gave them, and more control over it.

“There is an agility that we have now that is very liberating,” says Forman.

A New Civic Imagination

If the San Diego incubator had been realized within the city, in a form similar to what Cruz and Forman had imagined, it would have been unlike anything else in the United States.

There’s no shortage of municipal innovation labs and teams sprouting up across the United States: Boston, San Francisco, Austin, New Orleans and many other cities have them. Other labs include staff members trained in design, but only San Diego’s was led by an architect and had such a preponderance of designers in its ranks — three out of four, in the end, and four out of six under the full staffing plan. (And Leonard, it should be noted, has a special interest in design and in architectural applications for technology, like digital fabrication.)

This emphasis on urban design and the built environment was unique. By and large, other innovation labs try to generate new technologies and promote the use of open data. Some of them analyze that data to address a specific local challenge: reduction of the murder rate in New Orleans, for example. While San Diego’s lab also worked with data, it was not the primary focus, or tool.

In a grant proposal for the incubator, before Filner’s demise, Cruz and Forman laid out a detailed public design agenda: creating demonstration projects, coordinating a new City Design Council, hosting charrettes. The regular duties of the “design strategists” on staff would include urban research, visualizations, and the design and execution of public spaces. The design work was not about the superficial beautification of San Diego; the intent was to forge a highly participative process that could improve social equity by transforming physical space.

This presents a contrast with most other city innovation, which aim, to one degree or another, to harness and stimulate the local tech sector. Silicon Valley is the standard inspiration there. For San Diego’s, the key inspiration, again, was Medellín. As mayor of that city, Sergio Fajardo appointed a planner named Alejandro Echeverri to head up a powerful unit, the Urban Development Corporation, which operated largely independent of the city’s planning department. Had Filner remained in office, Cruz would have been the Echeverri of San Diego. He would have been able to try Medellín-style social urbanism in San Diego, baking vital community programs into public works for maximum impact.

“I had no idea that architecture and space could make this kind of difference in the psyche of a community. It’s changed their vision of themselves and for themselves.”

The architect as mediator between top-down (government) and bottom-up (the community) is a role that many activist designers dream of. Cruz invokes it often in conversation. Writ large, it’s a step toward achieving the heady vision that he and Forman describe in a paper they wrote on Medellín, of cities as “municipal agents of global justice.”

“We are still very much committed to strengthening public infrastructure and the civic imagination,” Cruz affirmed recently.

Local children painting a mural at a community work day at Chollas Creek. (Photo credit: San Diego Civic Innovation Lab)

‘Design Thinking’ in Government

San Diego’s incubator emerged out of various currents of thought that are coursing through the design world right now: the rise of social (or public interest) design, growing interest in Latin American urbanism, and the tactical urbanism movement. It was informed by the belief that “design thinking” can helpfully slice through calcified bureaucracies, and by designers’ craving for a meaningful role beyond drawing up floor plans for clients.

If it had met half of its goals, it’s likely that the Lab would have been seized on as a model by other cities, by foundations, and most of all, by organizations that represent design and planning professionals, like the American Planning Association and the American Institute of Architects.

Even so, it’s interesting to speculate on how long the Lab would have stuck around under the best circumstances. Mayors have term limits; any mayor, post-Filner, very well might have cut the budget, sidelined the Lab, or instructed it to change direction.

“I’ve been a mayor,” Fulton says. “I know that mayoral leadership is important in getting things off the ground. But far more important in the long run is to be able to sustain these efforts, because there is a demand for it, and community infrastructure for it. If Bob had been mayor longer,” he observes, “this thing would have gotten farther and been more deeply embedded” within the local political culture. But even then, it likely wouldn’t have lasted too long. With unstinting mayoral support, the Lab probably would have innovated itself out of existence within a few years as its work became standard practice across departments.

The Faulconer administration portrays the Lab as one chapter in a continuum of municipal innovation, a cause it champions. David Graham, the city’s deputy COO of neighborhood services, pauses when asked to describe the achievement of the Lab. “It’s difficult to answer that, because I love the work that everybody did when they came under this heading of the Lab, and I like the work they did prior to that, and I like the work they did afterwards,” he says. Quick to compliment the former lab members, Graham believes the venture demonstrated the importance of partnerships among the public, private and academic sectors. It sounds like faint praise, but interestingly, such partnerships were at the heart of Cruz and Forman’s model.

Politicians need to win elections, and there would have always been pressure on the Lab to deliver quick, tangible results. This can be a useful prod to activity — or a perverse incentive to short-termism. The staff at the Lab, during its five-month life, felt this pressure. “People were saying, ‘Well, immediately begin acting,’” Cruz says. “We wanted to do that, but at the same time, we wanted to engage new models of thinking.”

Ironically, given San Diego’s vastly higher per-capita income, the city was financially hamstrung in one way that Medellín was not. Part of Medellín’s success has been the fact that it owns the local utility, EPM, which pours money into public coffers. San Diego had a pension crisis not so long ago, from which it’s still recovering. There’s an expectation that officials be thrifty, that they think small.

As a result, San Diego “has a very slimmed-down municipal government,” Fulton explains. “In a circumstance like that, two things happen: Number one is, people are very focused on the functional task in front of them, that they have to do as a line employee. And the second one is, nobody takes any risks.” To bean-counters, skeptics or just path-of-least-resistance types, an initiative like the Lab is always going to seem duplicative of other departments’ work: Isn’t Parks and Rec already doing this stuff?

Improving government by design depends on your idea of government, and your definition of design. Even within the Lab, there was clearly a spectrum of attitudes. Blackson and Saborio take a more incremental view, you might say, of working within the existing system to improve it via hacks or patches: form-based codes here, expedited permitting there. What Cruz and Forman had in mind encompassed those methods, but it was bigger and bolder — a redesign of the current modus operandi, rather than a tweaked version of it.

Many people formerly involved with the Lab praise the Faulconer administration for trying to smooth the permitting process and continuing to push initiatives that could be called tactical or “lean” urbanism. Graham rattles off a number of changes it has made: The building permits office now has evening hours and does Saturday inspections, and permit data can be accessed online. The city has inaugurated two parklets under a new pilot program for “temporary pedestrian plazas.” But there’s no question that Forman and Cruz were pursuing different ends.

You can see the difference in two formerly vacant lots. There’s the Chollas Creek Crossing lot in Encanto, one of the city’s poorest communities. This lot has seen rapes and murders. It was so overgrown with arundo that criminals fleeing the police would sometimes hide out there. The Lab, and Goldman in particular, helped the local nonprofit Groundwork San Diego transform the lot into a community gathering space on a small budget. Today, it looks homespun but bright, welcoming and cared for.

Community members working together at Chollas Creek (Photo credit: Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman)

Then there’s SILO in Makers Quarter, in downtown San Diego. It’s an outdoor event space on a dirt lot in a district that has also seen its share of neglect. The district is being privately redeveloped to the tune of $900 million and with the backing of the city and the Downtown San Diego Partnership.

SILO has hosted beer tastings, movie nights, and “private events thrown by companies such as Car2Go and Yelp,” according to San Diego’s CityBeat. The developer of the project said of the neighborhood he hopes to create: “Somebody told me that the definition of what the young professional set want these days is somewhere you can take your dog and throw a football around at the same time.”

“Our agenda was social equity.”

Both of these projects have improved San Diego, but for constituencies that barely overlap. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the city smiles on projects like SILO and Quartyard, a shipping-container beer garden, because they boost the economy with little or no public outlay and no long-term commitment. And if city government is to have a circumscribed role — cutting red tape and getting out of the way of the private sector — that makes sense. (Graham stresses that the city is “open for business” when residents come forward with good ideas.)

But government doesn’t have to limit itself to back-seat facilitation, and Cruz is adamant on this point. “What is at stake here is what is the role of government in this day and age, at a time when nobody is giving a shit about it. … It’s important because [the Lab] really proved that government can have a role in producing equitable development, in redirecting the surplus value, of the profits of urbanization towards socially oriented projects.”

“Our agenda — at a certain point, we just have to take off the gloves and say it,” Forman says. “Our agenda was social equity.”

Will San Diego ever come around to a more muscular social urbanism? Although Faulconer has kept the planning department intact, the Lab won’t be resurrected any time soon. “For us, for this administration, we’re about ubiquitous innovation,” Graham says. “So really, rather than having it live with a couple of people, we’re trying to have it permeate all of government.” Cruz and Forman regard the Blum initiative as a long-term home for the Lab 2.0, although Cruz doesn’t seem to have entirely given up on returning to city hall one day.

Setting aside the larger ideological questions, the Lab was a botched opportunity. The City of San Diego hired six highly skilled specialists and paid their salaries for several months, but cut them loose before they could reasonably be expected to show a return on investment. Their combined talents could have been an important resource for the city’s planning department, which lacks an urban design studio. (A couple of planners with urban design experience were recently hired.)

The team also possessed something rare in the fields of design and urban planning: diversity. Cruz and Saborio are Latino, Leonard is black, and Forman and Goldman are women. The Civic Innovation Lab reflected the demographics of the city it served.

When I ask Leslie Reynolds, the director of Groundwork San Diego, about her experience working with the Lab, she gives a hoot. “It was so amazing! Amongst those three principals — Teddy, Fonna and Ilisa — there was so much talent.”

She ticks off the skills the small team brought to the Chollas Creek project: architecture, program planning, landscape architecture, meeting facilitation, and “a deep concern for communities of color and understanding of communities of color.” “They really worked tirelessly,” she says. “Even after understanding they were no longer going to be employed at the city. It was quite inspiring to our community residents, who are not used to getting that kind of unqualified support.”

Reynolds adds: “I had no idea that architecture and space could make this kind of difference in the psyche of a community. It’s changed their vision of themselves and for themselves.” She notes that Graham recently visited the site and pledged that the Faulconer administration will help turn it into a city park.

Blackson and Saborio tell a revealing story about how they came to work on the El Cajon Boulevard bridge. For 15 years, local residents had wanted to do something with it, but the city was stymied because Caltrans, the state transportation agency, owns the site. One day, Blackson and Saborio decided to poke around. In an office down the hall, they found an old Memorandum of Understanding that clears the way for work to begin.

“Fifteen years was resolved in one hour,” Blackson says. Or as Cruz might say, all it took was someone actually giving a shit — and then setting the gears in motion. That’s harder to do outside of city hall.

In his recent book on Latin American urbanism, Radical Cities, the British critic Justin McGuirk ends with a hopeful nod to the Lab, still in its formative stages when the book was written.

“What we have here is a Latin American architect, steeped in the lessons of Curitiba, Medellin and Tijuana, embedded within the administration of a major U.S. city,” he writes. “And it’s clear that Cruz is establishing a bridgehead for the lessons of Latin America to find new relevance across what was once an unbridgeable divide. It’s early days, but the implications may well be radical.”

The bridgehead is gone, but the implications were indeed radical. Its achievements might have been, too, if it had had a chance.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

Amanda Kolson Hurley is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Maryland. Formerly an editor at Architect and Preservation magazines, she has contributed to a wide range of publications including the Washington Post, Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper and the Times Literary Supplement.