When Bill Fulton started work as head of San Diego's Planning Department in July 2013, the department didn't actually exist, since former Mayor Jerry Sanders had disbanded its predecessor agency and merged it into the permitting department.
"For the first three months, I was a planning director with no planning department, which isn't necessarily a bad position to have," joked Fulton, who had been a nationally known proponent of "smart growth" development before then-Mayor Bob Filner tapped him for the job.
Over the past 13 months, Fulton not only oversaw the rebuilding of the department but also revitalized the long-stalled community planning process, helping establish new zoning rules and development goals for neighborhoods throughout the city.
But as of the end of business Friday, San Diego temporarily has a planning department without a director, since Fulton has officially left the job to head the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston.
Fulton insists his departure, announced a month ago, does not signal a shift in direction for the city or any difference in opinion with current leaders at City Hall. Instead, he said, the offer at Rice was just too good to pass up.
"Rice is one of the greatest universities in the country and (the financial backers of) the Kinder Institute have the goal of making it the most important voice on planning in the nation, or at least in the Sun Belt," he said. "To take a small think tank and grow it to that kind of institution is an incredible opportunity."
David Graham, chief operating officer of the city's Neighborhood Services division, which includes the Planning Department, said the Kinder post is "obviously a very prestigious job, but we're so sorry that he's leaving. He was instrumental in re-creating the Planning Department and setting it on the good course."
The search for Fulton's replacement begins right away. Graham said he's "looking for someone who's visionary, can work with the communities, understands the planning process and the character of our neighborhoods, understands the need to balance growth, development, environmental concerns, as well as being a good manager who knows how to deal with changes from Sacramento or Washington, D.C. Bill Fulton had all those qualities."
Despite his short tenure, Fulton made his mark on the city. Among other things, he helped guide the community plans for Ocean Beach, Otay Mesa and Barrio Logan through the City Hall approval process, and as many as eight others are in the pipeline to be approved in 12 to 18 months.
And that was all accomplished during a time of dramatic changes at City Hall. Fulton took office just six days before Filner became embroiled in the sexual harassment scandal that led to his ouster. Over the ensuing months, Fulton survived the transition from Filner to Interim Mayor Todd Gloria and the election of Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
"The shifting political situation was a very big challenge," he said. "It's hard to maintain a consistent path when those kinds of changes are going on. But no matter who the mayor was, all three had a commitment to making San Diego a prosperous city while accommodating reasonable business development and working to preserve the character of individual neighborhoods."
There have been some setbacks — notably the public referendum in June that overturned the Barrio Logan plan after a heavily funded campaign argued it would be too restrictive on local shipyards. But even opponents of the Barrio Logan plan — including Faulconer — praised the Planning Department's work, saying they agreed with 90 percent of the final version.
Fulton said Faulconer fully supports the planning process, noting that he boosted the budget of the Planning Department since taking office.
But Fulton said the hardest work has been to convince some residents that some streets in their neighborhoods may become more densely populated as San Diego continues toward its longstanding goal of becoming a "city of villages," composed of self-sustaining communities with homes, offices, stores, services and public transportation routes within easy walking or biking distance of each other.
Both geographic limitations and demographic shifts make those changes imperative, he said.
"We're the largest city in the country that is now making the transition from outward expansion to infield development," Fulton said.
"Some cities, like Los Angeles, have already made that transition. Others, like Houston, are still expanding outwards. But San Diego's right in the middle of it."
At the same time, he said, the two major demographic groups — aging baby boomers and millennials in their 20s and 30s — are increasingly choosing to live in walkable neighborhoods in urban centers rather than in the suburbs.
"To attract talented young people, who are the center of our economy, we need to provide neighborhoods that reflect their drive and energy," he said.
Fulton said that in many neighborhoods, long-time residents are receptive to the changes, which may include more offices, stores and apartment buildings along their busiest streets.
"My response is that change is going to come no matter what they do, but that the planning process gives them a chance to make sure that the changes will result in a better neighborhood instead of a worse neighborhood," he said.
Diego Velasco, principal of the MW Steele Group urban planning firm, said he thinks one of Fulton's best accomplishments is to introduce the idea of "specific plans" — involving, say, a single block or two — instead of relying solely on communitywide plans.
"Specific plans are a good way to focus planning toward areas with identified growth potential," he said.
Kris Michel, head of the Downtown Partnership, said Fulton brought a fresh perspective to the planning process.
"He understood the role of urban centers and helped remove the obstacles that stood in the way of change," she said. "But he also recognized that density doesn't belong in all communities. He stressed that in order to grow properly, we need community plans."
Fulton said that even though he's moving to Houston, he'll keep an eye on San Diego and may comment on the planning process from time to time.
"Even though people like to dwell on the differences between Texas and California, the fact is that the two states have nine of the 16 largest cities in the country, and the challenges those cities are very similar in many ways," he said.