Notes from BikeSD’s Member Soirée: A Conversation with Joe LaCava


The quotable quote from last month’s BikeSD Member Soirée was without a doubt this one from Joe LaCava, “calling someone a NIMBY is a cop out by people who do a bad job at articulating ideas.”

Last month Joe LaCava was the special guest to the first of many BikeSD member soirées. Joe is not only the chair of the Community Planners Committee, the group that oversees all community planning groups in the city, but he is also one of our original founders even though, he doesn’t even ride a bicycle. Joe said that he supports our work because he understands the benefits that cycling brings to a community.

His talk largely focused on how to deal with difficult people using compassion and understanding their point of view – something that at times can seem near impossible. (Editor’s note: see Uptown Planners Chair’s, Leo Wilson, meltdown over the smallest problem that desperately needed redress. See also: Uptown Planners: Determined to prove they are out of touch with the needs of their own community)

Joe spent quite a bit of time delving into his thought process of what went wrong over the Morena Boulevard planning discussion. His conclusion was that the project and process lacked long-term leadership leading into the project. He stated that the first mistake was not starting the discussion around Morena Boulevard early enough which should have addressed issues such as where we, as a city, needed to go and what role each neighborhood would play in San Diego’s future. The reality, he said, is that San Diego today is not the same San Diego from years ago; the city is nearly built out, the city will no longer look to suburban sprawl and we must address our deadly streets. The Morena Boulevard area is one of the opportunities for the conversation we need to have as a city over how we will house the next generation through urban infill.

As Joe stated, as a city we need to start the conversation in small groups instead of dropping a relatively huge change on the community as a whole. He went on, “neighborhoods adapt to change differently.” And change perceived by some as a net good, could be perceived by others as an imposition or a negative change which makes them defensive and unwilling to participate in the process.

Turning to planning groups, Joe noted they are advisory, and their authority comes from their councilmember honoring their recommendations. What is sometimes perceived as power is actually planning group members wielding a network of community members. However, authority also comes from credibility to the degree a planning group’s processes are inclusive and reflective of their community’s needs. In other words, an ability to articulate the community’s needs and views to our elected representatives is what garners credibility.

Joe noted that planning groups are the only organizations recognized by the city and urged our members to get involved with their planning group. While meetings at times can be a bit bureaucratic because of city imposed rules, planning groups allow you to be part of the decision-making and to ensure all views are considered.

Joe also talked about the slow process involved between visioning, planning and implementation. He talked about us having to play the long game and being patient, yet expressed surprised at how quickly BikeSD’s efforts had resulted in change here in San Diego. He went on to state that often, when the city fails to understand the hot button issues in a community, they wind up making the same mistakes over and over again. The language used to build support is often misguided or incorrect and winds up angering and riling up the opposition against any sort of change. Surprisingly, Joe stated that a planning group can sometimes be the wrong forum to getting new ideas out into the community.

He went on to discuss the Bird Rock project which for years had a speeding issue. Retail stores were failing due to the speed limit being set too high and people not being able to stop at the businesses to patronize them. Instead of being a community, Bird Rock was a high speed thoroughfare for non-residents. One of the initial solutions proposed was to narrow the travel lane by implementing angled parking. However that idea was rejected as many felt that the vehicle traffic would “spill over” onto the residential side streets. In the face of an angry community, current Congressman, Scott Peters was the Council representative and did something brilliant. Peters told the Bird Rock community that doing nothing was not an option. He offered the community resources to build consensus on what was the problem and then for the community to develop the solution. In short, that solution was the roundabouts we see today.

At the end of the evening, I came away being even more inspired to encourage our supporters to voice themselves and articulate their ideas. San Diego is in the midst of turning the page away from a car-centric past to one that is friendlier and nicer to everyone – be it bicyclists, pedestrians or even drivers. Pretty exciting to be a part of this transformation. But it’s up to everyone to play a role in it.

Thank you Joe, for taking the time to educate and inspire all of us!