Del Mar’s planning director found calling at early age

A landscape architect for nearly three decades, Kathleen Garcia brought years of experience to Del Mar when she signed on as the city’s planning and community development director in 2010.

“I thought it would be an excellent challenge and something that I would learn a lot from, which it surely has been,” Garcia said with a smile during in an interview in April, which was National Landscape Architecture Month.

“I had a lot of skills that I could bring,” she added. “This was a city that was ready to implement a lot of things. It had a lot of things that had been on the backburner.”

As Del Mar’s planning and community development director, Garcia oversees current and advanced planning, code enforcement, the building department and the Clean Water program.

“Pretty much everything in Del Mar touches planning, which is good,” said Garcia, who lives in a more than 100-year-old historic house in North Park, San Diego. “You’re never bored.”

Of all the projects she’s led and collaborated on in the city, Garcia’s proudest of the planned civic center complex, which includes an 8,722-square-foot city hall, 3,172-square-foot town hall and 15,000-square-foot public plaza. Demolition of the city’s current facilities at 1050 Camino del Mar is expected to start in June — three years after the city initiated the project.

“Having a great space for this community to use and be proud of and have as their own — I think it’s going to be a really nice gift to the city,” Garcia said. “As much as I can shepherd it through, I will continue. It’s evolved quite a lot, but we spent our time and went slowly.”

Nothing could happen without her dedicated team, however. Although Del Mar is the smallest city in San Diego County, its staff is one of the busiest.

Still, there are only eight people in the planning department, including Garcia, and a couple others under contract. The department currently has so many projects that Garcia has to hire another staff member.

“I enjoy seeing our staff shine,” Garcia, 60, said. “I think it’s really cool to see their growth. This is a great group of people. People really love Del Mar and really want to do great things.”

A California native, Garcia came to San Diego in 1988. She grew up in San Francisco, where she went to an all-girls’ Catholic high school.

Garcia realized her calling at a young age. Although some high school students have trouble selecting their school and field of study, by her senior year, Garcia was sure she wanted to attend the University of California, Berkeley, and study landscape architecture.

“I had a lot of interest in design, but also in the environment,” Garcia said. “My favorite classes in high school were art and biology. I was looking for something that combined the two. I found landscape architecture as just being a combination of both.

“I never once questioned it,” she added. “It was funny to be 18 and find your calling.”

A protective nun, however, wouldn’t send her transcripts to Berkeley, fearful of sending the young student to the big campus in the 1970s.

“They didn’t quite think I could handle Berkeley, which made me even more determined to go to Berkeley,” Garcia said.

She went to San Francisco State for her first year of college and then transferred after pleading her case to the chair of the school. Garcia went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from UC Berkeley, followed by a master’s in landscape architecture from Harvard University.

After college, Garcia started her career as a landscape architect at Benjamin Thompson & Associates in Boston for about a year, and then returned to California to work at Perry Burr & Associates for a couple years.

In 1985, just three years after completing her master’s degree, Garcia joined Roberts & Todd LLC, a nationally recognized planning and design firm, where she worked for more than 25 years.

Garcia became a principal with the firm in 1998. She also served as director of the firm’s San Diego office for more than 20 years. Her professional work focused on public sector projects, including planning for urban communities, civic spaces, educational institutions, parks, open spaces and waterfronts — all with a commitment to sustainability.

A 10-year project with the city of Santa Monica, which resulted in the award-winning designs of Palisades Park and South Beach, was one of the highlights of her career.

“It was really exciting to see an older park become revitalized,” Garcia remembered. “That was one of the most exciting projects. It won a lot of awards. It was very nice to be recognized for that.”

Her work in San Diego included park planning for the East Mesa of Balboa Park, Mission Bay Park and Torrey Pines City Park, as well as an open space plan for the city of Carlsbad, a park master plan for the city of Santee, and multiple projects on school and university campuses, including Cathedral Catholic High School, UC San Diego and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, among others.

“All these projects were really a team effort,” Garcia said. “We always had a great strong team.”

Although always quick to recognize her colleagues, Garcia is also never afraid to lead.

Garcia served on the San Diego Planning Commission for eight years. She served on the University of California Riverside Design Review Board and San Diego’s Old Town Design Review Board. A LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) accredited professional, Garcia also served as a board director on the state chapter of the American Planning Association, the Landscape Architecture Foundation and the Southeastern Economic Development Corporation. Additionally, she has been a lecturer at UCSD.

“You can’t beat this beautiful place to work,” Garcia said.