Feb. 13 2013 09:27 AM

Salk scientist became the British bulldog of San Diego land use and government transparency

Ian Trowbridge, holding his grandson, Paxton
Photo by Dell Cunamay

The phone should've rung by now.

If it had, I would've picked it up and on the other end a deep British voice would have said something like, "Hey, Dave, I know you're on deadline, but—."

The caller, citizen activist Ian Trowbridge, would've gone on at length about breaking news in one of his many battles over the Convention Center expansion or over the Tijuana River Valley dredging. Or maybe Trowbridge would have simply called to compliment one of CityBeat's investigative reports, giving the heads-up that he was about to tout it at a public meeting. Eventually, as the conversation dragged on, I would have to cut him off as gently as possible to get back to filing my copy.

But the phone's not going to ring, as much as I wish it would to help me procrastinate in writing this story. The retired scientist died of apparent liver failure on Wednesday, Feb. 6, at age 65.

The easy part has been written for me by a friend of the family: Trowbridge is survived by his partner, Dell Cunamay of Mission Hills; his daughter Emma Tecca and son-in-law Brad Tecca and their daughters Gina, Ellie and Gracie; his son Christopher Trowbridge and daughter-in-law Daymi Dyan of Chico and their son Paxton Trowbridge. He was preceded in death by his wife, Jennifer. Two chow chows and a Lhasa-Pomeranian mutt are also missing him.

Here's what I can add: Trowbridge should be mourned by every single person who cares about San Diego.

"You go, ‘What's all the big shit that's gone on in this town in the last 10 years?' and a significant percentage has his fingerprints on it," says attorney Cory Briggs, who represented various organizations Trowbridge co-led. "And he never got a fucking penny for it. Half the time, he didn't even get a ‘Thank you.' He got far more Fuck-you's than Thank-you's."

Born in Derbyshire, England, and educated in immunology at Oxford University, Trowbridge moved to San Diego in 1972, where he began an illustrious 30-year career at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. While he made a name for himself in the arena of medical research, Trowbridge's rise as a community activist began in the late 1990s and grew after his retirement in 2001.

"He wore his passion on his sleeve, not typical of English ‘stiff upper lip,' more like my race, the Irish," friend and fellow civic watchdog Pat Flannery writes in an email to CityBeat. "We fought and made up, sometimes twice a day, just like the Irish—because we shared one great passion: a love of America and our adopted home, San Diego. We both passionately wanted to make America's Finest City even finer.

"The only bad thing I can think of him is he cost me a fortune in cell phone minutes."

Enumerating Trowbridge's activism in a news story would be like attempting to edit Clint Eastwood's film canon into a 60-second highlight reel. His first forays involved uncovering corruption and waste in the San Diego Data Processing Corp., where his wife had worked, and speaking out in favor of needle-exchange programs. He was involved in efforts to block a corrupt redevelopment official from receiving a golden parachute, to force the city of San Diego to obey environmental laws in dredging the Tijuana River Valley and lawsuits opposing the county's regional transportation plan. Nowhere was his presence more impactful than in issues related to the San Diego waterfront— battles that put him head-to-head with powerful government and private interests, including the U.S. Navy and developer-tycoon Doug Manchester.

"The waterfront—and the public's right to it—was always one of his great concerns," says Diane Coombs, co-chair, with Trowbridge, of the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, which for years has advocated for better public amenities along San Diego's bayfront. Trowbridge set his sights on the San Diego Unified Port District, she says, because "he felt it was a government agency that was not really operating in a democratic fashion."

While Trowbridge was never successful as a political candidate (he came in seventh out of 17 candidates in the 2005 race for San Diego City Council District 2), he developed a large bag of tricks for creating political pressure and demanding accountability, from filing public-records requests to leveraging the media.

"He understood the different ways to fight these fights," Briggs says. "He understood that sometimes you go down to City Council and pound your fist, and sometimes you work behind the scenes, and sometimes you go to court."

Trowbridge relished "public comment" portions of government meetings, famously baiting county Supervisor Bill Horn over indiscretions such as sharing a house with his chief of staff and funneling county money to pro life religious groups.

"I'd hate for you to have a sweet, old farmer lady be vulgar on the telephone," long-time North County activist Patsy Fritz says, "but I can tell you exactly that when Ian Trowbridge would step forward to the podium, there would be a universal reaction of, ‘Oh shit.'" 

Briggs notes the things that made Trowbridge unique as a friend and a client: his cantankerousness, his commitment to facts, his eccentric attire ("a cross between a proper Brit and the disheveled, absent-minded professor").Like Flannery—and others contacted for this story—Briggs says you could measure the man's impact by the growth in your phone bill.

Trowbridge's friends note the irony in his passing on the same day the California Coastal Commission approved the Lane Field development. Planned for the spot at the foot of Broadway where the Padres once ran the bases and where there's currently a parking lot, a proposed hotel complex was modified to include a 150-foot park. That may be Trowbridge's greatest legacy.

"Ian was instrumental in getting the developers and the port and the community to realize there is a way—there is a win-win here," Briggs says. "It might not be everybody's ‘perfect,' but it's everybody's ‘pretty damn good.'" 

Coombs says she's in talks with the hotel developer about a possible memorial to Trowbridge at the future park.

"But how do you memorialize Ian?" Coombs asks. "The best all of us can do is continue the battle to ensure that the waterfront is used wisely and with the maximum public access in mind, both for the city and the region."

Through organizations such as the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition and San Diegans for Open Government, Trowbridge was the driving force behind several legal actions, and it's unclear who, if anyone, will step up to replace him.

"I don't know how many people have the brains, fire in their belly and time to dedicate to hounding public officials on these high-profile issues, you know?" Briggs says. "If you put down on paper all of his accomplishments and all of the things he was involved in, and you look to the future, and you say, ‘OK, who fills the void?' There are no names that come to mind. There might be groups of folks who you'll divvy it up among, but I can't think of a single person to fill that place in the frontline."

If such a person does arise, they shouldn't hesitate to give us a call.

Kelly Davis and John R. Lamb contributed to this report. 

Email davem@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.


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