On a somewhat foggy Tuesday morning I paused to watch a solitary man gradually wake up after an outdoor, concrete slumber. He was covered from head to ankles by a faded, lime-green blanket. This man sat up, paused for a full minute and then finally pulled the blanket down off his head. He silently struggled to lace up heavy black boots with hands that trembled involuntarily.
Standing atop the $26-million silver footbridge that spans Harbor Drive in East Village, I took note of the spot where this man had laid down to fend off the night. He was roughly 30 yards southeast of Petco Park; nearly dead center between the bayside green space where powerful forces want to expand the San Diego Convention Center and equidistant from the parking lot/bus depot where other powerful forces want to erect a $1.7-billionish hybrid football stadium/convention center expansion.
In one formidable corner: Mayor Kevin Faulconer, County Supervisor Ron Roberts and the hoteliers who want a contiguous, bayfront convention center expansion.
And in the other corner: San Diego Chargers owner Dean Spanos and JMI Realty (under former Padres owner John Moores) both of whom fancy a downtown “convadium.”
However, nobody is in the corner of guys sleeping outside under faded, lime-green blankets.
The alliance backing that convadium support a complex, cure-all Citizens’ Plan, authored by environmental lawyer Cory Briggs. The initiative would restructure and raise hotel taxes and aim to fix the legal issues behind a long-stalled convention center expansion, while also keeping the Chargers from leaving town and possibly clearing the way in Mission Valley for parklands and extra campus space for San Diego State University. The plan is purported to do everything except cure Alzheimer’s disease and safeguard us from the Zika virus.
San Diegans will likely be asked to vote on this not-yet-inked monster initiative in November. What vote count will it require for passage? That’s a fuzzy issue. Seems when it’s somebody else’s public vote for a tax increase it needs to pass with a two-thirds threshold, but when it’s your public vote for a tax increase, it just needs 50 percent plus one.
The cage match looms. Hundreds of millions of public dollars may be on the table. Michael McConnell, homelessness activist and former head of 25 Cities, is ready to jump out of his chair to talk about this.
“Homeless people continue to have no voice, no lobby,” McConnell says. “This is a vulnerable population that is dying in the streets, but it’s still an afterthought. I’ll do all I can to elevate this discussion, and I won’t support any public funding project that doesn’t address homelessness. How many votes is this initiative going to come down to? A thousand? Five hundred? We don’t know the threshold yet, but this is going to be hotly contested. And I think it would be costly to not include homelessness.”
The old development model: Sweep the homeless out of East Village. Bus tickets for everybody. But progressive policies—evidenced around the country and focused on a housing-first approach that includes wraparound supportive services—are making a dent. San Diego city and county politicians have acknowledged as much when they announced separate initiatives this year to step up help for veterans and the severely mentally ill.
So here comes a chance for one of the power alliances to sow a swath of positive public relations: Get sincere homelessness advocates on your team.
Chris Ward and Anthony Bernal, both running for the city council district seat that represents downtown, say homeless concerns are critical if, and when, a convadium plan comes forward. “Rather than simply moving these people to another area of the city, the proponents of the Citizen’s Plan should direct funds generated through additional [tax] revenues to help them get off the street,” says Bernal. “It’s the responsible thing to do.”
FYI: It would appear more than a few mitigation measures in the California Environmental Quality Act address “socio-economic impacts caused by physical development.” I’m advised that a CEQA lawyer would outrun Usain Bolt for the chance to sue the Chargers or JMI if they got a green light on a convadium and then ignored the homeless.
For a couple reasons—excessive public financing for a billionaire NFL owner; being bad business to annex a convention center expansion two blocks away—a convadium-centric initiative might already be dead on arrival at the ballot box. But…it mi-i-ight get a second look from some if the power alliance honestly embraces the opportunity to lend a hand to that guy sleeping on the street under a faded, lime-green blanket.