Photo by Jamie Ballard
"There were just so many homeless people down there. It’s really sad.”
So said a cousin of mine, unprompted, when she recently visited with her husband from Pennsylvania. She was referring, as readers could probably guess, to the homeless tents that have become an ongoing and increasingly saddening sight in the East Village. This was not the first comment I’d heard that echoed a similar sentiment. I’ve had friends and family visit over the past few years, and most were equally dismayed by the state of the homelessness crisis in our city.
As baseball season begins and summer approaches, it’s more than fair to assume that more tourists are on their way. And while we likely will always be able to depend on seeing the ubiquitous, slow-driving “zonies” (Arizona folks, who often summer here) or the rowdy L.A. bros who flood into Petco whenever the Padres play the Dodgers, I can’t help but wonder how many first-time tourists would ever choose to return after wandering into the East Village.
This thought weighed heavily on me on Monday as I watched clips of Mayor Faulconer formally roll out his ballot measure to raise the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) by up to three percent in order to fund a $700 million expansion of the convention center. Speaking in front of the convention center itself, Faulconer used much of the same language and politi-speak he employed when trying to convince voters that Measure C (aka the Chargers stadium measure) was a good idea. He also made it sound as if the state of the convention center was in shambles.
“Our convention center must be modernized and expanded to keep up with other cities that are taking away from our tourism business,” said Faulconer.
Let’s just put aside the fact that, just as with Measure C, the initiative will need a two-thirds majority to pass when it shows up on a special election ballot, likely in November. And let’s also put aside the fact that the city doesn’t, in fact, control any of the land where the expansion is proposed to happen. Oh, and let’s also put aside the fact that the company that does control the land, Fifth Avenue Landing, wants to build a four-star hotel on the property and, no kidding, is suing the city-owned convention center for interfering with their permitting process.
It seems that Faulconer just wants voters to forget all that and focus solely on the fact that they’re not the ones being taxed. Right, ’cause that logic worked so well in selling the Chargers stadium. What’s more, he’s also touting that the TOT measure will help fund much-needed infrastructure repairs and homeless programs. However, an easy peek behind the curtain reveals a plan where these two important issues receive a pittance compared to the convention center. While the nearly billion dollar expansion will be funded using bonds (the tax revenue would be used annually to pay off these bonds), make no mistake, the expansion will receive more money than both homelessness and infrastructure combined.
Look, I’m not saying the convention center isn’t important. It generates over a billion dollars a year for the city. And if the finer details in the mayor’s plan are true—that it would create thousands of new and permanent jobs—it’s really hard to hate on that.
However, San Diegans really need to examine what, for them, are the more pressing issues. That is, is the convention center expansion, just like the Chargers stadium before it, something that should be our top priority? Should we prioritize that or the fact that when driving down a pothole-ridden 16th Avenue in the East Village, it looks like something we might see in a warzone and not America’s Finest City.
There are bold plans on the table when it comes to homelessness. Councilmember Chris Ward’s plan and Father Joe’s Villages’ recent proposal to turn vacant hotels into homeless housing (more on that on page five) should serve as a kick-in-the-butt to city officials when it comes to the seriousness of the homelessness crisis.
The mayor needs to look at the long-term effects that infrastructure and especially the homelessness issue are having on tourism. That of the over 35 million people who visit here a year, some might choose never to return after they see so many people suffering on the streets. What’s more, they might tell their friends or family about the suffering they saw while they were here. That might come across as shallow, but given what my own cousin said to me while she was here, it’s not that far-fetched of a scenario.