Katina Misa peered down Broadway from her spot just east of First Avenue. She was waiting for her ride to take her home to El Cajon, so she had a moment to ponder how San Diego's downtown has changed in the 12 years she's been commuting to the neighborhood.
“The Gaslamp is great, beautifying the waterfront is great,” she said. “But they need some more parks, some places for lunch and relaxation.”
Everyone likes the idea of more parks for Downtown: the area's City Council member, Kevin Faulconer, Mayor Jerry Sanders, Councilmember Donna Frye, residents, commuters, homeless people—everyone likes parks.
The Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC) has plans to deliver, them, too. The centerpiece is what's known as the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan, which, if fully built, would create a string of open spaces and a boardwalk along the bayfront from Seaport Village to Laurel Street. Plus, CCDC President Nancy Graham has begun a parks initiative to locate parcels for green spaces. There's no lack of ideas for parks. What's missing is time.
In 1972, Mayor Pete Wilson and the City Council formed the city's Redevelopment Agency—which was then, and is now, composed of councilmembers and the mayor. The Agency designated four redevelopment areas in and near Downtown. Under the law, the city was allowed to keep any additional tax money earned from the redevelopment of those areas and reinvest that money in more improvements.
In 1975, frustrated by slow progress and reluctant developers, Wilson created CCDC, a hybrid non-profit corporation that technically advises the Redevelopment Agency, but in practice manages Downtown redevelopment with little interference. In 1992, CCDC was given responsibility for a new, larger redevelopment area that encompassed most of Downtown and where, over the past 15 years or so, new buildings have sprouted like evergreens in a burn zone, old buildings have been reborn as high-end condos and hotels, the area's crime rates have plummeted.
But the state law that sparked Downtown's rebirth has some fixed limits. For one, it says a redevelopment area will lose its special designation after 40 years or when it's generated a certain amount of tax dollars. For Downtown, that limit is set at $2 billion. CCDC Chief Financial Officer Frank Alessi told CityBeat he estimates they'll hit that amount around 2020, depending on the state of the economy—that's 13 years before the 40-year clock runs out. That means there's just 12 years left to, basically, “complete” Downtown. In the time scale of development, with its need for environmental studies, infrastructure improvements and actual design and construction, that's not much time at all. And that means the current CCDC board is playing out the agency's last act.
And there's limited money to spend before that final bow, as well. Taking into account administrative costs and debt repayment, the organization has about $500 million left to spend on capital projects. Subtract major initiatives already on the drawing board, and Alessi figures there's $100 million left for any new ideas.
“The point here,” said CCDC board chairman Fred Maas, “is that we're not just an ATM for the rest of the city. We're going to have to make choices.”
The CCDC board has plans of its own for that remaining cash—a vision that includes the North Embarcadero project, new schools for Downtown's growing population and a new City Hall. But questions surrounding the organization's future heated up last month when the San Diego County Civil Grand Jury raised questions about how the organization functioned—pointing out, among other things, that it was missing some financial audits—and proposed eliminating it entirely to save on administrative costs. The report galvanized critics who've never been happy with what they perceive as CCDC's cozy relationship with developers.
“It was set up to speed development,” said Steve Erie, a UCSD professor of political science. “It has turned around Downtown, but with more accountability and oversight would there have been a different mix of uses: more public lands, more public facilities?”
Erie argues that the fact that CCDC is now focused on public-use projects only strengthens the case for closing the organization and allowing the City Council, acting as the Redevelopment Agency, to handle the remaining cash. The two men who asked the Grand Jury to investigate CCDC, activists Ian Trowbridge and Mel Shapiro, believe the organization should be eliminated just for the annual administrative savings. Trowbridge takes it further, saying he doesn't believe Alessi's numbers.
“Since we aren't privy to the financial statements in any form that's readable, and they have not been read by an auditor, they can say anything they want,” he said.
At the moment, there seems to be no real push at City Hall to eliminate CCDC. Councilmember Faulconer and Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz both told CityBeat they support the continued work of the organization and they look forward to figuring out how to best spend the remaining money.
“CCDC is a nationally recognized model that has a proven role in the remarkable transformation of Downtown,” Faulconer said. “Though in any organization, there's always room for improvement.”
Frye said that constructing a permanent homeless shelter should be a priority.
“It's a reflection of what kind of a city we are and are going to become and not become,” she said, “taking care of those who are least fortunate.”
For years Frye's voice has been part of the chorus calling on CCDC to pay off the bonds issued to build Petco Park. When the park was planned in 2000, the city agreed to issue bonds to foot part of the bill. Paying off those bonds has become an $11 million annual obligation. But since the Padres play within the redevelopment area's boundaries, money generated from redevelopment can legally pay off those bonds for the city. This year, for the first time, San Diego's budget includes a $5 million contribution toward that debt, freeing up $5 million for things like police salaries and street sweeping.
“The city has a financial problem,” said Peter Q. Davis, a one-time CCDC chairman and Port Commissioner. “It seems to me that [CCDC] paying the ballpark bonds becomes a higher priority.”
Todd Voorhees, vice president of the Downtown San Diego Partnership, a business advocacy group, prioritized the construction of a new City Hall. (San Diegans seem to agree: In various interviews for this story, the building was described as “butt ugly,” “like Polish public housing” and “hideous”), which dovetails well with another local business priority—revitalizing C Street.
The fact is, the money CCDC has left won't get all these projects finished. As Maas and Alessi pointed out, CCDC only puts up part of the money for any project. Its $80 million in seed money for a new Downtown public library still awaits matching private contributions and, Maas says, they're still waiting for a commitment from the Port of San Diego to get going on building a boardwalk by the bay. They argue that these ongoing projects and relationships with other organizations are exactly why CCDC needs to stick around to finish up what it began.
“Twelve years seems like a long time, but it's pretty quick,” said Scott Barnett, the president of Taxpayers Advocate and a longtime City Hall observer. “Why mess with the process? You have a lot of redevelopment that can still get done. If you have to create a whole new city process, will it be as efficient as the Centre City Development Corporation? That's the rub.”