In 1979, Mavourneen O'Connor, the twin sister of former San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor, reached a deal with the city: She'd get control of 60,000 square feet of city-owned land through 2029 in exchange for $1 a year and a promise to build and operate housing and a community center for low-income seniors on the site. For much of the last 30 years, O'Connor and her San Diego Kind Corp. fulfilled that requirement; then, four years ago, they inexplicably refused to renew a partner nonprofit's lease. That nonprofit, Senior Community Centers, is essentially being forced off Kind Corp.'s site and finding a new home hasn't been easy.
Paul Downey, CEO of Senior Community Centers (SCC), which sublets space from Kind Corp. to provide meals, medical assistance and other services for roughly 3,000 low-income seniors, said he doesn't know when SCC has to be out of the Downtown space it's occupied since 1988. SCC's lease with Kind Corp.—for 6,500 square feet at 828 Broadway—ended in March 2008. SCC's continued to pay rent, but Kind Corp. hasn't cashed those checks, Downey said.
SCC tried in 2005 to get the lease extended through 2029 and also annex a large empty ballroom.
“Our plan was to raise the money to do a massive renovation and turn the facility into something that was workable for us,” Downey said, but Kind Corp. refused.
“Their message,” he added, “was ‘Plan on moving out when your lease terminates.' They wouldn't discuss a short-term extension; they wouldn't discuss a long-term extension. And since then, we've been sending them rent checks that they haven't cashed.”
Downey was Maureen O'Connor's press secretary when she was mayor and said he considers Mavourneen a friend, but he can't figure out why Kind Corp. won't cooperate.
“That's one of those things I wish I knew,” he said.
Rachel Laing, spokesperson for Mayor Jerry Sanders, said that though the city owns the land, it can intervene only if Kind Corp. violates the terms of its lease. Since the contract requires that social services be provided on-site, if SCC leaves and isn't replaced, that would constitute a violation.
Edward Whittler, Kind Corp.'s attorney, did not respond to a voicemail message and an e-mail from CityBeat. Attempts to reach Kind Corp.'s five board members—which include San Diego Union-Tribune publisher David Copley and U-T society columnist Burl Stiff—were also unsuccessful.
In December, SCC received a $3-million donation from the Gary and Mary West Foundation and is currently in escrow to purchase a vacant building at Fourth Avenue and Beech Streets, less than a mile from SCC's current location and walking distance from three senior housing projects.
Downey said plans call for “a 21st-century model of what senior services could look like.” Once SCC obtains the necessary city permit, the new community center will be move-in ready in a matter of months.
But getting that permit might not happen as quickly as he'd like. Last week, the board of the Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC) recommended against issuing the 20-year permit SCC requested. Instead, the board voted 5-1 to approve a five-year permit on the condition that the site be used for something more than a two-story community center. The Downtown community plan—the document that guides growth in the neighborhood—calls for a mid- to high-rise building on that site. CCDC board member Jennifer LeSar called it a “very poor use of a piece of land.”
LeSar said she'd like to see a mixed-use building with the senior center on the bottom and low-income housing on top. She said CCDC is willing to work with SCC to help secure financing. “In my mind, [Downey] needs to do a bigger development or find a better site,” she said.
Downey said he's not opposed to adding housing to the site—just not in five years.
“If I said to you, your entire business is going to be dependent on you committing in five years to a massive project that you may or may not want to do, that may or may not make economic sense and may or may not be in your strategic interest, no business person is going to say yes to that,” he said.
On March 5, the city's Planning Commission will consider issuing the permit. Downey said that if the Planning Commission sides with CCDC, he'll appeal to the City Council. He pointed to a clause in the Downtown community plan that says exceptions can be made for “conditions of hardship, exceptional circumstances, or public health and welfare.” He thinks SCC's situation meets those conditions, especially given the problems it's having with its current landlord.
In terms of underused space, Downey thinks more can be done with Kind Corp.'s plot of land, “but right now [O'Connor's] got it tied up for another 20 years,” he said.