Ask the average San Diegan and she'd tell you that the board in charge of the day-to-day redevelopment of downtown San Diego is a bunch of golf-playing, scotch-swilling, fat old white guys bent on mutual back scratching and sweetheart deals, all at the expense of average San Diegans.
But the time may have come to retune that assessment.
Consider the pair of new members joining the Centre City Development Corporation board of directors this month: Janice Brown, a black employment attorney, and Teddy Cruz, an urban designer and professor of visual arts from Guatemala. The most recent white guy to sign on, Kim Kilkenny, is the designer of Otay Ranch, an environmentally friendly, quality-of-life-oriented suburban development in Otay Mesa. The chairwoman, Jennifer LeSar, elevated last year, is a community-development consultant with a background in affordable housing. Wait a sec-these aren't country-club-attending, knicker-wearing old white guys at all. Could they, just maybe, have the best interests of San Diego at heart?
We'll find out soon enough. The first big test will be on Sept. 27 in a vote that will determine if hotel developer Doug Manchester's behemoth Navy-Broadway project will get to break ground or if it will be sent crying back to papa. The City Council, in its capacity as the Redevelopment Agency, can direct the vote if they choose, but a 1992 development agreement with the Navy puts it explicitly in the hands of the board. What will they do?
Well, we know what the development administrators of yore would have done: pass that sucker-and fast. In the past, the CCDC board has shown a willingness to run roughshod over the little guy. A year after Ahmed Mesdaq gave up his fight to protect Gran Havana, his upscale Gaslamp Quarter cigar shop, from eminent domain, there is still no new Marriot hotel as promised. Where the stylish storefront used to be, there stands a parking lot.
Redevelopment in general and downtown in particular have been pilloried by advocates for the poor as a reverse Robin Hood scheme to take land away from established working-class communities and funnel it into the hands of rich developers, who then build luxury condos. Critics point to Petco Park as an example of abuse of eminent domain to knock down housing to benefit a wealthy developer, Padres owner John Moores. Though many people praise the park as a catalyst for downtown revitalization, there are others still bitter over the loss of affordable housing.
“I went to a CCDC meeting once, and the audience was mostly developers. A high level staffer turned to them and said, ‘We're here to make you money,'” said Donald Cohen, executive director of the Center on Policy Initiatives, a social-justice-oriented think tank.
The story sure sounds plausible, given the board's recent record: In 2003, board members Robert Ito and Reese Jarrett resigned when the city's Ethics Commission began investigating them for voting to give land, gratis, to the Housing Commission while both worked for firms that received money from the commission. Last year, board member Gina Champion-Cain, whom Kilkenny replaced, had to resign because, as a real estate agent, she often sold property within CCDC's area of influence. Most recently, Chairman Hal Sadler was fined $6,000 and forced to resign over allegations that his firm consulted on plans for the new downtown library. It's hard to blame the average San Diegan for her bleak outlook.
So, the time for new blood has arrived, and no appointment has signaled more loudly that the CCDC board is changing than that of Teddy Cruz. The Harvard-trained urban designer has spent the last several years criticizing downtown redevelopment. He served as a board member on the Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, an organization that has focused on smart growth since the 1960s and has dedicated much of its energy to attacking CCDC. Cruz believes the “new urbanism” model of many cities is too superficial. Speaking specifically of downtown redevelopment, he once told the Architectural Record that it “only addresses aestheticism, creating a fake facade of difference without considering the lifestyle of the community.”
More than just a critic, Cruz has actively sought to solve the problem of eliminating urban and suburban blight. In the border community of San Ysidro, he designed “Living Rooms on the Border,” a 12-unit development that will integrate housing with a community center, a community garden and a small market. Now, as the rebel suddenly handed the reigns of power, he must find ways to apply his work on the grand stage. Cruz was traveling and not available for an interview.
Janice Brown has less well-defined ideas on what should be where in San Diego. A one-time partner at power-broking law firm Seltzer Kaplan, Brown specializes in employment litigation-she's defending an insurance company in court right now-but says she prefers to defuse conflict before it breaks out into open warfare. On upcoming topics like Navy-Broadway, she said she'd probably defer to her more experienced colleagues while she gets up to speed. The Montana-raised attorney holds an inclusive view of downtown that stands in contrast to the cronyism of the past.
“I am African-American; I have a bias that I think diversity brings a better result. My assumption is that because my background may be different, my beliefs may be different,” she said. “In my view, the city belongs to everybody, not just a few.”
Indeed, the heaviest shot fired at CCDC in the past has been the emphasis on buildings over people.
“Redevelopment is about lifting up blighted communities and lifting up the people in them, the alleviation of poverty as well as the elimination of physical blight,” Cohen said. “It's not just about putting buildings in the ground.”
Including everyone means ensuring that the people already living downtown will be able to stay. Critics like Cohen point to CCDC's many failures to use its leverage to help people downtown.
“All these developers bring in workers from Arizona and Texas, because they can pay them less. Imagine if they had been forced to train locals in the latest construction techniques?” he said.
Though a spokesperson for Mayor Jerry Sanders said neither Cruz nor Brown was specifically targeted in the recruitment process, it does sound like Sanders wants to change the focus of CCDC. “I think you'll see CCDC become more focused on people rather than places,” said spokesperson Fred Sainz.
To that end, CCDC has to address the criticism that higher real-estate prices are forcing social-service agencies out of their offices, leaving the poor more bereft than ever.
Chairwoman LeSar wants to see those social-service organizations stay downtown, where they can efficiently serve longtime residents. She already has plans to provide housing for the mentally ill homeless. But LeSar takes particular pride in the new buildings in Little Italy that feature three-bedroom units, perfect for families. Typically, builders like to focus on one- and two-bedroom apartments, so they can maximize the number of units in the building.
“I think a downtown with children will be very rich,” she said.
To do that, she has to solve the chicken-and-egg problem of schools downtown. The state has been reluctant to build schools where there are not yet children, especially in a period of declining enrollment, but families are uncomfortable moving downtown without schools.
So, LeSar and the school district are negotiating a way to hold land for future school buildings while, at the same time, CCDC is supporting the schools already in place through loans.
Kilkenny and second-term board member Fred Maas are both developers who echo Cruz and LeSar's emphasis on community building, though the experience of both is in suburbia. Kilkenny's Otay Ranch is a sprawling 35 square miles, but in design he says Otay Ranch will be anything but soul-sucking, American Beauty-style sprawl. Homes are grouped around village centers containing schools, markets and police and fire stations. He's ringing the entire development with an enormous nature preserve.
Maas's Black Mountain Ranch, in northern San Diego, uses the village-center concept also, and his development may be among the most environmentally sound in the world: All buildings must get 20 percent of their electricity from solar power, the golf course will be watered entirely from reclaimed sources and he's encouraging the planting of only native vegetation. Maas even receives high marks from the Sierra Club.
“He's a man of his word. He's done everything that we agreed on,” said Paul Blackburn, the Sierra Club official who worked with him.
Indeed, longer-serving members like Wayne Raffesberger and Robert McNeely find themselves reinvigorated by the enthusiasm of the new members. McNeely, vice president of Union Bank of California, looks forward to developing a mixed-use downtown that he can show off to bank clients.
“When I drive to work every morning, I see the boats in the harbor, I see the new roads and trolleys, and I see the sun rising over the new high rises,” he said.
Raffesberger, a longtime political insider, sounds positively enthusiastic when discussing his vision for a new civic center to replace the 1960s enclosed courtyard on C Street.
“You keep the parking garage, rip down Golden Hall, build a new signature high-rise to house all the city workers with new [City] Council chambers, rip down the current city building, open up the plaza to C Street to get rid of the wind tunnel there, and redo the trolley stop so it's integrated right into plaza,” he said.
Too bad there's no money for such a project, but at least he has a vision.
Raffesberger longs for what he calls “Los Entradas,” grand entrances to downtown. Where Highway 163 turns into 10th Avenue, for example, he would like to see a pocket park with public art “so that commuters and visitors really feel like they've arrived.”
For longtime observers and critics of CCDC, the watch phrase is “cautious optimism” for a board that will usher in an era of enlightened design. “It seems there's a greater diversity of interest and perspective-we hope they'll take CCDC in a different direction,” said Cohen. “Of course, there could be greater diversity.”
In his view, even the new board is loaded down with the elite. He compared it unfavorably to the Los Angeles equivalent of the CCDC board, which includes several advocates for the working poor and union leaders along with the real estate lawyers and developers.
“I'm thinking that some of the people that are coming on board understand that the role of CCDC needs to change,” said Diane Combs, vice president of Citizens Coordinate for Century 3.
“It's just exactly the leadership we now need to handle the problems that are now before this group,” said Peter Q. Davis, a former CCDC board chair.
Indeed, Combs and Davis brought up the most prominent of the public's concerns: the absence of infrastructure like emergency services, the inadequacy of the proposed parks, and a dread fear of downtown gridlock. But in a sign of the times, board members new and old showed an awareness of these concerns. LeSar said CCDC is in talks with the Fire-Rescue Department over emergency preparedness and the location of new firehouses.
Again, money comes into play. By law, CCDC can only make capital improvements; the organization cannot provide operational money. The city would have to find the cash to pay the police officers and firefighters needed to protect the 90,000 residents expected to be living downtown by 2030.
And nearly all the board members, including the car-loving McNeely (for whom cars are a hobby-he owns four), said they want to see more public transit for getting to and moving around downtown.
“Parking structures we build today will be totally inadequate in 10 or 20 years,” McNeely said.
Of course, that may be the board's public attitude, but the revised community plan approved by the City Council in March tried to forge a middle path between public-transit improvements and added parking that ultimately left both car and train lovers unhappy. Just ask Save Our Forests and Ranchlands, a group that's suing CCDC and the city on this very issue and, according to an internal memo, is likely to win a favorable settlement. They want to see improved north-south train transit, like a Coaster stop, improved bus rapid transit and more trolley lines through downtown.
On the subject of parks, critics will probably stay grouchy. LeSar seems to believe there is adequate planning for parks in the revised community plan. Meanwhile, Kilkenny offered an alternative to big green spaces: “There simply isn't enough room for the kind of parks they want. We can't provide three acres of park for every 1,000 people,” he said. Instead, he proposes buildings that incorporate personal outdoor space for residents.
“San Diego has the best climate in the universe,” he said. “But most of these buildings have balconies that look tacked on. There should be roof gardens and patios designed into all the new residences.”
Even with all the hopeful talk and high principles, just what will the board do in its first major decision? Critics like downtown watchdog Ian Trowbridge, along with C3, hope CCDC will vote Manchester's project down. Technically, the 1992 development agreement asks CCDC only to determine whether the Navy Broadway Complex is consistent with the agreement as it was revised in 2003. Trowbridge and others argue that the development blocks public access to the waterfront, the oft-repeated “walling off the bay.”
“Jennifer took the lead on slowing things down on the Navy Broadway Complex redevelopment. That was quite a strong move on her part,” said Trowbridge. “This shows an independence from the old interests that has not been present over the last five or 10 years.”
Complaints about the project have grown louder over the summer. State Assemblymember Lori Saldana held hearings. Five of six City Council members polled by CityBeat in July expressed the desire to see more parks and public space in the project.
The board members generally played coy in their conversations with CityBeat, but their views suggest the proposed development, considered on its merits, would not be suitable for downtown. However, there have been so many meetings and hearings, with so much data produced, that the new board members may find it hard to catch up. Kilkenny, Brown and Cruz are so new that they may defer to the more experienced members, as Brown said she would.
Fred Maas may have summed up the views of those longer-serving members best.
“The City Council has spoken. They narrowly defined the process; they already told us what our role is. There are very specific parameters; the edict has been ratified many times,” he said, referring to the several revisions to the original agreement passed by the council. “People who think we can engage in de novo review of the whole process are making a gross distortion.”
If that's how the old-timers see it, and the newcomers defer to them, then San Diego knows in advance the result of the vote in two weeks. Just because a new board has high notions of urban planning and more diversity of experience doesn't guarantee revolution downtown.
THE CCDC BOARD
Robert McNeely, treasurer Time on the board: Three years Job: Vice president, Union Bank of California Fun Fact: In his office hang pictures of him with Jesse Jackson Jr., Robert Mondavi, Colin Powell, Bernard Parks and LaDainian Tomlinson
Kim Kilkenny Time on the board: Less than a year Job: Developer, The Otay Ranch Company Fun Facts: Loves to read biographies of presidents. Believes George Washington is “without equal.”
Fred Maas, vice chair Time on the board: One year Job: Developer, Black Mountain Ranch LLC Fun Facts: Though his real estate career has centered on golf-course communities, he's only ever played one round of golf. Organized Jack Kemp's 1996 run for the vice presidency.
Teddy Cruz Time on the board: Brand new Job: Professor of architecture & urbanism at UCSD Fun Facts: Cruz's mother ran a nightclub in Guatemala City. She was once arrested for hiding rebel weapons in her basement.
Wayne Raffesberger, secretary Time on the board: Three years Job: Private-practice attorney Fun Fact: The only lifelong San Diegan on the board.
Janice Brown Time on the board: Brand new Job: Private-practice attorney Fun Fact: Hated law school so much she earned her degree from Gonzaga in two years.
Jennifer LeSar, chair Time on the board: Four years Job: Owner, LeSar Development Corporation Fun Fact: The daughter of foreign service workers, she grew up all over the United States, plus in India and Afghanistan