Of all the deals hatched involving the redevelopment of the East Village, this may be one of the most secretive and ambitious.
Hoping to buck a decade-long trend of downtown redevelopment mired in controversy, JMI Reality, Padres owner John Moores' development company, is negotiating a top-secret agreement that could eliminate significant opposition to the construction of the $1.4 billion Ballpark Village-a seven-acre complex complete with two 500-foot-tall towers, making it the largest development project in downtown history.
But it's not East Village land barons, other developers or even the City Council that's sitting across the bargaining table from Moores' heavy hitters. Instead, it's a motley crew of labor bosses, environmentalists, affordable-housing gurus and other community activists who form A Community Coalition for Responsible Development (ACCORD). The group is hoping to hammer out an unprecedented legal agreement-known as a community benefits agreement-that would compel JMI to address a variety of concerns and provide specific community benefits in exchange for ACCORD's public support of the project.
That community backing may prove essential to getting Ballpark Village off the ground. The six-member City Council is scheduled to vote on the Ballpark Village project on Tuesday and Councilmember Donna Frye has reportedly already voiced her opposition. With five votes needed for approval, the project's fate hangs on a single vote, which could hinge on a successful agreement.
ACCORD and JMI are expected to make a joint announcement before Tuesday's meeting.
The exact details of what ACCORD's members hope to secure from JMI is a closely guarded secret, and a self-imposed gag order prevents participants in the negotiations from talking. But according to a mission statement published on ACCORD's website, the coalition's goal is "to enhance the quality of life for low-income workers and residents by ensuring that development projects create good jobs for local workers, affordable housing, clean and affordable transportation and a healthy environment," and it's not difficult to surmise what members like the Affordable Housing Coalition of San Diego and the various labor groups-which comprise more than half of ACCORD's membership-are after.
Alison Rolfe, policy director for San Diego Baykeeper, an ACCORD member, said her organization is interested in promoting smart, ecologically sound development.
"There is so much resistance to redevelopment because people know the potential consequences of more people-traffic, loss of community character.... It's all of the consequences of poorly done redevelopment that are what people fear," Rolfe said. "Community benefits agreements, a lot of times it's stuff that a developer would do anyway, but they are putting it out there up front, in writing, and it really gives people confidence that the existing residents aren't going to get the short end of the deal."
New to San Diego, community benefits agreements have been implemented nationwide since 2001 when community interests and developers in Los Angeles first came to terms over the expansion of the Staples Center. In 2004 Los Angeles made community-benefits-agreement history again when a coalition negotiated the nation's largest agreement-worth $500 million-to benefit communities impacted by the expansion of LAX.
Joel Ramos, an organizer with the Center on Policy Initiatives, the labor-associated think tank staffing ACCORD, said the decision was made to pursue the agreement with JMI because the old system, which allowed the public to comment on redevelopment projects after considerable amounts of money and time had been spent and "a deal is pretty much cooked," wasn't working.
"The public really has had little input, or at least no organized input.... Without a [community benefits agreement], what typically happens is the city receives an onslaught of individual complaints or requests from individual community members and it just makes a big mess."
But one often-cited flaw of community benefits agreements is that, although some interests may have the opportunity to negotiate with developers, it's impossible to bring the entire community to the bargaining table. Moreover, the concerns of those excluded from negotiations could be marginalized when the participating groups and the developer arrive arm-in-arm at City Council chambers.
Rudy Gonzales, a project manager for the city's Redevelopment Agency who focuses on Barrio Logan, the neighborhood immediately southeast of the Ballpark Village project, said he's concerned other community interests, like nearby Perkins Elementary School and several churches, have been left out of the discussion.
"When you say you represent the community, it's so diverse, it's hard to make that blanket statement," he said. "Is this just that [these] guys have brought a group together that thinks like them or wants something from them, and they're now the community?"
Ramos of CPI said ACCORD cast a wide net in hopes of attracting as many community stakeholders as possible. But it wasn't hard to find community groups that were unaware of the deal.
"I'd certainly like to be included in that discussion," said Tony Philips, chief administrative officer with the Alpha Project, a major provider of homeless services in East Village. "I think we have relevant points to bring to bare."
Phillips said he's never heard of ACCORD and wasn't aware of any other homeless-services providers that were invited to join.An interesting point, considering that when CityBeat asked JMI's executive vice president, Charles Black, how he planned to address the impact of Ballpark Village on the homeless population in East Village, he said it was one of the subjects being discussed in negotiations.