Photo illustration by John R. Lamb
Mayor Faulconer makes his expansion pitch. But how’s his control?
I always get nervous when people start talking about legacies.
Three years and change into the job, Mayor Kevin Faulconer finds himself in that familiar position for most longtime politicians of dubious distinction: How the heck will I be remembered?
“Legacy” is a word some local media folks are uttering to describe the mayor’s renewed pronouncement to tackle the political three-headed monster known as San Diego Convention Center Phase III. For those unfamiliar, that’s the bayside, contiguous expansion proposal that makes downtown tourism honchos quiver in giddy anticipation and opponents sharpen their legal knives.
But not only is the expansion in Faulconer’s sights, he also wants a November ballot measure to take aim at reducing homelessness and potholes to boot. It’s as easy as 1-2-3—as in up to a 3 percent hike in the city hotel tax.
“I’m not asking San Diego taxpayers, who are being taxed enough already, to shoulder this burden,” the mayor said last week. “We have an opportunity to move the ball forward on three major issues that are important not only to our tourism economy but to every San Diegan.”
Many a Spin column has alluded to our mayor’s penchant for vanillatude and his coldness toward boldness. But ticking off three items on the legacy bucket list? That indeed would be bold, because at the moment—in a city known for molasses-pace decision-making—it sounds more like fiction written for an ambitious pol trying to rally financial support for a 2018 gubernatorial run.
Let us for now bypass the near-universal admission that whatever tax scraps remain after financing the expansion will be a tiny revenue stream not up to the dumpsterfire task of solving homelessness or fixing roads. Because if the Convention Center expansion doesn’t happen, the city apparently has no plans to trigger the tax hike.
“Any voter-approved tax increase supporting the Contiguous Expansion will, by necessity, only become effective if construction of the Contiguous Expansion is allowed to proceed in the future,” City Attorney Mara Elliott wrote in a March 21 letter to attorney Vincent Bartolotta, who represents the leaseholders of Fifth Avenue Landing, the five-acre hunk of tidelands that Convention Center expansionists covet.
The city attorney was responding to two recent blistering letters Bartolotta sent to Faulconer taking him to task for renewing contiguous-expansion talk while his clients seek to build two hotels on the property.
“The purpose of this letter is to advise you that your conduct and the conduct of the City and [San Diego Convention Center Corp.] are interfering with FAL’s contractual rights and obligations which FAL is undertaking at significant expense,” Bartolotta wrote on March 16, “and to demand that you, the City and SDCCC cease and desist in any representations or plans to finance or construct a convention center expansion on FAL’s leased premises.”
In her letter, Elliott argued that nothing in FAL’s lease, which runs through 2024, precludes the city from its “obligation to its citizens to think long term and to plan for contingencies.”
“We also do not believe the… lease prevents the City from moving forward to put a financing mechanism in place to fund its continued efforts, including a potential ballot measure,” the city attorney added. She urged the leaseholders “to engage in serious, in-depth discussion of a potential development project on the site consisting of both an expanded Convention Center and a hotel.”
FAL representatives have said that idea is a non-starter because it wouldn’t meet the contractual obligations with their landlords, the San Diego Unified Port District. Local developer Robert Green, an FAL principal, emphatically told a City Council committee last week that the lease is not for sale.
The contiguous plan also irks a former port commissioner who is, as he’ll tell you, “the only person in the world that was involved” in all previous phases of the Convention Center’s evolution.
David Malcolm—a former Chula Vista Councilmember whose political career came crashing down after a conflict-of-interest conviction that was later expunged— once shied away from the media glare. Now, he talks freely about many topics, particularly homelessness, which has been a focus of his for three decades.
Malcolm said he’s not prepared to criticize Faulconer’s ballot measure as it relates to the homeless because “I haven’t seen it.” Whatever the amount proposed, “We’ve got to dedicate it and put it in a lockbox. If anyone thinks I’m stupid enough to believe that if they say, ‘Trust me, I’ll give this to the homeless,’ no I don’t.”
But what really galls him is the contiguous expansion plan. When Phase II was approved back in the ‘90s, Malcolm told Spin, all parties agreed that the property now coveted for expansion would remain open space “to protect the views to the water.”
Now for the new phase, he said, “they want to take it away, and I just think that stinks. They wouldn’t let the private sector do that, and the public sector ought to be an example and the leader of this, not a double-crosser.”
Without preserving that view corridor, Malcolm said he would have opposed the previous expansion. He wrote to the state Coastal Commission in 2013 to make his case, but commission staff, while not disagreeing with him, said in essence that circumstances had changed. The commission went on to approve the current contiguous plans.
Attorney activist Cory Briggs has battled those plans in court for years and foresees several more years of legal wrangling. A Superior Court judge in January tentatively ruled against his legal challenge to the waterfront project, but Briggs said a final ruling has been delayed until May 18 at the earliest.
Either way, Briggs said, “This case is going up on appeal anyway.” Briggs said he also plans to file a motion “to have the city booted out of the case” because “the city doesn’t control the property.” That would drag out the case further, unless the city capitulates, “which politically will be bad for them.”
Added Briggs: “If we get to election day and the case isn’t over, what the fuck?”
Well, for Faulconer, that would be one heck of a legacy.