Co-opting the Neighborhoods Agenda

pie alvarez 2The local San Diego GOP attempts to steal a page out of the Democratic playbook in an attempt to rewrite history and claim the neighborhoods agenda for its own.

By Andy Cohen

Over the past two decades, the economic and development focus in San Diego has been overwhelmingly focused around the “downtown special interests” that have controlled the city’s political agenda during that time.  For two decades, whatever the big, powerful moneyed interests wanted in San Diego, they got.

That’s not to say that San Diego hasn’t benefited at all from some of the policies enacted during that period.  It has.  Downtown has undergone a pretty spectacular transformation.  The massive General Dynamics complex in Kearney Mesa has been almost completely redeveloped (although not without significant controversy).  Sorrento Valley has become a tech Mecca of sorts.

But it has been the downtown special interests that have dictated the who, what, where, when, and how of everything that has happened.  It has served to make rich people multitudes richer, but it has done relatively little to bring about broad based reforms and widespread economic development to the nation’s eighth largest city.

During that time, the city’s infrastructure has continued to crumble, and outlying neighborhoods with a higher concentration of lower income residents were mostly left to beg for table scraps.  Economic development in San Diego has always been viewed through the lens of what the business and development community have wanted it to mean, while everywhere else was largely left to its own devices with little influence at City Hall.

But it has always been the money that has dictated city policy.  Whatever was good for business was automatically deemed good for San Diego, regardless of the consequences or laws that were broken.  This attitude brought us Sunroad I and II, the Sherman Heights Wal-Mart battle royale, and the North Park Jack-in-the Box, among others.  It also gave us the current battles over linkage fees and the Barrio Logan Community Plan.

That began to change during the 2012 mayoral election.  For the first time in over 20 years, San Diegans heard a candidate emphasize neighborhood development, promising a renewed focus on those areas that had been largely ignored and left to wither.  Under his administration, Bob Filner promised a renewed focus on meeting neighborhood needs, paying little mind to what the downtown power set thought about it.  His economic development plan was a broad based, bottom up approach, rather than the top down trickledown methodology that has dominated city politics.  Policy would be determined according to the priorities of each individual community, and not the dictates of the traditional power brokers.

Filner’s neighborhoods agenda strongly resonated, particularly with the Democratic base, and it carried Filner into the mayor’s office.  It has since become the rallying cry of sorts of San Diego Democrats, viewed as a way to at least partially rectify the income inequality here locally, and reboot economic development on a larger, if somewhat unsung, scale.

pie alvarezThe local GOP, apparently, has noticed, and they’re trying to co-opt the neighborhoods agenda for their own, as if they invented it, albeit in a somewhat bastardized way.

Mayoral candidate and Republican Kevin Faulconer, in particulary, has claimed neighborhood development as his bailiwick in an attempt to wrestle it away from his opponent David Alvarez.  Faucloner and his campaign quickly realized the potency of the label and have been fervently flouting his “neighborhood” cred throughout in an effort to make him appear more moderate, more understanding, more responsive to the needs of the “little people.”  Faulconer and his allies at the Lincoln Club have already hit the ground touting Faulconer’s “neighborhood development” prowess over Alvarez’.

“For far too long, the City of San Diego has neglected many of its communities.  There is a disparity in funding and a lack of critical investments in public safety, community services and road repairs.  As mayor, Kevin Faulconer will be committed to creating a better quality of life and economic opportunities in all of San Diego’s communities—starting with the our (sic) most neglected neighborhoods,” reads the official Kevin Faulconer for Mayor website.

The site goes on to cite Faulconer as the champion for public safety and infrastructure repair.  But nowhere does he address the need for economic development in those neighborhoods, or how he would go about it.  “Neighborhood development” goes far beyond mere infrastructure repair (however desperately needed it may be).  And he retains a laser like focus on the top down approach to economic development that has been a dismal failure for the majority of San Diegans, and a smashing success for a select few.

This is, and always has been Faulconer’s ideology:  Putting the economic investment decision making process in the hands of the private sector elite, leaving the “neglected communities” perhaps with nicer streets, but with still precious little economic growth opportunity.

Filner, for his part, championed a Neighborhood Investment Corp., a middle out approach, putting the decision making power directly into the hands of those who are directly affected.  As flawed as he was personally, Filner did exactly as promised, putting the concerns of those who knew the needs of their communities best ahead of the desires of the corporate interests.

David Alvarez, for his part, has picked up where Filner left off policy wise, touting an approach that would lay the foundation for investment in communities that would otherwise be avoided like the plague by the private sector.  And unlike his opponent, Alvarez considers affordable housing and transit as keys to economic development, factors that don’t even appear on the private sector’s radar.  Under this approach, public investment leads to private investment, which leads to localized growth.  It’s a “lead the horse to water” sort of concept, as opposed to hoping and praying that the horse can find the water on its own.

Also remember that it was Alvarez who worked hand-in-hand with the former mayor to develop many of the policies he is now touting as his primary electoral platform.

But the notion of the San Diego GOP standard bearer (and as much as he’d like to run away from the Republican Party, Faulconer is still very much a Republican) as champion of community growth and development is simply incomprehensible and historically preposterous.  This is a party whose leadership has led us over the past 20 years into the quandary that the city is attempting to dig itself out of; that brought us the neglect that has led to the deterioration of our streets, parks, libraries, and schools; that brought us the crisis level attrition of our police and fire departments and lifeguards; and brought us the deliberate underfunding of the very pension system that Republicans love to hate.  Our pension system began to crumble essentially by Republican design, a fact that Faulconer has pointed to with an almost gleeful posture.

Faulconer and his GOP allies can attempt to grab the neighborhoods mantle all they want.  But let’s not forget that it was the first Democratic Mayor in 20 years and a majority Democratic City Council that brought a truly neighborhood centric approach to City Hall in the first place.

Author’s Note:  Speaking of linkage fees, I appeared on NBC San Diego’s “Politically Speaking” this past weekend to talk about the increase in the city’s linkage fee passed by the City Council in December that, like the Barrio Logan Community Plan, is being challenged via referendum by the Chamber of Commerce.  View the segment below.


Andy Cohen

Andy spent 15 years working in the highest levels of the San Diego professional sports world, including both the Padres and the Chargers. He began his foray into writing while a volunteer for Francine Busby's 2010 Congressional campaign, eventually becoming a contributor to the now defunct SDNN. He has reported on local and national politics for both the OB Rag and the San Diego Free Press. When not reporting news and events, he offers political and policy commentary from a liberal perspective, occasionally turning back to his sports roots. While he does not hide his more liberal political bent, Andy always strives for fairness in the telling of a story.


  1. avatar says

    Thanks, Andy, for bringing these matters to the attention of the average San Diegan who would be totally in the dark about these local issues if it were not for you and others on the Free Press.