“Without doubt, Civic San Diego is the new model of redevelopment. Yet it is being created without the standards on economic development, affordable housing and community engagement that state law provided.” Murtaza Baxamusa, Director of Planning and Development for the San Diego Building Trades Family Housing Corporation voiceofsandiego 6/26/12
“At the workshop for the Civic San Diego board members last week, we learned that some Civic San Diego members had earlier met with members of the Price Charities staff… That we’re aware, no one in City Height’s elected leadership was asked by Civic San Diego for a tour of our community or was invited to be on the Price tour, or even knew about the tour before last Wednesday’s disclosure.” City Heights resident Jim Varnadore in 12/4 letter to Mayor Filner and Councilwoman Emerald.
Recently elected Mayor Bob Filner’s inaugural day assertion that “neighborhoods are the heart and soul of the city” was music to my City Heights ears. A great deal of resources need to be invested in neighborhoods and new community based voices need to play a pivotal role in defining those investments. This process can’t be business as usual.
I was still doing an inauguration day happy dance in my chair when I opened an email from City Heights Planning Area Committee resident board member Jim Varnadore. I was jarred from my happy place by its message that entrenched interests and ways of doing things do not disappear with a new mayor.
Jim had attended a workshop for Civic San Diego board members last week. Civic San Diego replaces the City’s redevelopment agencies CCDC and SEDC which were dissolved by Governor Jerry Brown last year. Civic San Diego is not a new redevelopment agency however. It has a corporate structure approved by the City Council that permits citywide economic development, land-use permitting and project management. What could possibly go wrong?
Jim’s email details what went wrong– some of Civic San Diego members met with Price Charities staff for a tour of City Heights and the opportunity for Price staff to discuss their role in City Heights over the past several years. If this sounds innocuous, it is because we have become so numbed, so inured to how economic power is maintained by a small group of people who remain insulated from the very people whose lives are most affected by their decisions.
Given this model of economic and political power, it makes sense for Civic San Diego to seek out Price Charities (and their profit making arm), rather than a community elected body like the City Heights Planning Area Committee, or neighborhood based non-profits like the City Heights Community Development Corporation, the International Rescue Committee, Mid-City Can, the Business Improvement Association, the San Diego Organizing Project or La Maestra, just to name a few of the existing organizations with a stake in economic development.
This is how economic interests work– they are drawn to sources of capital in the narrowest sense. Neither our elected citizen bodies nor local non-profits are viewed as sources of institutional capital; we are primarily viewed as a consumer market disconnected from the fact that we are also a labor force whose purchasing power affects consumption. The degree to which our current political structure supports this model will be the true test of whether our neighborhoods will indeed be served.
Will Civic San Diego address the preponderance of low wage service jobs that continue to be created? Will it do an end run around our local planning committees? They are not off to a good start in City Heights. What will be their impact on affordable housing?
Murtaza Baxamusa presents a sobering response to these questions.
Civic San Diego is essentially a government contractor paid by permit processing fees, and whatever it can skim off administrative costs from redevelopment leftovers. It poses an inherent conflict of interest in that is financially dependent on permit fees, so regardless of whether a project serves the public interest, Civic San Diego will have a financial interest in approving it.
Those of us who have lived in City Heights, and I suspect other low-income communities, remain cynical about redevelopment and now the new economic development model. Too often the requirement for community engagement is reduced to a series of focus groups convened by private interests at which residents and business owners can provide “input.”
Our names then appear as an attachment–the people have spoken! to a document that includes requests for tax breaks, tax payer paid infrastructure improvements and zoning variances for the developer. It should be noted that City Heights developer fees are among the lowest in the city.
We have an opportunity now to re-engage on an issue that very much affects the future of our neighborhoods. We have an opportunity to take a much more assertive role in defining the public interest and to require that political incentives to developers must conform to th0se public interests. There is no reason to believe at this point that Civic San Diego is thinking much about community engagement. An email to Mayor Filner and Councilmember Emerald may help change their mind.
Email the Office of the Mayor: BobFilner@sandiego.gov
Email District 9 Councilmember Marti Emerald: firstname.lastname@example.org