By Jim Bliesner
Civic San Diego (Civic SD) has recently been holding community dialogue sessions facilitated by Cheryl Phelps and its new Director Reese Jarrett, both veterans of community and economic development in San Diego.
The first session was inclusive and allowed input. The second event featured a panel of downtown experts with limited community engagement. The third will happen at the City Heights library (3795 Fairmount Ave) on January 8 at 5:30PM.
According to the announcement “On January 8, 2015, Civic San Diego will hold a third convening regarding its new initiative to create a broad-based collaborative network of stakeholders to inform the development of our Community Benefits goals. This convening will introduce the online engagement platform where, over the next several weeks, stakeholders will be able to share their interests, collaborate to evolve ideas, and identify and prioritize shared values for their neighborhoods.”
The process will result in some goals and values from the perspective of Civic SD. People in those neighborhoods might have a different idea in mind and see the need for some serious negotiations.
The community dialogue was prompted by a City Council directive to Civic SD to develop a “community benefits” agreement with the affected communities. The neighborhoods in question basically encompass the City Heights and the greater Encanto areas.
These areas were previously designated “redevelopment areas” under state law which based the designation on findings of “blight”. The primary strategy used by redevelopment agencies to correct blight has been traditionally “build new things”.
Under this strategy the Southeastern area got an industrial park and a new shopping center while City Heights got two six story office buildings, a shopping center along with community benefits like a library, recreation center covered by philanthropy (Price Charities).
A good deal of affordable housing was also subsidized by redevelopment funds. There were many, many smaller projects and improvements but fundamentally redevelopment meant structural enhancement. And then Governor Brown erased the law.
Of course the redevelopment agency, over time, had accumulated a large trove of contracts, properties, loans, etc. When the law was erased the State took over these assets and has been systematically picking through them and deciding which would be returned to the local agency designated by the City to manage those assets.
The State kept the revenue and largely erased its deficit with it. The cities scrambled to decide how to manage the trickle down assets and fund some form of ongoing community revitalization effort in the “blighted “communities”. San Diego turned it over to Civic San Diego and non-profit subsidiary governed by an appointed board.
Its purpose and function and funding have been a topic of conversation and discourse ever since. The latest has been the efforts to fashion a so called “community benefits agreement”.
The discussion, perhaps by habit, perhaps by design has centered on …..buildings. What do you (the neighborhoods) want built, where and how can it be funded? The agency functions largely on funds provided by the City which would otherwise be used for other things that the City does.
Those funds are fairly tight and a source of tension between ongoing City services and Civic SD. Only two council districts, maybe part of a third, are covered by the agency while other council districts (and the Mayor) look longingly at the use of those funds in their districts. The funds are not generally dedicated funds for this purpose but rather discretionary and therefore accessible throughout the City. Developers, of course, would like access with as few “benefits” required as possible including where the projects get built.
Civic San Diego is in a unique position to design the future of these neighborhoods. Its board is motivated and percolating with sometimes conflicting goals and visions.
Then there are the neighborhoods themselves and their own visions of the future. Many of those have already been documented and are part of a library of plans, visions, design guidelines, ordinances, sitting on shelves in living rooms and agencies for a good number of years now.
Each redevelopment area was guided by “plans” which involved a great deal of community thinking and focus groups etc. Each community is also guided by City approved community plans which govern land use as well as define aspirations for the future all assembled by inspiring charrettes, design focus groups and visioning exercises paid for with hundreds of thousands of consultant dollars.
Veteran community activists have been through countless intrigues between neighbors over the size of streets, park locations, density bonuses, street repairs, commercial district designs, etc. Many plaques hang on many walls from community efforts at design and planning.
One must ask, what has become of those in the benefits discussion? Are we starting from zero or can it be said…”do the things in those plans and tell us which will happen when”? If the plan is old, rewrite it.
Ideas don’t change much over decades on how to improve our neighborhoods and what constitutes livable. Of course most of those plans also equate community revitalization with new buildings. If you stay within that framework the details of a “benefits agreement” are available, just sift through them and summarize.
What about the people?
There is another way to think about “benefit” and it is based on the capacity of the agency to improve the stark economic conditions under which many residents of these neighborhoods exist in today’s economic environment.
Economic development is more than new buildings. It is about addressing conditions which create opportunity and potential for residents. For example in a recent study done by UCSD Urban Studies students the existence of a functioning, large, cross cultural informal economy exists and is part of the daily lives of about 80% of City Heights residents.
People need second jobs and need to shop outside of formal business structures to make ends meet. And of those people engaging the informal economy nearly half do it to access FOOD. Informal systems of food preparation and distribution are part of people’s everyday existence.
What is true in City Heights is probably true if not exaggerated in the Southeast area. One of the basic phenomena is how housing is part of this informal economy. What does that mean? It means people either rent out rooms or rent rooms to have a roof over their heads. Rents are high. The cost of buying has again risen just beyond average incomes. Building on the capacities of those with businesses on the side can grow the area economy and create a possible tenant for the building which in many cases with new development now goes vacant.
Or another consideration: there’s a new game in town. It’s called “global warming”. Our neighborhoods are not healthy. The air is bad and in many cases centered on new development, traffic and schools. The City has a new climate action plan designed to address that. But, it is not funded to any significant degree.
The state has set aside cap and trade funds for affordable housing in transit zones. They have set aside funds for urban forests in low income communities as well. The opportunity for Civic San Diego to jump-start the climate action plan, target and seed systematic plantings is large.
Even further there is the matter of food, healthy food. Walking through the new El Super grocery store in City Heights I noted how half the items being sold are sugar based, soda, candy, and chips. The whole cereal aisle is filled with sugar coated cereal.The fruits and vegetables stacked in bulging cardboard boxes are soft and brown and expensive.
Outside those walls people are engaged in building an alternative food system. Vacant lots are becoming community gardens, not from some esoteric back to nature effort, but rather from financial hardship, aka food disparity.
Civic San Diego has the mantle of addressing economic conditions and would do well to systematically look past new buildings to the economic architecture of people’s needs. Food systems should be examined, mapped and quantified and sources of equity to enhance those systems are needed.
Civic San Diego has the opportunity to redefine community benefit by developing an understanding and funding the emergence of the informal economy, designing and systematically funding he environmental resurgence of our neighborhoods and by addressing food disparity and food systems. The design of its new equity capital fund can include these efforts by balancing capital driven efforts with human oriented efforts (social capital).