Murtaza H. Baxamusa, Ph.D., AICP / San Diego UrbDeZine
“Downtown is for people” wrote legendary urban planner Jane Jacobs in 1958, in response to building-centric redevelopment that was a byproduct of politics and economics seeking to rebuild cities across America. During her lifetime, she advocated for citizens to decide what end results they wanted, pioneering concepts like “social capital,” and advocating for planners to steer the rebuilding machinery to serve the community.
Yet, even today, downtown San Diego is being built as a collection of projects, with an approval process that consistently favors developers. When the downtown plan was adopted less than a decade ago under the leadership of then-President Nancy Graham, who was ousted amid ethics violations, many communities felt excluded. In particular, blue-collar workers that built and serviced the projects, neighborhoods surrounding downtown, and regional transit and open-space advocates, all felt shortchanged. They did not have resources to challenge the downtown plan, in the same way that industry groups had, to over-ride the community in the Barrio Logan plan, just south of downtown.
Today, the large-block redevelopment is back in full force. The older, affordable housing stock is being demolished, and replaced with luxury high-rises. Economic development agreements are benefiting projects that do not pay living wages to the workforce. And taxpayers across the city are subsiding the mitigation of environmental impacts of downtown projects.
All of this is occurring without direct redress to the city’s elected body, the City Council. This is because planning approvals in downtown have been outsourced to Civic San Diego (CivicSD), the post-redevelopment successor of Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC). The corporation is a Pete Wilson era relic of downtown developers controlling the development process and redevelopment dollars in downtown. This means that downtown developers are buffered from the accountability to the city’s priorities, neglect of other neighborhoods, and a questionable record on job creation. In a previous post, I described how certainty in the approval process comes at the price of uncertainty about societal impacts of a project.
The City Council has attempted several times during the past decade to hold CivicSD/CCDC accountable. Here are some examples of how the entity has rebuffed these efforts:
- Poverty wages: The living wage ordinance approved by city of San Diego in 2005 required economic development agreements which provided subsidies of half a million dollars over a five-year period to pay low-wage service workers a living wage (currently $14.43 an hour). CivicSD/CCDC was exempted, and “encouraged to adopt its own living wage policy.” However, it remains the only city entity that does not require subsidy recipients to comply with the city’s living wage law.
- Lack of construction career opportunities: The use of public funds typically requires construction workers to be paid prevailing wages, and participation by apprentices in the construction of a project. However, with the funneling of tax credits through a semi-autonomous nonprofit, and subsidiaries of that nonprofit, the application of prevailing wage law becomes subject to interpretation. CivicSD/CCDC does not require payment of prevailing wages nor for apprenticeship opportunities for the use of its own funds, unless required to do so by the city, state or federal government.
- Lack of progress on City Council direction: In 2010, the City Council initiated a change in the downtown approval process to allow for the elected body to weigh in on large hotels over 200 rooms. CivicSD/CCDC has not made any progress on this directive for five years.
Amid public outcry, in order to give another chance for new leadership at CivicSD/CCDC, several councilmembers requested a community benefits policy earlier this year for projects that were publicly subsidized, with minimum standards on job quality, affordable housing and community amenities. However, resisting any attempts by the City Council to weigh in, CivicSD/CCDC adopted an unenforceable policy to let developers essentially get away with whatever they want.
Legal experts have cast serious doubt on the legality of the current arrangement, largely because the city has delegated land-use authority derived from the police power of the state to an unaccountable body. Therefore, state lawmakers led by Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez have sent to the Governor’s desk a law (Assembly Bill 504) that establishes oversight of elected officials over decisions of a planning nonprofit, such as CivicSD/CCDC.
This proposed law is carefully designed to only address the sort of major development projects that have outsized impact on the local community and economy, without interfering with the current process for ensuring simple, straightforward projects are able to gain approval and move forward quickly. The bill allows the approval of large projects over 25 thousand square feet, or 50 hotel rooms, or dwelling units, to be appealed to an elected body, such as the City Council. Councilmembers representing impacted neighborhoods, as well as many local groups focused on good government and community health and economic well-being have welcomed this opportunity to ensure the city is on sound legal footing and that the public is provided with a reasonable opportunity to have a voice on these decisions with the people they elected to represent their communities.
Downtown is for people. It is critical to ensure that regular working people have a voice through our elected representatives, in building downtown.
Editor Update: AB 504 to Improve Public Accountability for Local Development was approved by the Senate in a 23-11 vote on Wednesday September 9. The bill will now return to the Assembly for a concurrence vote.
Photo by Kristoffer Newsom, Salt, Concept Cultivation
Murtaza H. Baxamusa, Ph.D., AICP is a certified planner, writer and thinker. He develops affordable housing for the San Diego Building Trades Family Housing Corporation, and teaches urban planning at the University of Southern California (USC). He has over 12 years’ experience in economic development and sustainable urban planning, and has previously worked for the USC Center for Economic Development as well as the Center on Policy Initiatives. He has doctoral and master’s degrees in Planning from USC, and a bachelor’s degree with honors from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. He serves on several nonprofit boards, including Civic San Diego, the San Diego City-County Reinvestment Taskforce and the Middle Class Taxpayers Association. He received the Ruby Award for Outstanding Advocate from the San Diego Housing Federation in 2012, as well as the John Lyons Memorial Fellowship, an honor that was read into the Congressional Record of the 112th Congress. The City of San Diego proclaimed June 17, 2008 to be “Dr. Murtaza H. Baxamusa Day” in recognition of his contributions to the city. He is a home-owner in Bay Park, and lives with his wife and two daughters.