Land use, wealth and the smart city
By Anna Daniels
The League of Women Voters and community radio station KNSJ hosted a city attorney candidate forum at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in downtown San Diego on Saturday May 14. I had been asked to participate as a media representative on the panel asking questions of the candidates.
The 94 freeway exit that my husband and I took downtown to the event dumps cars on a surface street on the fringe of East Village. We drove through a convulsed urban landscape created by CalTrans engineering, deteriorating Victorian era houses, new apartments and temporarily re-purposed vacant lots. This entry point reflects how San Diego’s decision makers have approached land use and development in the area over many decades and to wildly different effect.
The vision du jour is of the smart city, in which growth is attained through higher density and made desirable by promising all of the amenities and conveniences necessary for a vibrant urban lifestyle.
The Makers Quarter™ redevelopment plan for the area includes “A fully integrated open space system gives residents and visitors a place to engage in authentic interactions that might not otherwise occur. These serendipitous moments lead to increased creativity and collaboration, and serve as a foundation for innovation.”
The ten thousand dollar a month penthouse in the tallest apartment building in San Diego looks down upon an area that includes one of the most visible if not the largest concentration of homeless people in the city.
The existing landscape, as opposed to the envisioned, parallels the contradictions represented by the people who pass through or lay claim to these same streets. Nothing is “integrated”- not the people, not the architecture. There is no discernible “system”. The only thing that does currently exist in the Markers Quarter™ vision is the opportunity to engage in “authentic interactions” but I suspect that they are not the kind of authentic interactions that the developers are promoting.
The quest for parking downtown this particular Saturday night was especially maddening. Barricades had been set up in an area adjacent to the school and police were directing traffic. Parking lots were already filled while others advertised $35 evening rates. I would find out later that a sold out Billy Joel concert was scheduled that evening at Petco Park.
People filled the streets, the upscale restaurants were packed with people, valets were working non-stop to park cars. The scene was a marketer’s dream for promoting San Diego’s hip vibrant urban lifestyle.
My husband turned the car back toward the streets to the east that we had come in upon and parked across the street from the forty-six story Pinnacle on the Park Apartments. It is the tallest apartment building in San Diego. When I got out of the car, a voiced called out “How are you tonight?”
Throughout these past three or so decades of planning updates and zoning changes, the ranks of the down and out have swelled, morphing into a permanent underclass of the dispossessed.
I focused my vision on the long line of figures sitting and lying on the sidewalk. They were not waiting to get into the Billy Joel concert. The ten thousand dollar a month penthouse in the tallest apartment building in San Diego looks down upon an area that includes one of the most visible if not the largest concentration of homeless people in the city.
By the 1980s, many of the factories and warehouses of San Diego’s past stood empty in East Village. A few of the buildings–the old Wonder Bread Factory and Carnation Building–were salvaged and given new life by urban artist visionaries Bob Sinclair and Wayne Buss. At the same time, zoning allowed for drug rehab centers and shelters that served the most down and out residents, assuring that they remained out of sight and out of mind for the majority of people who worked and lived downtown–and who called the shots from City Hall.
Most of us give little thought to zoning, unless we hear that density is going to be increased in our community or that a WalMart has been proposed in our neighborhood. But it was land use decisions codified in zoning that created the factory and warehouse district and then social service uses in East Village. It was land use decisions and zoning changes that increased the height limits–and value of the land–where the Pinnacle on the Park juts upward into the skyline today.
There is no small irony in the name–Fault Line– conferred upon the park associated with Pinnacle. The Pinnacle site is constrained by the Rose fault, but the area’s instability is more than geological.
Throughout these past three or so decades of planning updates and zoning changes, the ranks of the down and out have swelled, morphing into a permanent underclass of the dispossessed. While the former isn’t the sole cause of the latter, land use decisions have exacerbated social and economic instability, creating winners and losers that extend far beyond the limits of East Village.
The voice that asked “How are you?” when I got out of the car belonged to a youngish man seated on the sidewalk who later introduced himself to me as Eric. After exchanging the usual pleasantries I asked him how things were going for him. I told him that I was going to be asking the candidates for city attorney to talk about homelessness in the city.
“Jobs. We need jobs. I’ve been clean for eight years and I can’t find work, ” Eric immediately responded. A tall man who introduced himself as Daniel had been listening to our conversation and said “I was laid off my job and can’t find work”. Daniel had worked in the U-T print shop in Fashion Valley for three years.
He acknowledged that he needed a haircut and raised his hands and admitted that they were dirty, saying that it was hard to keep neat and clean in the streets and to figure out what to do with all of his belongings while looking for work.
We spoke for a good while. I would glance back and forth at the low building that appeared to be a bistro, complete with outdoor patio heaters, behind the green expanse of park to the men sitting on the sidewalk with blankets pulled up around their waists against the chilly evening air. I was told later that the restaurant is called the Halcyon.
It is reported that retail leases in the area include subsidies, including free rent for a year or more to establishments like Halcyon. The article chirps “Once the park is complete, that patio might just be the perfect spot to enjoy a cocktail.” Someone may be holding a cocktail at this moment, gazing out at the ragged line of people gathered outside of the rescue mission across the street.
What will become of the homeless and dispossessed in this area? How smart is a city if it is incapable or unwilling to provide adequate affordable housing or support investments and policies that will result in jobs that pay a living wage?
I was seated at the city attorney candidate forum with Marjorie Cohn, Thomas Jefferson School of Law professor and Martin Eder KNSJ director and we began our questions. Robert Hickey was the only city attorney candidate who was not in attendance.
It was my turn to ask a question.
The City has taken aggressive action to deter homeless people from congregating and taking shelter in public areas. They have had their tents and belongings confiscated during inclement weather and more recently, rocks were installed beneath an overpass where homeless people take shelter.
What rights do homeless people have and how is the city protecting their rights?
The candidates were given only one minute to respond and I was only able to scribble a few short stand out remarks, not their complete response.
- Bryan Pease said that it was illegal to seize the tents and belongings and that an underlying cause of homelessness was the lack of affordable housing.
- Mara Elliot responded that Prop 47 has resulted in increased homelessness.
- Rafael Castellanos said that homelessness is not a crime and noted that 100 people died on the streets last year.
- Gil Cabrera responded that the city cannot fine and jail its way out of homelessness.
San Diego’s city attorney does not craft policy regarding land use or housing or homelessness, but rather reviews the legality of how the mayor and city council use their authority. But as an elected official, it is also incumbent upon the city attorney to point out potentially deleterious consequences upon the citizenry of executive and legislative actions.
Whoever we elect as the next city attorney will have an impact on land use decisions in the city. Civic San Diego, short term rentals, climate change, development. Those decisions will affect how and for whom wealth is created in the city and the degree to which the city is a good steward of the resources that belong to all of us.
It was after 8pm when we arrived back at our car. Eric sat up and asked how the evening went. I conveyed some of the remarks that the candidates made on homelessness. Eric thanked me for caring. I told him to stay safe.
My husband and I drove away in silence, aware that the cracks and fissures of the fault line didn’t stop downtown. They extended all the way to City Heights— and onward.