Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Civic San Diego: the kiss of death for San Diego neighborhoods

The city of San Diego has first-class universities, first-class biotech companies, first-class ethnic restaurants, first-class theater, first-class engineers, artists, and musicians.  Also:

Our city has first-class standing as a prototype of community-based planning. 

Who would have guessed that during the heady years of the 1960s, while the Pump House kids were tripping the waves fantastic at Windansea Beach other San Diegans – more firmly-grounded and civic-minded – were partnering with City Hall as official members of newly-created community planning groups.  The La Jolla community plan was the city's first.  Then the Peninsula plan.  Soon came the others.

Half a century later there are more than 40 recognized community planning groups throughout the city, where locally-elected members meet monthly to opine on neighborhood land-use issues, community goals, and proposed real estate development and relay their advice and recommendations to city officials.  

Although these planning groups are private organizations they have no legal power to take action on behalf of the city.  They're required to adhere to city council policies and city-approved bylaws.    
It's true, our planning groups are frequently dominated by people with personal or business priorities rather than communal well-being.  It's a fact, they generally represent the perspectives of homeowners over renters. Certainly, they can be contentious and rancorous.  Yes, they're sometimes short-sighted and overly-opinionated. 

But in these planning groups you'll find plenty of altruistic, environmentally-aware, economically-savvy, intelligent and openminded social reformers and planning advocates, all determined to do what no one else will do for them – look out their own backyards.  Plus those of their neighbors and neighborhoods in the rest of the city.  

Granted, there's plenty of room for improvement within community planning groups. Dwindling staff support from city planners (who have, themselves, been hammered by planning department reorganizations, budget cuts, unfilled positions, and political machinations) doesn't help. 

But here's a fact of life we should not ignore: imperfect though they may be, San Diego's community planning groups are indispensable.  They're the eyes, ears, and vocal chords of our neighborhoods.  They're the  building blocks of a healthy city.  

Without them, the voices of everyday citizens to improve the environment throughout San Diego are easily diminished... overridden... eventually extinguished.  

Here's another fact of life we should not ignore: one by one, in this way or that, San Diego's community planning groups are being sabotaged.

Look what happened in Barrio Logan and its community plan update.  See what's happening at the opposite end of the city, in Carmel Valley's One Paseo project.  Watch how numerous communities are left hanging out to dry over their community plan updates.  Take note of the chronic battering in Ocean Beach by variances to permit out-sized development.  Notice the attempts to cluster and meld distinct neighborhood planning groups in North Park, Golden Hill, and Uptown.  The Serra Mesa community group knows how hard it is to prevent being devalued and ignored.  The Grantville planning group knows the same.   

Community planning groups routinely tackle blunt questions: Does the proposal under consideration benefit the street? the neighborhood? the community? the city? the public good?  They put themselves on the line each time they resist fast-tracking and outsized projects… each time they challenge spurious claims and empty clich├ęs about "property rights" or "transit-oriented development" or "smart growth"... each time they open the debate about community benefits versus private profits.  

Which brings us back to Civic San Diego and its kiss of death.  

Does Civic San Diego – the recently-created private real estate consortium, endowed by its creator (the city of San Diego) with certain (unalienable?) rights to override, supersede, and nullify the voices of community planning groups – sabotage San Diego's longstanding public system of city planning and community planning groups?  Yes!

Is Civic San Diego's most recent proposal to become a provider of "community benefits" and "work with a diverse range of community stakeholders... on community priorities" a calculated farce to placate their critics and keep themselves in business? Yes!

City leaders created and empowered Civic San Diego as an autonomous purveyor of private development and transferred city government responsibility for planning, zoning, permits, and oversight to a private corporation.  They locked themselves, the public, and city planners out of the process.  They got it all wrong.  

They sabotaged the public's rights to be heard and oversee our own backyards.  The City Attorney's office tiptoes around the edges but appears to have serious reservations about city delegation of authority to Civic San Diego.  The courts may not be as easily intimidated by San Diego's power elite or remain sanguine about Civic San Diego's kiss of death for community planning.

City officials need to cut their losses and try to get it right.  How to do it? 

FIRST, DISASSEMBLE AND DISSOLVE CIVIC SAN DIEGO.  Land use decisions involving the future of our neighborhoods and communities belong in the hands of city officials and the public, not in the hands of San Diego's downtown landed gentry.  Contrivances like Civic San Diego take us backward to the bad-old-days of lining the pockets of the good-old-boys.   Just get rid of it.

SECOND, EXPAND THE ROLE OF COMMUNITY PLANNING GROUPS.   After a half-century history of constructive partnership between community planning groups and the city, the time is ripe to consider enlarging and extending the scope of planning groups beyond land use issues. 

"Backyard" concerns like neighborhood job creation, local crime problems, renters rights, city budget priorities, utility rates, water conservation, transit, homelessness, and government efficiency belong side-by-side with land use recommendations on the agendas of city-authorized, locally-elected, well-regulated neighborhood councils.  It's not a panacea but it is a step forward – in the right direction.

City officials unwisely transformed outlawed redevelopment agencies into Civic San Diego.  That decision should be repealed.  

Our city can get it right by wisely transforming community planning groups into top-rung public assets, namely full-purpose neighborhood councils.  

Think about it.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Civic San Diego – like a hole in the head

We need it like a loch im kopf.  A hole in the head.  It's what people in the old days would say about a bad situation.  It's what I say about Civic San Diego –the reincarnation of our former downtown redevelopment agency.

We need Civic San Diego like a hole in the head.  It's time to get rid of it.
A quick backtrack:  It's been three years since redevelopment agencies throughout California were terminated and instructed to wind down their uncompleted redevelopment projects and make good on their financial obligations.  Other cities complied by doing the job in-house, under public supervision.  
Not so in San Diego.  To take care of the job in our city, former mayor Jerry Sanders created an unaccountable, autonomous corporation named Civic San Diego.  
Previous redevelopment agencies were required to answer to state and local law, to the City Council, and to citizen committees.  The private corporation called Civic San Diego is not required to answer to anyone – the public least of all.  

If we get rid of Civic San Diego, won't everything fall apart?  No.  Take a minute to look at the city's organization chart.  You'll see that our city has plenty of resources to get the winding-down job successfully done.  
The city has a Planning Department, a Park and Recreation Department, a Real Estate Assets Department, an Economic Development Department, a Development Services Department, a Public Works and a Public Utilities Department, a Debt Management Department, a Financial Management Department, a City Comptroller, a City Treasurer, and a Housing Commission.  We have options to hire consultants for specialized services. 
We have an independent City Auditor and publicly-elected officials – a Mayor, a nine-member City Council, a City Attorney – to take responsibility for city business.  We've got active, willing, and informed constituents to share the load.  

The city already has the tools and capacity (backed by a $3 billion annual budget) to wind down redevelopment and to move ahead with the repair and revitalization of our neighborhoods, communities, and local economy.  There's no doubt that the city could function more efficiently but that's no excuse for trying to privatize public business.
So why did former mayor Sanders hand over responsibility for the multi-million dollar redevelopment-decommissioning process to an appointed group of land-development private interests and grant them full exemption from public supervision?
And why did he give Civic San Diego control over planning, development permits, and financing schemes for future multi-million dollar redevelopment-style projects, not only in downtown but in huge swaths of the San Diego landscape like (take a deep breath) Barrio Logan, City Heights, College Grove, Crossroads (eastern El Cajon Boulevard, University Avenue, College Avenue), Grantville, Linda Vista, Liberty Station (former Naval Training Center), North Park, North San Diego Bay (Pacific Highway, Morena Boulevard, Loma Portal, Claremont), SDSU area, and San Ysidro?  You don't have to feel left out – there's probably a big development project coming to a neighborhood near you… 
What about our current mayor Kevin Faulconer? Why is he fully onboard with the downtown power bloc of developers, bankers, law firms, Wall Street brokers, financial middlemen, and other vested interests who promote and defend Civic San Diego? 
(Okay, we know the answer to why.  The important question is how to find leaders with enough smarts and integrity to hang onto their principles despite relentless pressure from big money.) 
There are some who say we should reform Civic San Diego by imposing "community benefits" stipulations.  But that's going nowhere so I'll say it again: Civic San Diego – we need it like a hole in the head.  It's time to get rid of it.  
If you need further convincing, read on: Civic San Diego was given the power to make private decisions about public functions like planning, public works, and community development in dozens of San Diego neighborhoods but isn't required to listen to or be monitored by the public.  It's a tax-subsidized fiefdom run like a private club – immune to public control, direction, or oversight.

What started out as a tool for winding down redevelopment has morphed into a shadow government with its own board of directors, paid staff, numerous departments, and stand-alone subsidiaries serviced by private lawyers and investment consultants.  It's on the receiving end of half a million dollars in annual funding from city coffers.
There's a new twist: Civic San Diego has a leg-up when it comes to competing for federal subsidies called New Market Tax Credits – a new breed of tax-saving incentives for Wall Street investors to stimulate new development in low-income neighborhoods.  Civic San Diego is permitted to skim its cache of New Market Tax Credits to offset its own tax liabilities or for its own administrative costs.  But in contrast to how this program is set up elsewhere in the state and country, under the Civic San Diego arrangement neither the city nor targeted neighborhoods have a say in how, where, or for what purpose these tax credits are used.  
Still not convinced? Keep reading:  The truth is, no one on the outside understands Civic San Diego's inner workings, not if you're trying to "follow the money." 

Huge sums have been socked away while projects sit idle.  The operations, financial
management, business arrangements, policy decisions, and other moving parts of Civic San Diego are an enigma to the public and incomprehensible to the City Council.  Even its own board members are often kept in the dark and out of the loop.  

Still unsure?  Read more: Key commercial corridors in southeastern San Diego are ripe for the picking – there's development-gold-in-them-thar-hills.  But Civic San Diego's ambitious plans to expand operations into new neighborhoods – buttressed by powers to direct, control, acquire, rezone, issue permits, build, and otherwise reap bounteous private profits – come with no guarantees that residents, communities, and ordinary citizens will be the beneficiaries.  
Getting tuckered out? We've come to the bottom line: Does Civic San Diego operate within or outside federal, state, and local law? Did the city act illegally when it farmed out its legislative powers to this corporation?  Is the setup ethical or compatible with the public good? 
Why wait for the courts to embarrass and ultimately force the city to do the right thing?  It's time to get rid of this hole in the head.