Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Redistricting San Diego--ten years later

Take a long look at the outcome of San Diego’s 2010 Redistricting Commission process.  You’ll be impressed by the success of that former Commission in drawing boundary lines for our City Council districts that have enabled San Diegans to elect a range of culturally diverse leaders in our nine council districts.  


We now have what is popularly desinated as a Black District (D4), an Asian District (D6), a Gay District (D3), and two Hispanic Districts (D8, D9).  All five of the councilmembers elected from these districts are “of color.”  Two councilmembers identify as belonging to the gay community.  Four councilmembers are women.  And eight out of nine councilmembers call themselves Democrats. 

 

Nothing's perfect in the world of politics.  But if you happen to be a forward-thinking, reformist Democrat in San Diego, this would be called good progress.  (Not so much for our Republican constituents, though.)

 

Now zoom ten years later to San Diego's 2020 Redistricting Commission process.  You'll notice that something peculiar is underfoot.  


With only a few weeks left to finish its job, the current Redistricting Commission is being bombarded by demands to drastically rearrange San Diego’s map of neighborhoods and communities.  The demands are for changes that far exceed necessary boundary adjustments due to new census data or community streamlining due to population shifts. 

 

Most peculiar about this turn of events is that the very groups that would be negatively affected by a drastic overhall of community boundaries are partnering in the pressure campaign to force the Redistricting Commission to enact these changes.  It is ironic that their involvement threatens to reverse ten years’ worth of forward momentum toward fair representation at the City Council. 

 

Which is why a person might be driven to ask herself: What’s going on behind the scenes to generate such an incongruous disconnect?  How can we connect the dots?

 

Here's what it looks like from the outside: Starting this past summer, individuals and organizations were invited to submit maps of their own making to the Redistricting Commission, creating their ideal boundaries for their personal district or for the entire city.  And all San Diego residents were invited to participate (via zoom) in regular Commission meetings to voice their comments and recommendations to the Commissioners.

 

Working under a tight schedule, the Redistricting Commission approved a tentative map at the end of October--a composite of public recommendations from the previous months of public petitions and testimony.  Another round of public discussion devoted to fine-tuning this map was scheduled to promptly begin.

 

But at the very last minute a new redistricting vision--dubbed the San Diego Communities Collaboration map (let’s call it the SDCC map)--was submitted for consideration by a Chula Vista resident.  This map deviated sharply from the map generated by the Commission.  It wiped clean the boundary lines north of I-8 that traditionally defined five council districts (D1, D2, D5, D6, and D7) and sketched in completely new ones. 

 

Some supporters of the SDCC map say they jumped onboard as a statement of solidarity with the ethnic goal of Asian undergraduates at UCSD and other Asian residents and businesses to guarantee them an even stronger ethnic concentration in the existing Asian District.  They claim they can achieve this goal by moving the entire UCSD campus and greater environs out its present district and into D6.

  

The SDCC map is actually a dead-end for any San Diego resident who wants to see our city move forward.   It's a devious setup that forecasts an undesirable return to the San Diego of old, when conservative perspectives dominated the City Council.


On the one hand, it supports a stronger Asian district and many supporters of the SDCC map are among San Diego’s most socially progressive advocates who regard this use of identity politics as a positive force. 


➤On the other hand, it creates new concentrations of conservative-leaning voters in its newly-invented council districts, strategically diluting the voting clout of liberal cohorts in the northern and coastal sections of San Diego while also diluting the influence of the Hispanic population in five districts.  


So why support a redistricting map that would weaken the voices and clout of Democratic allies to the north and ultimately undermine progressive momentum citywide?  


Look closely and the dots will start to connect as you:

  • identify the cadre of savvy Republican operatives who have seized the redistricting opportunity to make a comeback;
  • catch sight of certain other proponents of the SDCC map expertly undermining the redistricting process and manipulating public opinion;
  • come across student organizers encouraging fellow students to unleash their frustrations by condemning local neighborhoods over the inadequacy of social opportunities and housing rather than criticizing the policies of their own university chancellor; 
  • notice the stamp of approval provided by BIOCOM and related business industries;
  • get wind of the corporate real estate investors calculating their next moves into environmentally sensitive regions--formerly protected from development but soon to be in the hands of compliant newly-elected city officials.  

Redistricting is dirty business in many other parts of our country.  We can close our eyes and hold our noses and pretend that San Diego is immune to partisan politics and sneaky actors with self-serving agendas. 

 

Alternatively, we can support the better angels among our Redistricting Commissioners by encouraging them to gird their loins and move forward in the public interest to prevent San Diego’s backward slide into a politically retrograde, unpromising future.

  

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Rearranging San Diego


Each and every ten years, as decreed by Article I Section 2 of the United States Constitution, we engage in the ritual of counting the number of people living in our country.

We then use the updated population numbers to reapportion our Congressional districts and the political boundary lines in our state, county, and city governments--aiming for reasonably balanced districts.  


In practical terms, reapportioning and redistricting determine which representatives you’ll be eligible to vote for in upcoming elections. 

 

Ten years ago, San Diego faced a bigger-than-usual redistricting challenge.  Voters had recently agreed to a charter change amendment that catapulted the mayor out of the city council and into the office of chief executive in a new “strong mayor” government system.  Consequently, the 2010 Redistricting Commission was charged with redrawing neighborhood boundary lines to carve out an additional city council district (we went from eight to nine) while ironing out usual population disparities. 

 

Today, San Diego’s redistricting ritual is simpler and more straightforward.  Population numbers in some parts of the city have increased and decreased in other areas.  The job of the 2020 Redistricting Commission is to iron out the disparities among our nine council districts while preserving the likelihood that a handful of our districts will continue to elect a councilmember who identifies as Hispanic, Black, LGBT, and/or Asian.

 

Sounds simple enough.  But trouble is brewing in what has formerly been an orderly and cooperative redistricting process.  

 

In the real world, the fiercest fighting and conflict surrounding decennial redistricting derives from the partisan tug-o-war between Democrats and Republicans.  But not in today's San Diego, where the Democratic Party has safely secured most political cat seats.  

 

So how can we explain the uptick in sharp-tongued, vitriolic public input at current Redistricting Commission (zoom) meetings?  What's been prompting the descent into accusatory complaints invoking race, elitism, and social class?  Who initiated the script for scores of UCSD students claiming that their lifestyle is thwarted by alien neighbors and their true destiny will only be found when their college gets moved to another city council district?  And why are lobbyists giving support to such spurious claims?

 

To ask the question another way: once the smokescreen of misleading and diversionary arguments has blown away, who emerges as the winner?

 

To get some answers, let’s start from the bottom up.  Our nine-member Redistricting Commission gets the final say on where the lines get drawn on San Diego’s council district map.  In other words, Commissioners decide which voters will be entitled to vote for which city council representative over the next ten years.  That’s a weighty responsibility.


Six of the nine appointed Commissioners happen to be lawyers with professional expertise in real estate and private property transactions.  As a consequence, they have assorted connections to a wide range of land development interests.  

According to the rules, however, the duty of Redistricting Commissioners is limited solely to “ensure fair and equitable redistricting for all racial, ethnic and language minorities” and to create districts that will “preserve identifiable communities of interest” and “be geographically compact...to the extent practical.”

Nowhere in the official Commission bylaws does it suggest that the business interests of any private enterprise--big or small--should impact the redistricting equation or influence a Commissioner’s decision about where one council district should end and the line for another district begin.  

But high-powered voices from San Diego’s Life Sciences industry and its mega-million dollar portfolios are telling a different story.  The industry and their lobbyists have a single, gold-plated message for our Redistricting Commissioners.

Tune in to the vice-president of Alexandria, a prospering San Diego REIT, as he makes his case to the Redistricting Commission (note--a Real Estate Investment Trust is a company that owns or finances income-producing real estate across a range of property sectors.  Most REITs trade on major stock exchanges):

“We own eight million square feet of Life Sciences in D1 and D6... Life Sciences is growing...into the communities of Sorrento Valley, Mira Mesa and UTC... the industry really deserves council representation that doesn’t compete with communities that have disparate interests... so the entire Life Science community should be united, we believe, in District 6 including UCSD, UTC, Sorrento Valley, Torrey Pines.”      

And here’s the Director of Regional Policy and Governmental Affairs for BIOCOM as she hammers home her industry instructions (note--BIOCOM is a life science trade association that lobbies public officials “to pass legislation that is positive to the California life science industry, while working to defeat proposals that would be detrimental”): 

“I think it is unfortunate that (planning group members) say that they represent the community... the industry’s voice has been drowned out by residents who contribute to local campaigns in large numbers and do not share the interests of the life science community, as we continue to grow into Sorrento Valley and Mira Mesa... and as this is the largest employment center in the City... the industry deserves a united community in district 6 with a representative that looks out for our interests and helps us continue to grow...”

 And then there's Healthpeak Properties--currently engaged in office/life science construction at the edge of the biologically sensitive Del Mar Mesa Preserve and US Fish and Wildlife Refuge--making no bones about the fact that the health science/ real estate/ development industry looks to the redistricting process as their winning ticket on Wall Street: 

“Our portfolio is purposely designed to provide stable earnings and dividend growth through inevitable industry cycles…”  

It would seem that the word going around is that Wall Street corporations “deserve” special treatment at the hands of our Redistricting Commission in order to lock in political representatives who will “look out for our interests.”  

As we near the end of this decennial mapping process, let’s be sure we get something straight: 

  • While the economic fortunes of San Diego’s major economic drivers--the life sciences, military, and tourism industries-- are of major importance to our city’s future; and 
  • While we each have a personal stake in seeing San Diego grow and prosper as a socially responsible, environmentally sustainable, livable, and economically healthy city; and
  • While we also recognize that proposals for significant growth in any corner of San Diego should get the attention and involvement of every one of our elected officials; and  
  • While the mayor and city council are accountable to ensure that increased demands from growth in our city (for housing availability and affordability, parks, safety provisions, environmental protection, water supplies, transportation options, pipes and sewers, roads, air quality, hidden infrastructure) are planned, paid for, and provided; and
  • While we expect that the thriving real estate investors and their shareholders who profit handsomely from our city’s assets will take responsibility for their share of the city’s unwieldy burdens that accompany the growth of their industry;

We must insist that the clout of private industry is not a valid or legal tool for determining City Council districts or for carving out political advantage in the redistricting process.  That's the only message the Redistricting Commission needs to heed.



Thursday, October 21, 2021

San Diego has a new boss. Uh oh…looks just like the old one

Part I: The endless summer is fading fast

Breeze through this nostalgic snapshot of the place we call home, seen through the lens of the New York Times travel page:

Like its urban rival Los Angeles, San Diego is not so much a city as a loose collection of overlapping (and sometimes colliding) communities bound by arterial, life-giving freeways: it’s a military town in Coronado; a surf town in funky, eclectic Ocean Beach; and a border town in the historic Mexican-American neighborhood of Barrio Logan. If San Diego has a cohesive identity at all, it’s a shared embrace of an easy, breezy Southern California casualness. With its lack of pretension, the city is often seen by outsiders as a kind of Pleasantville — a bland, happy place with an exceptional amount of sunshine. Depending on how deep you look, that may be all you see. But there are, after all, worse things than Spanish tiles, palm trees, tropical blooms, year-round flip-flops, fresh fish tacos and bonfires on the beach.

Yup! they're spot on about our spectacular climate and coastline.  And they sure made their point about San Diego's bush league political status.  But they gave short shrift to San Diego's 1st class theater… ethnic restaurants… universities... artists, musicians, and museums… engineers and doctors...  

And they turned a blind eye to San Diego's 1st class biotech and hi-tech industries, which have already replaced our venerable tourism industry as the most aggressive alpha dogs in town.

 

But what do business sector mavens with 20-20 vision see and say? 

  • Life Sciences (aka biotech) employment in San Diego jumped to nearly double the national average (13.5 % compared to 6.9 %) in a single recent decade, nourished by record amounts of venture capital funding ($9.1 billion for biotechnology startups and $21.8 billion for overall healthcare companies).
  •  By 2020, more than 52,000 people in the city were directly employed by Life Sciences companies, which offer average annual earnings exceeding $127,000.
  • Even in the midst of the COVID pandemic, the Life Science industry contributed around $48 billion in total economic activity to the San Diego economy

In other words, it's time to bid a fond farewell to the "easy breezy" San Diego of yore and take a closer look at the hyper-growth momentum that has catapulted our city into 3rd place among the nation's leading innovation-hub cities (closely trailing Boston and San Francisco). 


Part II: Hypergrowth requires public safeguards


At first glance, the life sciences/tech rainbow that has alighted over our town (with its bountiful pot of gold dangling at the tail end) seems like a sweet sight.  But there's more to this bonanza than meets the eye.  

 

Our city is being propelled at breakneck speed down a pot-holed road by a band of city leaders (the Mayor… Chamber of Commerce… UCSD muckamucks… the City Council… the City Redistricting Commission).  They are bending over backwards to promote and facilitate rapid economic and real estate development to accommodate this new industry.  


But this kind of hypergrowth is laden with land mines if basic safeguards for public protection continue to be ignored.  What does adequate public protection look like?

  

      a) provisions that guarantee that our city's infrastructure, sustainability, housing, water availability, and climate-related objectives can and will keep pace with accelerated urban growth; and

        b) rigorous regulations to require that our new growth industry will turn a share of its immense profits (that pot of gold) back to the public to equitably distribute the costs of the city's increased infrastructure burdens.  We can call it land value recapture, or community benefits assessments, or just plain economic fairness for the people of San Diego.


Too much to ask of the life sciences/tech industry, you say?  The following portrait of major players might change your mind. 


Part III:  San Diego's BFF


While we all agree that San Diego has an admirable record of scientific prowess, the real economic driver of the Life Sciences boom is in the hands of our BFF--the consortium of real estate and land development interests that have long controlled our city's history, politics, planning, and policy-making. 


So when it comes down to it, the new news about San Diego's growth and development is pretty much like the old news.  The pot of gold at the end of the glittering Life Sciences rainbow will be divvied up--as usual--by San Diego's BFF.  


But there's a distinctive twist.  Today's politically powerful top dogs are a new breed of highly evolved commercial property professionals who have cornered the market on a specialty niche item: complex real estate transactions in collaboration with "biotechnology entrepreneurship."  

 

Real estate analysts can't contain their enthusiasm.  Here's what they're telling us about the San Diego market:

  • Investor attention on life science real estate is accelerating... driving pricing higher in top markets. 
  • REITs, institutional investors, and private developers alike are diving headfirst into life sciences. In the first half of 2021, investment volume for life sciences was $9 billion and is tracking toward a record year… 
  • City Office REIT has agreed to sell its entire life sciences portfolio in San Diego’s Sorrento Mesa submarket for $576M.  The properties are trading unencumbered by debt to an unnamed buyer. The deal… underscores the incredible growth in the region and Sorrento Mesa in particular….” 
  • In late July, Shorenstein sold a 300K SF office complex in Sorrento Mesa for $146M, a premium of roughly $150 per SF above the area’s median sale price… The resulting aggregation of life science assets and over 1M SF of zoned life science development potential created an extremely valuable portfolio.”
  • Traditionally, the majority of the life science activity has been concentrated in the Torrey Pines, University Town Center and Sorrento Valley submarkets, where University of California, San Diego and Scripps have driven innovation. 
  • However, downtown San Diego has been a recent target for life science developers and real estate groups…Kilroy Realty, Stockdale Capital Partners and Phase 3 have all closed on life science deals in the past 24 months and are also committed to bringing life science to the downtown market. 
  • In September 2021, the Solana Beach-based real estate investment trust (REIT) IQHQ completed the acquisition of $1.5 billion of commercial property...for its life sciences projects. The new massive development is called the San Diego Research and Development District (RADD) and is expected to transform downtown real estate.
  • IQHQ is the former brainchild of longtime life science pioneer Alan Gold (co-founder of Alexandria Real Estate Equities, then founder of BioMed Realty Trust, which sold to Blackstone Group in an $8 billion transaction… (today, Gold is executive chairman of Innovative Industrial Properties, which leases to medical marijuana companies). 
  • Alexandria Realty Equities (a REIT based in Pasadena, California) has a significant footprint in San Diego with an operating asset base covering nearly 5 million RSF of space. Additionally, it has 1.1 million RSF under construction and pre-construction that is expected to be delivered through 2022. 

Get the picture? Although scientific progress in the Life Sciences  is a noble and worthy pursuit, it is also the gold-plated vehicle  for Wall Street/corporate dominance and determinant of San Diego's future.  What are the chances we will emerge as a sustainable, livable, balanced, affordable city?


Part IV: The art of the sale


In the movies or on Netflix you'll catch a fleeting glimpse of the brand of beer the hero is drinking or the Apple logo on the computer whiz's laptop.  They are there to sell you something by means of product placement. 


In political life, it's done differently.  The sellers are positioned in place but you're not supposed to see them in action.  That's the art of the sale.

 

Earlier, I made the claim that a band of city leaders (the Mayor… Chamber of Commerce… muckamucks from UCSD… City Council… the City Redistricting Commission) are instrumental in promoting and facilitating Life Sciences hypergrowth in San Diego.  

 

We're familiar with the roles and responsibilities of the Mayor and City Council governing land use decisions that promote high density developent and rapid growth.  Ditto for the influence of the Chamber of Commerce on city growth.  


And from the looks of it, UCSD and the City Redistricting Commission have also been inserted--but as silent bedfellows--in the high stakes process to steer hypergrowth policymaking in San Diego. 


⇝ Perched on the once-wooded mesa atop La Jolla, UCSD is our homegrown behemoth, straining and bursting to escape its present confines.  The University Chancellor is known for his professional and personal interests in the proliferating fortunes of the life sciences and technology industries, as well as for his efforts to expand the University's physical footprint in the region.  


His top staff are politically savvy land-development experts.  Recently, an undergraduate major in Real Estate and Development was tacked on to the Urban Studies department.  In any case, the Chancellor takes no public responsibility for encouraging ongoing activities by student activists engaged in lobbying political agencies for greater urban growth and density. 

 

 ⇝ Similarly, the City Redistricting Commission is imprinted by real estate and land development interests.  The Commission is made up of nine San Diegans appointed by a trio of retired judges (one of whom is Jan Goldsmith, our previous city attorney) and is charged with redrawing the political boundaries of the city's nine Council districts.  

 

Who is the primary client of this political endeavor? Presumably, it should serve fair voter representation within San Diego communities and the general public interest.  


(Since Republicans have ceased--at least for now-- being competitive in city politics, we can assume that partisan pressure takes a back seat in the present redistricting process.  But in San Diego, accelerated growth and real estate development cut across party lines.)

 

Three of the nine commissioners have credentials as community activists.  Unfortunately, one of those three was recently induced to resign from the commission over an alleged conflict of interest.  

 

Ironically, six of the remaining commissioners actively engage in overlapping professional activities in real estate and business litigation.  At least one of them has a professional relationship with the massive downtown IQHQ development.  Yet another commissioner sits on the advisory board of the UCSD Real Estate & Development program (in the company of the chief investment officer of the Alexandria Real Estate corporation).   


Product placement or just the luck of the draw?  You decide.

 

Part V: The ship has sailed.  How to stay afloat


San Diego is lucky.  We can learn from other booming cluster cities that came before us, cities like: 

        1) Boston, where "The development community’s enormous acceleration of life science and lab development… as well as the ongoing tech boom… threatens to send already sky-high housing costs even higher… where, “It’s almost impossible to build our way out of the demand that we have now for housing… 

        2) Seattle, where "the city is now more of a playground for high-tech workers… Seattle’s housing market is still hotting up because it has high tech workers demanding housing.  Sadly, no matter how you look at it, Seattle’s housing prices are skyrocketing, even in all the areas surrounding the city. 

        3) San Francisco, where the tech explosion years ago sent home prices skyrocketing and emptied the city of middle class workers and families.

We follow our fellow Life Sciences cluster cities at great peril.  If basic safeguards for public protection are not put into place early enough, the odds are slim to none that San Diego will emerge from today's real estate boom as a sustainable, livable, balanced, affordable city.

The NYT got it right: there are, after all, worse things than Spanish tiles, palm trees, tropical blooms, year-round flip flops, frest fish tacos and bonfires on the beach.  


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Who gets the last laugh? It's time to decide

Well, what do. you know? The Union Tribune announced that Todd Gloria is their choice for mayor.  No surprise here!

San Diego's growth machinethe entrenched coalition of influential players who profit handsomely from urban growth and development (our banks, hotels, convention center, newspapers, shopping centers, sports stadiums, building trades unions, realtor associations, builders and developers)--continues to exercise outsized control over local political decisions.  

The U-T acknowledges that Barbara Bry would be a superior mayor/manager of San Diego at a time when we are in desperate need of professional and ethical management.  


But… Barbara Bry is not a member of San Diego's old-boy network.  And Todd Gloria is. 

 

He's a tried and true pinch hitter, adept at scoring the deals and policies that typically enrich our city's lobbyists, campaign donors, unions, and business elites--usually at public expense.

You can count on him to work hand in glove with the entrenched brotherhood of San Diego's growth machine.  His record makes that clear.

 

Here's are some observations* I made in the past.  They are even more relevant and applicable today:

 

There's a short video you should watch.  It showcases our city’s top politicians strutting their stuff as hotshot Top Gun naval aviators.  


It’s a droll skit.  You’ll chuckle watching the honorable men I recently wrote about as they bond in a boys-will-be-boys ritual. 

 

But most of all, this doozy of a video spotlights why -- in the hands of our current politicians and the people who prop them up -- San Diego is destined to stagnate as an underachieving, plodding, also-ran kind of city.

 

The video was produced by the San Diego Taxpayers Association for its Golden Watchdog and Fleece Awards Dinner.  

 

For example, notice who’s in charge.  It’s none other than the honorable Jerry Sanders, cast as the swearing officer barking marching orders to a pair of compliant underlings.  

 Yup, our city’s rogue top cop -- the same aw-shucks guy who spent close to eight years as mayor overseeing the deterioration of San Diego’s public infrastructure, planning, municipal departments, workplace security, city finances, truth in government, and workers’ morale – is still running the show.  

 

And who are those minions kowtowing “Yessir!” to big boss Sanders as they vie with one another for his favor?  They sure look a lot like our top political leaders, the newly-elected honorable mayor Kevin Faulconer and our honorable city council president Todd Gloria.  How cute and winsome they are as they deliver their lines on cue.

Okay, we know it’s a spoof.  The trouble is, the joke’s on us.  While we’re giggling, the guys who write the script, the ones who call the shots in our city are laughing … all the way to the bank. 

 

Picture our developers and their anti-regulation growth machine, our hotel moguls and their oversized “hospitality” industry, our sports team conmen luxuriating in taxpayer subsidies, our swarm of banker/ lawyer/ investor middlemen drinking lustily from the trough of public bond debt, our taxpayers association, Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Partnership, special financing district mafiosi… slicing, dicing, and dividing the spoils.

 

In contrast, picture San Diego’s usual supply of political "leaders" --sunkissed, puckish, avuncular, lightweight, uninspired, shortsighted, chicken-hearted individuals, handpicked by the guys who’ve been writing the script for decades as they "yessir!" their sponsors. 


Sure, we've got a sense of humor.  But check the end of the video where the short guy says to the tall one, “You can be my wingman anytime.”  It’s an ambiguous buddy term involving support, protection, and the password to the exclusive old boy network.

 

But tell me, is it really a laughing matter when conflicted city officials work hand in glove to keep one another in business?  Is it really humorous when San Diego’s elite private establishment assumes ownership of city officials and writes the scripts and agendas and laws that control the city’s future?


On the other hand, wouldn’t it be a blast if San Diego citizens commissioned our own pack of wingmen to help hook us up with dedicated, public-minded, smart, and courageous political figures?  Just the thought of it brings genuine joy to the heart, doesn’t it?  For starters, we could raise our standards several notches and demand a lot more integrity and intelligent action from the people we elect to serve us.  Maybe then, the public would finally get the last laugh.

 

(*The original commentary can be found at http://numbersrunner.blogspot.com/2014/04/who-gets-last-laugh.html)