Maybe that was because the writing was already on the wall: Intensive commercial development for Mission Valley had long since trumped the river’s health and flooding concerns. When the city allowed the Town and Country Hotel to come in, they knew they were opening a Pandora’s box.
“[By 1983] Mission Valley was the geographic center of metropolitan San Diego,” Pete says. “Development came in faster than they expected, and that’s been sort of typical of the City of San Diego. They are always having to react, rather than plan ahead. They say, ‘Oh, gee, we have this developer who’s coming in with this beautiful project. What should we do?’ In most cases they say, ‘Okay. We’ll give them the rubber stamp’ because they don’t have any advance planning to know whether that project is a good project or not. That has historically been a problem for the City of San Diego, in the Planning Department.”
Since 1983, he says, not much has happened. “There was a little activity in the Lakeside area. People there borrowed my reports and exerted a little bit of pressure. They have done some work in developing park space. Santee has done some work, but nothing extensive, utilizing river bottomland. As far as I know, [since] this plan died on the shelf, there have been no efforts to acquire land or set aside land or zone it for open space or anything like that. In the lower San Diego River, they have. But not in the upper San Diego River. [In the lower San Diego River area] they have the City of San Diego behind them. Its planning department is [aiming] for walkways, some greenbelts, green space, but it’s virtually minimal. Adjacent property owners do not want to give up that land. I mean, it’s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars an acre. And so they look at it from that pragmatic point of view. They don’t look at it from the aesthetics at all.
“For instance, there are big-mouth bass there, bluegills. They live for the floods, so to speak, and they take advantage of the ponds around there. There are portions of the San Diego River, like around Grantville, that are fairly deep, and they hunker down and wait for the rains to come. But that would be the only area that would have any fish, the Grantville area.”
How do we rate against other river towns?
Cuthbert says most towns just want to squeeze their rivers down as tight as they can. “You’ve got Los Angeles: all concrete channels. Phoenix, Arizona, has tried to change. They have a pretty good river/flood-control project. Phoenix is the most forbidding area to try to have a park, in a river bottom. But they have worked at it. And San Antonio, Sacramento, and Seattle have some river projects, restoring the natural ecology and making them available for the public. San Diego is very far behind all these people. The property owners here control the situation, unfortunately. The gravel and sand people were the ones, initially. Over the past 30 years, they did not want any parks or anything. They’re also the ones who were dumping construction spoil in the barrow pits where they had mined the sand and gravel. And they’re probably getting paid to allow [people] to dump in these barrow pits. So they become little ponds. Well, to utilize that land, the sand and gravel companies would rather have these ponds in-filled and covered over because eventually, maybe 20, 30, 40 years from now, they can build on them. So they have their own priority. And it’s not recreation, and it’s not aesthetics.”
Restricting Humans So the River Can Have Life
It’s morning in La Jolla. Here at UCSD’s Thurgood Marshall College, Jim Bell holds forth to undergrads, mostly engineering students. He has a PowerPoint presentation on the blackboard screen. It shows an artist’s rendering of a verdant valley, seen from above. A river winds down among woodland and meadow, with some fields cultivated, and some houses — but only peeking down from the valley rim.
“When I ran for mayor of San Diego in 2004, against Murphy and Roberts and Peter Q. Davis,” says Bell, a big, fervent, self-styled eco-designer from O.B., “the final debate was on Channel 10. It turned out I was the last one to speak, and I’d written this little poem: ‘These guys are the old, I’m the new, I’ve got a plan, They haven’t a clue.’ ”
He looks up at the painting. “This,” he says, “is Mission Valley [as it could be in], say, 2060. It has the best soil. It has a river that needs its 100-year floodplain. You can either constrict the river or restrict humans. That’s what we’re doing here. Restricting humans so the river can have life. Remember, every year, pretty much, Mission Valley floods in winter. The chronic and the catastrophic costs add up. It’s common sense.”
He goes on to explain the logic behind depopulating and “re-naturing” the San Diego River’s 100-year floodplain. “If you add all the tax revenue being generated by the properties down there [in Mission Valley], that’s the income. And then you say, ‘Well, what are the chronic costs every year? What are the 10-year flood-frequency costs? What are the 25-year frequency costs? Hundred-year flood costs?’ We can’t prove it yet because we haven’t done the work, but I think it would turn out that it would be a net loss.
“And it’s like the developers would get in, and they make money, and then they’re out of it. And then when the disaster happens, it’s the public who’ll be on the hook.
“So, let’s say I’m elected mayor: I put forward an ordinance to prohibit any further development in the historic 100-year floodplain. People can still be there, but they won’t be able to add on to whatever they have. They can repair, but eventually buildings wear out and aren’t worthy of repairing anymore. So then you take them out of there [or] move them someplace else. And, of course, as soon as you pass a law that says you can’t develop the floodplain, it’s going to make the land in the floodplain less valuable. So people could legitimately scream, ‘Hey! What are you doing? You’re changing the rules.’ Assuming they were playing by an old set of rules, and playing correctly, they shouldn’t be penalized. So the way you work it is that the land in the floodplains goes down in value — but what’s going to happen to the land just outside the floodplain? That’s going to go up in value. Because eventually you’re going to be overlooking this beautiful park area, agrarian, horseback riding, tourists coming from all over the world… And so what happens is, somebody who already owns land outside of the floodplain (in that same local area) decides to sell their land. And let’s say that before you prohibited floodplain development, the land was worth a million dollars. OK, after you prohibit it, [that land] is worth $2 million. But that second million is unearned. Because they didn’t do any improvement. So you let them have 20 percent of that. They get the million, they get 20 percent more, then you use the other $800,000 that’s left to compensate the people whose land got devalued. So everybody gets out whole. No taxes [have been] involved.”