What better way to defeat a grassroots movement than to create an astroturf campaign? That’s what residents of Carmel Valley believe Kilroy Realty is doing to gain approval for its massive mixed-use project, One Paseo.
Residents say that in order to pass what will be the largest development project ever in Carmel Valley the developer has hired a Santa Barbara–based public relations firm that specializes in creating fake grassroots campaigns to make “NIMBYs and naysayers irrelevant.”
One Paseo is a 1,857,440- square-foot development on 23.6 acres planned for the corner of El Camino Real and Del Mar Heights Road. If the project is approved in its current form, its ten multistory buildings will house a movie theater, a 150-room hotel, 608 multifamily units, and 806,000 square feet of retail and office space.
However, to proceed, the developer needs to persuade Carmel Valley residents and San Diego city councilmembers to change the zoning from commercial, which allows a maximum of 500,000 square feet of office space on the site, to a designation that permits residential and commercial buildings almost four times that size.
So far, persuading the community has been difficult.
After the plan was announced, concerned community members quickly launched a grassroots effort in opposition to One Paseo. The group’s website, What Price Main Street?, is a platform for local residents to express objections. They say the projected 26,000 daily trips generated by the new homes and offices will create gridlock on city streets and at the intersection with I-5. They say the project is incompatible with community character.
Those residents believe that executives at Kilroy Realty have taken steps to quell the opposition by hiring a former director of development services for the City of San Diego, Marcela Escobar-Eck, to serve as a project consultant. Kilroy has also hired Davies, a public relations firm in Santa Barbara. O’Dwyer’s public-relations news organization ranks Davies as the third top PR firm in the country dealing with environmental projects.
Davies creates, according to O’Dwyer’s, “grassroots programs to gain (or divert) the attention necessary to favorably shape public opinion and build genuine support for their clients’ projects. Davies uses authentic programs to win approvals for any controversial project — from natural resources extraction and mining, real estate developments facing tough NIMBY opposition, to permitting energy facilities (from wind to coal plants) in sensitive environments.”
Last summer, Carmel Valley residents believe they saw Davies’s strategy unfold.
“We got this elaborate brochure in the mail, and we wondered why they were sending it to us. Something just felt weird about it,” says Carmel Valley resident Carolyn Keen.
“And then we started seeing these letters printed in the Carmel Valley News in support of the project. I knew this wasn’t grassroots, it just pretended to be.”
Dennis Ridz, chair of the Torrey Pines Community Planning Board and last-minute candidate for the District 1 city council seat, noticed something strange at a project review committee meeting.
“I started seeing people coming in with sunflower-shaped signs and buttons saying something like ‘We love One Paseo.’ One woman sitting next to me had a bag full of fans with ‘One Paseo’ printed on them. I was waiting for somebody to pop out of a birthday cake.”
Another Carmel Valley resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, has an idea why so many supporters were at that meeting. Two hours before the meeting, she received a phone call.
“An older lady called me earlier that day. She asked me to attend the meeting because they needed support, and then she invited me to a little get-together at Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza after the meeting.”
The resident said more phone calls came asking for a different kind of support.
“It sounded like the same lady. She asked if I’d be willing to write a letter to city council, and if I was unsure how to do that, they have people who can write the letter for me. She said they would write it, send it back for me to sign, and I would send it back to them. It’s sleazy and dishonest. They are trying to dupe us.”
Phone calls, mailers, and rewarding residents for attending community meetings was not all.
Top executives at Kilroy and Davies have given the maximum contribution allowed to District 1 city councilmember Sherri Lightner’s reelection campaign. In all, Lightner has received $4999.22 in donations from the developer and the public relations firm.
According to campaign finance reports, the president of Kilroy Realty, John Kilroy Jr., personally contributed $500, as did chief operating officer Jeffrey Hawken, vice president Elizabeth Smagala, and senior vice president Justin Smart. Vice president of development and project manager Robert Little made two donations to Lightner totaling $499.22.
Executives at Davies Public Affairs matched those contributions. John Davies and his wife gave a total of $1000, as did executive vice president Patrick Canfield and his wife Angela; Rosa Estraellas, wife of another Davies executive, gave $500.
Bob Little, vice president of development for Kilroy, denies the residents’ allegations of astroturfing. “We hired Davies to make the brochures, but they are not in charge of recruiting people to go to meetings,” he says. “And we never hired them to start an artificial grassroots campaign.”
As for the claim that Davies or Kilroy had people phone residents to solicit letters in support of the project, Little doesn’t know who would be making those calls. “That call didn’t come from me, I can tell you that,” he says.
Little says the owners of the neighboring shopping plaza, Del Mar Highlands Town Center, are behind the campaign against One Paseo. “The opposition is not grassroots. That website is funded by the owner of the shopping center across the street. The owners, Donahue Schriber, had their names on the What Price Main Street? website. They are the ones trying to pose as grassroots for their own economic interests.”
Bob Fuchs, who started the website in September 2009, admits that Donahue Schriber hosted the site for about a year but only because Fuchs didn’t have the know-how to do it himself. “Somehow Donahue Schriber heard about what I was doing, and I brought over my materials. They said they have a common interest because of the traffic impacts. They offered to get the message out to the community. I maintained editorial and content control and managed everything that went on the website. There is nothing on that website from anyone but community members.”
Ken Farinsky, a former planning group member, has taken over hosting the site. “There is absolutely no connection to Donahue Schriber,” he says. “This is absolutely a grassroots campaign, a real grassroots campaign.” ■