San Diego may soon be getting a new city hall. Not just any city hall, but a “Capitol on the Hill,” beckoning its citizens with glamour and expense, equal to, say its planners, the city halls of San Francisco and Philadelphia, and even the state capitol, with its glittering dome of gold leaf. Standing astride the intersection of 12th and Broadway, the lavish edifice, costing at least $275 million, would be only an initial step in the development of an elaborate civic center “complex" intended to rejuvenate the east side of downtown.
That figure alone could amount to $89 million more than the city says it would cost to remodel the existing city hall, but developer Ernest Hahn, who created the wildly successful Horton Plaza shopping mall and who is now widely credited with pushing the new city hall proposal to the verge of breaking ground, says the huge expenditure can’t be avoided.
“The future of this center city," he proclaims in the soothing tone he has become known for, “is residential housing. Nobody has argued with that. It wasn't apparent that the east side would be a good residential area unless something was done to revitalize it. This project will make housing there possible. The city desperately requires it.”
There are those who disagree with Hahn’s notion that a costly new city hall is what is called for to stimulate a housing boom on the now largely run-down east side of downtown. Some business leaders, self-styled “citizen lobbyists,” and a few politicians argue that city hall is still needed where it is, at its present location in the traditional core near Third Avenue and C Street, two blocks east of the county courthouse and the federal office building and court complex and relatively near the county administration building on the bay.
Other observers, including real estate broker and developer Robert J. Lichter, charge that the city council has not bothered to carefully examine the fragile financial underpinnings of the project. “Council people have never really studied it — they don’t have the time, talent, or inclination to do so,” says Lichter. “The council persons are out in left field on this one, and there’s no way that their staffs could be competent enough to understand this stuff.”
The powerful and respected Hahn, adds Lichter, has upped the ante by making the city hall project a personal crusade, pitting his own credibility and media savvy against that of the oft-wavering council members. “Ernie had this thing in his teeth. Nobody was going to cross Ernie.”
Several current residents of the east side also take issue with the implicit assumption that a cluster of elaborate new public buildings is a panacea for the chronic problems of muggings, crack dealing, and street people that dominate the area.
Others, including council member Judy McCarty, question the expenditure of such vast sums of public money on an intentionally grandiose architectural monument during a period of purported city budget austerity.
“To take that much money out of the general fund to pay for a new city hall doesn’t make sense, especially when we are confronting such enormous outlays for secondary sewage treatment and the jailfunding crisis,” says McCarty. “I think there is a more cost-effective way of doing it. It might not be as glamorous, but for those of us who are paying, it makes more sense.”
These voices of dissent have been heard rarely, if at all, during the two years that the east-side city hall has been transformed from the ambitious dream of Ernest Hahn to the drawing boards of consultants and city staffers and on, perhaps, to final approval by the city council later this year.
Indeed, many of those who say they remain opposed to the project, especially those in the business community, will voice their reservations only in off-the-record conversations, fearing what they claim to be the possibility of retribution by Mayor Maureen O’Connor, next to Hahn probably the idea’s staunchest proponent.
Even Councilman Bruce Henderson, who according to his chief aide James Sills has been an ardent opponent of the project, declines to be interviewed. “He’s got all the numbers against it,” says Sills. “You can read it all in the public record, but this isn’t the right time for him to talk.”
Others who are more willing to speak out contend that the planning process itself has been deeply flawed, ignoring the well-known social problems of the area that, for better or worse, have been bequeathed to the east side of downtown by the very success of redevelopment to the west.
Notes Juliette Mondot, who with her husband is raising a family in the raw east-side neighborhood: “When Horton Plaza opened, the public drunks from the central core were pushed into our area. More recently, the police action against the rampant crack trade just east of Gaslamp has pushed that population into our streets.”
On one point, however, there is no disagreement: the city hall project will never face the voters. Big public spending projects, with the exception of the soon-to-open convention center, have a long history of rejection by San Diego electorates. Even the present city hall, built in 1965, was financed by the city employees’ retirement fund after voters repeatedly turned down general obligation bonds for the purpose.
The present proposal calls for the issuance of so-called “Certificates of Participation,” a somewhat exotic method of creating public debt that does not require a vote of the people but which, because of fluctuating interest rates, also makes the ultimate cost of the project difficult to gauge.
“That’s the main problem,” says Perry Ferguson, a business consultant who opposes the city’s current version of the project. “Something this big and this important to the city should be on the ballot. It would be easy enough for the city council to put it on, there’s an election coming up, but they would never consider it.”
Ferguson contends that without an election, it is difficult for most average citizens to read up on the issue and hence to have a role in its resolution. “There is no public scrutiny of this thing,” he argues.