Besides a smart piece here and there by Neil Morgan, the last interesting story to appear in the Union-Tribune about the redevelopment of the Naval Training Center ran last August. It reported on the mysterious killings of six feral cats on the former Navy property. A colony of the animals had been living on the compound for decades, and last summer some were found mutilated — one had been sliced in half, another decapitated. Jeff Hickox, a property manager for McMillin Companies — which was awarded a controversial contract to develop the area — said at the time, “Were not killing cats. We’ve got no reason to kill cats.” Hickox suggested that birds of prey were the evildoers. “I’d say owls are the culprits,” he said.
But Barbara Caliri, a member of a coalition that looked after the cats, had had clashes with members of the McMillin team over the cats’ well-being, and she insisted that they’d been killed by human hands.
Since that story, a cursory piece about the redevelopment project has run in the U-T about once every two months. One, from last October, outlined a lawsuit filed by John McNab’s citizens group, Save Our NTC, seeking to enforce a 30-foot height limit on buildings on the property. Another piece, from this past January, reported on the inevitable rejection of that suit by Superior Court judge E. Mac Amos, Jr. He maintained that the injunction against buildings exceeding 30 feet did not apply to federally owned property. Other recent articles have focused on arcane recommendations by the California Coastal Commission regarding the redevelopment plan. The coastal commission fine-tuned the plan but demanded no radical changes. They merely insisted that certain buildings and areas on the property remain open to the public, which was the understanding to begin with, McMillin Companies hailed the recommendations, and the city council happily adopted them.
If the U-T’s reporting is any indication, San Diegans have pretty much given up opposing the NTC redevelopment plan. Or maybe the paper’s editors only realized what is now obvious — that McMillin Companies’ plan for the property, which will be called Liberty Station, is a fait accompli. Grading and construction on the property have already begun. To be sure, Corky McMillin faced obstacles and varying degrees of opposition before he ordered the first clod of earth to be moved on the site; what’s extraordinary, however, is how McMillin has bobbed and weaved around the hurdles he’s encountered. The opposing forces, it turns out, were not extraordinary, for they’ve failed to stop the project. This is McMillin’s game, and he played it with savvy.
But before he could flex his muscles, McMillin needed an all-important assist from a pliant city council.
Corky McMillins massive enterprise, McMillin Companies, has been based in National City for more than 40 years. Really a conglomerate of homebuilding and commercial development businesses, McMillin Companies has constructed more than 15,000 housing units, mostly in the San Diego region, stretching from Carlsbad to Otay Ranch. Though he’s undoubtedly a real estate tycoon, Corky McMillin banks heavily on his reputation as a neighborly sort who simply wants to create jobs in San Diego. He’s received numerous accolades, ranging from a “Spirit of Life Award” (given by the San Diego Construction Industries Alliance for the City of Hope) to the 1990 “Man of the Year Award” (bestowed by the Mexican and American Foundation).
Members of the San Diego City Council cited Corky McMillin’s local ties when they voted on May 18, 1999, to delay considering bids for the redevelopment project, even though a citizens committee headed by the reputable attorney Milton “Micky” Fredman had recommended that Lennar Communities receive the contract. City Council-woman Barbara Warden said then, “Obviously many of us have worked with Corky McMillin’s company. We’ve seen those projects come to fruition. He happens to have the largest project in my district, Miramar Ranch North, and my history with him — and I say it quite honestly — has been very public and very good.”
City Councilwoman Christine Kehoe added, “In my personal experience in my neighborhoods... I’ve seen case after case where redevelopment goes forward most successfully usually when there’s a strong local base and a real familiarity with the communities.”
At the beginning of the May-delay hearing, City Manager Michael Uberuaga reported to the city council that the citizens committee recommended Lennar Communities for the contract. “The Manager’s office does recommend that you enter into negotiations ... with Lennar Communities,” he said “That’s the preferred alternative.”
But City Councilman Byron Wear thwarted that recommendation. “I realize that the manager and staff as well as a talented group of citizen volunteers have spent a lot of time and energy to come up with a recommendation today,” Wear said. “However, I think this issue is too critical of a decision to San Diego to not give this council the opportunity to hear from both finalists, and so [I ask for a] continuance for two weeks to allow full presentations from both Lennar and McMillin.”
Another point of contention at the delay hearing was whether councilmembers could talk directly with McMillin Companies and Lennar Communities regarding their plans for the project. Barbara Warden asked Mayor Susan Golding whether there was a legal prohibition against such communications. Golding deferred to Rick Duvernay, a city attorney, who said, “I don’t think that there’s a legal reason why you couldn’t do that. But the reason why staff incorporated that into the selection process with the selection committee was... [to have] some degree of control on the amount of information, the timing of receipt of information, and how that information gets to those making a decision.”
But Mayor Golding had the last word on the subject. “I think any councilmember who wants to meet with the applicants as long as there is no legal prohibition should do his or her utmost to find out as much about this project as possible to cast the most fully informed vote as possible,” she said.
On June 1, 1999, the next city council meeting on the NTC proposals, McMillin Companies was prepared to make its final pitch for the project. However, Bob Santos, a division president with Lennar Communities, asked for a further continuance on the matter. He explained that while McMillin Companies had the opportunity to lobby individual councilmembers after the May 18 delay hearing, Lennar had not been able to meet with all members. “We did make an immediate effort after the last meeting to try to schedule calendar meetings with each of the city council people,” Santos said, “but because of our calendars and because of the holiday and so forth, we were not able to meet with all the council people.” Santos explained that he believed McMillin Companies had more opportunities to make its case than Lennar had.
City councilman Harry Mathis agreed with Santos. “I think fairness really is an issue here,” he said. “I think, frankly, we’re not under any deadline here, and I think that the proposals important enough that we need to make sure that both sides are satisfied it’s been a fair process.” After some bickering about continuance procedures, the council voted again to delay final presentations by the bidders, this time until June 22.
At that final meeting Corky McMillin exhibited the full range of his acumen. He argued that as a local he was more fit than Lennar — a New Stock Exchange Company that specializes in the redevelopment of decommissioned Navy bases — to understand what the city needed. Byron Wear was McMillin’s most vocal partisan on the city council, and in his opening brief that day he said, “We need a partner with the staying power to make our plan work.”
Wear added, “They [McMillin Companies] have focused most of their efforts in this region, which is good for us. They have been here and have almost unsurpassed knowledge of what it takes to make San Diego special. I think McMillin can and will capture the soul of San Diego; I think McMillin has the passion to make this project great. I think Lennar could get to this point of knowledge in San Diego, but I think McMillin is already there.” In closing, Wear offered this assessment: “This is an example of some very qualified developers [Lennar] not knowing some of the idiosyncrasies of San Diego.” Christine Kehoe, who seconded Wear’s statements, felt it necessary to dismiss any suppositions of favoritism. “This is not a sentimental choice,” she said, “despite what people think.... If I have questions about what’s happening, I know who to call at McMillin. And I know I will get an answer from somebody that I’ve been working with on various projects over the years.”
Only one city councilmember, George Stevens, alluded to the seemingly improper lobbying efforts of the two bidders. “If I did what was politically expedient,” he said, “I would have listened to the phone calls I got at home. Unfortunately, I really don’t appreciate being called at 10:00 at night on any council business, nor Saturday morning — as has been done. The pressure has been on placing it [the choosing of a bidder] into a political context in my benefit if I vote a certain direction.” But after this quirky preamble, Stevens towed the line. “I think all my friends who know me, who call me to impose upon me what I should do, know that I will not do things that are politically correct,” he said. “I will always try to do what is right. And so I join the maker today of the motion in supporting McMillin for the NTC project.”
Corky McMillin played his hand perfectly during the meeting. He brought with him Marc Kasky, the Yale-educated man who ran San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center — an old Army base turned community village. Kasky oversaw Fort Mason for 19 years and guided its transition from an old base to a center that hosts classes, performances, and exhibitions for hundreds of San Francisco organizations. More to the point, Fort Mason Center has been fiscally self-sufficient for almost 17 years. In Corky McMillin’s plan, Kasky’s role was as the administrator of the area’s historic core, and on those occasions during the meeting when McMillin faced a particularly hard line of questioning, Kasky would step in to deftly allay any concerns and invoke the achievements of Fort Mason Center. (In a later development, it turned out that some of the $2 million McMillin pledged for the formation of a foundation to run the historic core would go toward Kasky’s salary.)
Corky McMillin’s charms cast their spell. The city council voted 7-2 in favor of McMillin Companies, but not before Mayor Golding lobbed McMillin a softball.
Golding to McMillin: “Will you commit on the record to see this project through to the end?”
McMillin: “I am personally committed to see this project through to the end — and my sons are here to back me up.”
Golding: “Okay, thank you.”
Valerie Stallings and Juan Vargas cast the two dissenting votes. Vargas clearly and succinctly explained his reasoning. He believed that Byron Wear’s motion to go with McMillin over Lennar insulted the intelligence and hard work of the committee chaired by Micky Fredman, which had unanimously recommended Lennar for the development. “I can’t support the motion as it is today,” Vargas said in his statement. “I wish that I could, but I think that it slaps — that it goes in the face of the — it’s really a slap in the face of the selection committee. And we’ll be hard pressed, I think, in the future, to get a committee with this sort of high caliber and integrity if we’re going to move them aside and not go by their recommendation.”
A former port commissioner and attorney, Micky Fredman headed the search committee that unanimously recommended Lennar get the contract. I asked Fredman about the city councils rejection of the committees findings. "Look,” he said, "we made a recommendation and the city manager accepted it. It went to the city council, and they decided they wanted to hear more. Nobody was supposed to change a single thing [about their bids], and then McMillin completely changed.” Fredman was referring to how McMillin Companies pledged to match Lennar’s funding for the historic core at the last minute.
“I tried to talk to people on the city council,” Fredman continued. “Nobody would talk to me. We sent a letter to them, and they ignored it. I don’t know what else to say; none of these folks are on the council anymore.
“We told them many times why we recommended Lennar. We asked McMillin to match Lennar’s bid many times because we wanted to keep it local, but every time McMillin refused.” There were a lot of differences between McMillin’s original bid and Lennar’s, Fredman explained. “He wouldn’t do this and he wouldn’t do that, but that wasn’t the case when he went before the council. The only time he matched Lennar was when he was before the council.”
Fredman also cited the city council’s decision to communicate with the bidders as a factor in McMillin’s being awarded the contract. “McMillin admitted that he went and called on every councilmember, so it’s obvious that it was a political deal and nothing else. It's true they wanted someone local, but it’s also true that that someone had contributed to each of their campaigns.”
Considering that there’s a $250 campaign contribution cap, I asked Fredman how much money McMillin could have contributed. “Was it really enough money to sway the council?” I asked.
“That isn’t the point,” Fredman said. “This is a small town when it comes to money. He not only gave them money, but he could talk about setting up parks in their districts and could do other things to endear the members. He could help them win favor with their constituents. It’s plain politics, nothing else.
“Look,” Fredman concluded, “you can’t blame McMillin. Everybody tells me he’s a straight arrow, that he’s a good guy. And he’s certainly a good builder. The only thing McMillin did was say that he would pay something like $15 million for this arts and cultural district, and now, the way it’s written, he’ll advance it, but the city will owe it back to him. Lennar was going to put up the money, period. But, again, you can’t blame McMillin.”
Since Corky McMillin’s good fortune on June 22, 1999, his project has been under attack, but nothing yet has really rattled him. Most critics point out that the city continues to adjust his contract terms in a manner that will benefit McMillin Companies rather than taxpayers. But Corky McMillin has a simple defense; as he constantly reminded the city council during those meetings in 1999, this is not charity work. Most recently, the project has been condemned by the Peninsula Community Planning Board, a community-based citizen body created to work with the city’s planning department to formulate and implement land-use issues, including those on the Naval Training Center.
On May 28, the board, which had previously supported commercialization of the land, reversed its position and voted 7-2 to oppose the project. In a long list of enumerated allegations, the board charged, among other things, that the profits promised to the public have gradually shrunk, that the city has granted McMillin “major concessions,” that “public input has been marginalized,” that “historical buildings on NTC are not being maintained by the developer in a manner that preserves their historical integrity as required by Municipal Code,” and that the redevelopment will create “traffic gridlock” in adjacent communities. The board added, “We are concerned with the City of San Diego proceeding with the demolition and construction of NTC even while there are outstanding lawsuits against the project, still on appeal,” and then concluded, “Due to these permanent and non-mitigablc impacts, decisions made without the [board’s] review or consent, the Peninsula Community Planning Board protests and opposes the continuation of the present, yet to be implemented, commercial development plan for San Diego’s Naval Training Center”
Cynthia Conger, chair of the Peninsula Community Planning Board, told me she doesn’t know how the board’s vote will impact the redevelopment. “Will our vote have any effect? I have no idea,” she said. “The people are just starting to get behind us because they’ve been misled by the misinformation being put through.”
She added, “I’m not happy with either the City or McMillin. There are people who have worked with McMillin down at the city running things along, but I haven’t gotten any response from them. McMillin’s people haven’t shown up for the past three months at any of our meetings. They don’t seem to care one way or another, and the same things have happened in other areas where McMillin has been — they make promises and then don’t fulfill them. But then again, they have the best negotiators on their side negotiating with people who are babies at this.”
In a letter dated June 17, 2002, and sent to Mayor Dick Murphy, Corky McMillin, and the U-T John McNab, of Save Our NTC, spoke to the outstanding legal appeal the board mentioned in their decision. McNab was the main force behind the suit charging the city with violating a 30-foot height limit placed on buildings on the site. “Indications are that foundations for buildings currently planned to be 30 foot or higher are soon to be poured,” McNab wrote. “We wish to remind the Mayor and Council that the issue of whether buildings at NTC can be built above thirty feet from existing grade is presently under appeal in the Fourth District Court of Appeal. The appeal papers for this appeal were filed within the last three weeks and have been served on the City Attorney and the McMillin Companies’ counsel.” McNab ended his letter with a warning. “The grading and construction is being performed solely at the risk of the City of San Diego and the McMillin Companies.”
McNab recently launched one more salvo against the Naval Training Center development. On June 25, the city council met to deliberate on whether the property should be financed in part by Mello-Roos funding, which allows communities to raise money by taxing property owners within special districts. The city council, therefore, also considered how much property owners within the boundaries of the nascent Liberty Station will have to pay under Mello-Roos districting. McNab, who sees such an arrangement as one more handout from the city to McMillin (as one less financial obligation for the fortuitous developer), waited hours — along with six other opponents — to speak against the districting before the city counciL Regardless, the city council voted 7-1 in favor of Mello-Roos districting. Donna Frye was the sole councilperson opposed to the plan.
But McNab told me recently that he refuses to quit his crusade against the McMillin plan. “McMillin has more to deal with than our outstanding suits,” he vowed. “There are bodies buried everywhere when it comes to this deal, and we’re out there with shovels and we’ll keep digging.”
But as a June 16 U-T article by Neil Morgan declared, “City spokesmen dismiss the swelling opposition of some Point Loma residents’ as coming from a fringe group,” meaning McNab’s Save Our NTC. Either way, Corky McMillin isn’t worried; in the words of Byron Wear, he knows the “idiosyncrasies of San Diego.”