San Diego San Diego wants to build up, not out. Single-family detached homes will become historical artifacts. High-rises will mushroom out of the ground. But will it work? The infrastructure to support the population growth doesn't exist. Highways are clogged, and widening them will only spur more development and lead to more road rage. Transit is far behind the curve. Water and sewer systems are ancient. Shouldn't developers leave town until San Diego rebuilds its infrastructure?
Not according to the Sanders administration. Without question, it is aiming to turn Montgomery Field over to developers of high-rises. Here are questions San Diegans must ask: What's the Sanders time line? Three years? Ten? Does the City have the water and sewer systems to support such a project? Will traffic tie-ups paralyze an area that is already a driver's nightmare? Will the City try to use tax increment financing -- disingenuously declaring the area blighted? Will the development be residential? Commercial? A combination of the two? Should the City be repairing the antique sewer and water systems downtown before it embarks on more expansions elsewhere?
If Montgomery is developed, will land values in the surrounding Kearny Mesa area soar? Will Kearny Mesa homeowners join the cabal of developers, media, bankers, retailers, and chamber of commerce cheerleaders pressuring and bankrolling politicians into approving more development? Will Montgomery be a financial flop for city coffers as the conversion of the Naval Training Center has been? Will the Montgomery project be an economic drain like downtown -- that is, the City subsidizes condominiums, which are then inordinately purchased by people who spend only a small part of the year in San Diego, contributing little to the economy?
One argument is that selling Montgomery would help the City through its financial crisis. Early this year, the San Diego Institute for Policy Research, a think tank run by former mayoral candidate Steven Francis, asked 503 randomly selected San Diegans how they would prefer to deal with the crisis: would they sell off assets or raise taxes? A full 61.8 percent said selling assets such as Montgomery would be their first (37.7 percent) or second (24.1 percent) choice. Only 12 percent opposed this stratagem, although many financial experts warn that selling off juicy assets to skate past a crisis is self-destructive in the long run. Raising taxes was the first or second choice of only 44.7 percent of those polled.
Erik Bruvold, president of the think tank, says it's time for the City to consider shedding assets such as Montgomery. Francis says the City, owner of the 500-plus acres, is in effect subsidizing the airport users -- a dubious practice, he says, when the land is quite valuable.
I'm glad he brought up that word "subsidy." It's what feeds San Diego developers. The downtown ballpark deal was a massive subsidy for developers, as was the conversion of the Naval Training Center to residences. The bottom line is that Mayor Jerry Sanders was put in office by developers, and they want to reap their expected benefits. "San Diego is a developer's wet dream," says Steve Erie, political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. Historically, there has been a snug relationship between the City's politicians and developers. Too often, particularly in redevelopment projects, "The public bears the cost and the developer gets the profits," says Murtaza Baxamusa, director of research and policy with the Center on Policy Initiatives.
"What we know is that normally in San Diego, all developments are subsidized by the general taxpayers," says Jim Mills, former president pro tem of the California Senate.
"Throughout the county, the developers are the dominant interest," says Michael Shames, executive director of Utility Consumers' Action Network.
Does San Diego have the infrastructure to support a Montgomery project? Shames says there should be no problem with electric power, telecommunications, or sewer and water. While many sewer pipes and mains downtown date back to the 19th Century, "The sewer and water mains in the Montgomery Field and Kearny Mesa area are relatively new. Most of the infrastructure is paid for by the developer. They will be hooking into mains that are already there. However, the highway system in that area is gridlocked. There is no high-speed or light rail."
"Gridlocked" may be a euphemism. "It's next to impossible to get to Montgomery Field now," says Erie. "Coming in off 805, it is a field sobriety test. I was stone-cold sober at the time, and I had to make U-turns off 805 to get to Montgomery, and it will get worse if there are going to be nine-to-five corporate jobs centers there" or multistory homes.
Bruvold, president of Francis's think tank, insists traffic won't be that big a problem. "Remember, Kearny Mesa was designed and planned as home to our [then] biggest employer, General Dynamics. It is served by three major freeways -- 52, 163, and 805 -- and several major arterials. Probably no other area in the county has the kind of infrastructure that could accommodate higher intensities of use," he says.
How will the new development be financed? Declaring the area blighted, and then using tax increment financing, is the usual route. "It is not a blighted area; it would be a misuse of redevelopment, but the City has to have the means to provide a good deal of the money for public services, because the developers won't pick up the full cost of developing," says activist Norma Damashek.
Redevelopment should be for "low-income, neglected areas," says Baxamusa of the Center on Policy Initiatives. Taking "a prime piece of real estate and converting it to redevelopment" subsidizes developers at the public's expense.
The City will probably go for "redevelopment and tax increment financing," says Alan Gin, economist at the University of San Diego. "The record is mixed, but just because there have been problems in the past doesn't mean they will screw it up again. Perhaps they have learned something."
Would out-of-towners buy second and third homes at Montgomery and then spend little time and money in San Diego, as has happened downtown? Gin doubts it. "Downtown you could tell a story: walking to the Gaslamp, access to the harbor. Kearny Mesa is less attractive," he says.
At one point, 30 to 40 percent of downtown condos were purchased by speculators or out-of-towners, including Zonies and snowbirds, Europeans, Asians, and Mexicans. "Living and walking around downtown, I note all the high-rise condos that I know are completely sold out, but only about one-third of them are ever lit up at night," says Kelly Cunningham, economist for the San Diego Institute for Policy Research. The City gets little in sales taxes, but these part-time residents pay property taxes while not using many public sector services, says Cunningham.
He favors Montgomery development but concedes that the City has let the infrastructure go to hell: "As a downtown resident enduring weak water flows and occasional disruptions, I agree that it would be nice to see failing sewer and water pipes repaired, especially with all the property taxes paid by us downtown residents."
Like all others interviewed, he doubts that Montgomery will be a rerun of downtown redevelopment: homes will probably be sold mainly to those living in San Diego full-time.
But one thing is almost certain: the Montgomery project will be sold to the public as affordable housing. "They say they will build workforce housing, but they never do," says Damashek.
The big question: will pilots and environmentalists block the project in court? Some are working on it now.