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Centre City Development Corporation, the City’s downtown redevelopment organization, has been correctly accused of many things. Arrogance. Bullying. Conflicts of interest. Excessive pay and perks for employees. Loose contract policies. Being in the pocket of the real estate development industry. Now there is another: “It seems like [Centre City] once again wants to destroy African-American heritage in San Diego,” says Karen Huff-Willis, head of the Black Historical Society of San Diego.

She is referring to Centre City’s push for a major project, called “Seventh and Market.” It is planned to be a mixed-use, 41-story building with a 224-room hotel, 364 residential units (mostly rental, some condo), 19,000 square feet of retail space, and a public parking garage in the area bounded by Market Street and Seventh, Eighth, and Island avenues. The project has been given a number of extensions. Centre City hopes to have it in front of its board by late April or, more realistically, late May. The city council, ultimate boss of Centre City, has it tentatively penciled in for consideration in late May. That would happen only if the project gets the board’s nod late this month.

The City owns most of the property, but not one very important building: the Clermont Hotel at Island and Seventh avenues. This three-story structure, built in 1887, is an important part of San Diego’s African-American history. According to the Journal of San Diego History, the building was denied historical status by the City’s Historical Resources Board several times until Huff-Willis dug into its history. Among many things, jazz greats Charlie Parker and Jelly Roll Morton played and stayed there. It was the first hotel in the county to be recognized as segregated, or “colored only.” In 2001, the Clermont finally was officially cited as a city historical landmark. In 2005, the building got an official plaque recognizing the hotel’s unique role in San Diego’s African-American history. But the development team selected by Centre City refuses to include it in the Seventh and Market redevelopment project.

Huff-Willis has seen African-American heritage trampled before. The famed black-only Douglas Hotel at 206 Market Street, which had a restaurant, card room, barbershop, and billiard rooms, was razed in 1985. Demolished with it was the adjoining Creole Palace nightclub, which once had been alive with jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, Charleston music, and lots of wild dancing. Centre City declared the Douglas blighted and arranged to have it replaced with a four-story apartment structure.

Then, during the redevelopment push of recent years, Centre City took aim at a half-block on J Street that had once been the state’s largest contiguous landholding owned by African Americans. The buildings had belonged to Lillian and Ocie Grant. She was a madam of note. An irate Huff-Willis sued Centre City. “The suit got thrown out on a technicality. We were time-barred,” says Huff-Willis. “They tore the buildings down. It was horrible.”

Now she fears greed will triumph again under Centre City’s direction. In early 2004, the Clermont Hotel was purchased for $2.2 million by Larry Sidiropoulos, his law partner Anthony Laureti, and another lawyer, Ashley Abano. They brought in a developer, the Robert Green Company of Encinitas, to compete in Centre City’s plan to develop the City’s property. They wanted the project to include restoration of the hotel.

Centre City brought in William Jones, a former councilmember and deputy mayor, and currently president and chief executive of CityLink Investment Corporation, a small developer. A large New York developer, the Related Companies, was later recruited to do the heavy lifting. Jones is an African American. “William Jones is not qualified to be developer with respect to this project, certainly a high-rise, and Related has not done any projects in downtown San Diego,” says Huff-Willis. “[Centre City] was playing the race card. It thought if it brought an African American, a black face, into the project, it could get away with its shenanigans.” Jones did not return calls for comment.

Related and CityLink won the bidding last year, refusing to include the hotel but promising to honor African-American culture within the project. “[Centre City] said it would not work with the Black Historical Society. ‘You are the organization that gave us too much trouble,’ ” says Huff-Willis, whose organization now has a black history museum on Market Street, across the street from the proposed project.

“We have every intention of taking legal action if it goes forward,” she promises. “The very idea of developing a project next to an historic African-American site and not even including that hotel is…astonishing. Gall.”

“We could remodel the hotel, bring it back to its original condition, but we can’t do it without [financial] help,” says Sidiropoulos. In 2004, before Related was in the picture, Jones made an offer to the hotel owners, inviting them to come aboard in the bidding. But the two sides could not come to terms. Because of the frailty of the downtown real estate market, the lack of financing, and a delay in hiring a general contractor, “This is a big smokescreen,” says Sidiropoulos. “They will stall it out for two or three years [until] the market comes back. I just want to know the process was fair.”

Civic activist Ian Trowbridge agrees with Huff-Willis: In recruiting Jones, Centre City “was playing the race card,” he says. Moreover, “The Green proposal is better than the one they are about to accept. It gives the City more money up front.” The Related/Jones plans have been scaled down to resemble the more modest Green proposal. Trowbridge says the project was rigged from the outset.

After I made inquiries of Centre City about the deal, the developers came to Sidiropoulos and wanted to discuss buying density rights. (Because the project is large, the developers need more land to justify the size. Sidiropoulos and partners could sell them rights to expand.) “If we get [adequate] money from them, we could improve the building,” Sidiropoulos says. “But they have no plans to embody the hotel in their plan.”

Late last year, the City came to the Clermont owners and demanded changes in windows, electrical wiring, and the fire escape. As a result, only a handful of people are now living there, and the owners are not getting much income as they sink up to $300,000 into the upgrades. Huff-Willis thinks Centre City was behind the orders. “It’s a heckuva coincidence,” says Sidiropoulos.

As a developer, Jones has critics. Councilmember Donna Frye remembers when Jones and his lawyer came to her office during the Murphy administration. They wanted to build a mixed-use project in Linda Vista. “He [Jones] came in and said, ‘This is how much’ he needed for his project. He was furious that I would not agree to giving him $10 million. I was shocked. It was one of the most amazing meetings I’ve ever had. He got his [$10 million subsidy] from council over my strong protests. He didn’t do any traffic improvements, and after the project was built we had serious traffic issues.”

Both Huff-Willis and Trowbridge are suspicious of the long relationship between Related and Nancy Graham, president of Centre City. She was mayor, later head of downtown development, and then a private developer in West Palm Beach, Florida. As revealed in a Reader column of November 23, 2005, before she even came to San Diego, a successor mayor criticized Graham for her cozy relationship with Related. While she was mayor, her signature redevelopment project was done by Related’s big New York wing. When she went out on her own, she did business on a big project with Related’s Florida operation.

Graham says she disclosed this to the Centre City board. “I did not negotiate this [Seventh and Market deal],” she claims. “I was in a few meetings where we were not able to reach agreement.” It was the board that rejected Huff-Willis, she says. “The Black Historical Society wanted whoever was selected to give them space. It went before our board, and it chose not to do this.”

As to Related and Graham, “There was no relationship that presents us with a conflict,” says John Collum, Centre City’s senior project manager on Seventh and Market.

One big question is financing. Who would provide it in this downtown market? “The condo market is a little sad,” says Frank Alessi, Centre City’s chief financial officer. A little sad? “Hotel financing is not the best in the world, but it is better than condo.” Financing for rentals is better, he says. The board will approve the deal before the developers have to line up financing. “At day’s end, it should be doable.”

But not without a fight.

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Don Bauder April 24, 2008 @ 7:08 a.m.

Response to post #5: Donna Frye has a way of putting things accurately and creatively. Best, Don Bauder


iantrowbridge1 April 23, 2008 @ 12:16 p.m.

Anyone who knows how CCDC is run by Nancy Graham would have difficulty believing her claim that she was not involved in selecting Related. Why else would she make sure she told the Board that she didn't have a conflict of interest? The DDA with Related was on the CCDC Real Estate committee today and it will presumably be approved. However, once Related was given the right of exclusive negotiation with CCDC the project changed significantly to one that would not have been chosen in the first place. A classic bait and switch.


Don Bauder April 23, 2008 @ 12:36 p.m.

Response to post #1: Some people are calling it a classic bait and switch. Yes, you can bet it will be approved by the committee today. Best, Don Bauder


Fred Williams April 23, 2008 @ 1:38 p.m.

San Diego's downtown has been developed into the ground. There are so many condos now, and so many identically ugly buildings, that whatever distinction there used to be is lost.

Most of those new buildings are half vacant. The bubble has barely begun to burst. It will be years before they're actually occupied. In the meantime, what happens to the vacant and near vacant buildings? Will they be turned over to squaters? Will the few remaining residents have to pay outrageous HOA fees just to keep the elevators running?

When residents eventually move in, where are the amenities? Grocery stores are few and far between, and there aren't enough schools or open spaces. Let's not forget the lack of jobs downtown. Not everyone can have a government white collar job, but that's what the office buildings seem best suited for. We've driven our former east village manufacturing over to China.

Have we become a city of waitresses and waiters, chambermaids and butlers? Other professions seem to be on the decline. Certainly, other than government jobs, there are few good prospects for downtown employment.

The CCDC has led the way off this cliff.

We are fortunate to have a few dedicated citizens like Ian Trowbridge who take the time to monitor these agencies, since the local media does no more than reprint their press releases.

Unfortunately, those in power pointedly ignore people like Mr. Trowbridge, and the writers at the Reader.

Anyone who thinks San Diego has a bright future is just not paying attention.


Fred Williams


Don Bauder April 23, 2008 @ 3:13 p.m.

Response to post #3: You make several excellent points. The downtown condo market is in rough shape. Some buildings that were built as condos were switched to rentals even before they were completed. Some condo buildings are renting out units while unsuccessfully trying to sell the condos. Speculators who bought the condos in halcyon days are trying to rent their units out. You're right: local mainstream media ignore the topic. The Reader is trying to tell the truth about the glut downtown. A good question is whether there is still a need for CCDC. Don't half-empty or completely empty buildings send a message? They sure send a message to the market. I agree that Ian Trowbridge is an activist whom San Diego needs. Best, Don Bauder


Anon92107 April 25, 2008 @ 1:38 a.m.

Response to post #6:

If might help for The Reader to stick their neck out with covers that say loud and clear:





Don Bauder April 25, 2008 @ 6:31 a.m.

Response to post #7: Looks like a good bumper sticker to me. Best, Don Bauder


Anon92107 April 24, 2008 @ 5:03 a.m.

Response to post #2: Re "Some people are calling it a classic bait and switch. Yes, you can bet it will be approved by the committee today."

CCDC REComm is really just another San Diego Bloodsucker subcommittee, another consequence enabled by our corrupt judiciary.

I still remember one of Frye's best characterizations of San Diego politics as reported in a National Geographic feature article honoring her efforts to save San Diego, loosely interpreted as: San Diego - City where politicians and the U-T establishment produce more sewage than the entire population.


bhs April 25, 2008 @ 9:51 a.m.

If Nancy Graham had ever publically disclosed to the Black Historical Soceity that she had a prior financial relationship with Related or any other relationship with Related, we would never have allowed the deal to be approved without a major public fight over her relationship with Related and we would likely have sued over the issue. I feel duped!

Nancy Graham did actively participate in the selection process of Related and she had major input on the issue because I was in on several meetings with Graham and the Related project. I was shocked to hear her say he was not involved.

This issue was kept very quite over her prior relationship with related though. I repeat, we were unaware of Graham's relationship with Related, until the Reader informed us a couple of weeks ago. The Black Historcal Society did not miss a single meeting or subcommittee meeting on the RFPQ bid. And her relationship with Related never came up.



Don Bauder April 25, 2008 @ 10:57 a.m.

Response to post #9: I agree that some of these community development corporations should be investigated thoroughly. Their relationship with CCDC should be part of that investigation. I do not know the Golden Hills Group, but you can always tell me more at [email protected] Best, Don Bauder


Justice4all April 25, 2008 @ 10:35 a.m.

Nancy Graham and the rest of the CCDC string pullers (Fred Maas, Kim Kilkenny, Jennifer LeSar) are corrupt. When will everyone realize that people with conflicts of interest and agendas that benefit them should not be serving in this capacity? CCDC in a perfect world would be comprised on unbiased urban planners, not developers. Please read their biography info!


In any case, the CCDC should be dissolved, as the City Council is capable of deciding on projects and can actually be held accountable by elections. (Not to mention saving the $250k in Graham's riculous salary, plus benefits). The downtown is in a mid-stage of development and a CCDC is only needed in an early stage of development.


Don Bauder April 25, 2008 @ 11:05 a.m.

Response to post #10: I will vouch for you that you did not know about Graham's relationship with Related until you and I talked. Others have told me that Graham did indeed have influence on the decision, despite her claim that she only attended some meetings. Graham should have problems -- but remember, this is San Diego. CCDC is part of the developer-dominated cabal that runs City Hall, and has for years. Best, Don Bauder


Don Bauder April 25, 2008 @ 11:10 a.m.

Response to post #11: You are absolutely correct that CCDC is dominated by developers and not urban planners who are responsible to the public. And you are correct to suggest that CCDC has outlived its usefulness. You might add that it is silly to claim that downtown San Diego is blighted -- a designation that has to remain if redevelopment is to continue subsidizing developers. Best, Don Bauder


Fred Williams April 27, 2008 @ 7:27 p.m.

I was at Art Walk, which was wonderful until the end, when it became Art Wash.

Yes, thanks to groups like CCDC, there is funding for such cultural events. Thanks.

Unfortunately, the Center City Development Corporation was also a primary cheerleader and cohort of the greedy few who suck San Diego dry.

It was not dry at Art Walk, where a water main burst and, judging by the amount of sediment in the run off water, created a sink hole of some depth.

As scrambling artists moved their art work to the safety of the side walks, it's easy to point the finger at CCDC. So I will.

CCDC, diverted funding and attention away from our essential infrastructure. They helped flood out our cash flow and long term debt into the pockets and projects of the wealthy and well connected.

Many of those projects now seem misguided. Mean while our vital infrastructure has been ignored. Unless, of course, we borrow more money that will raise our taxes.

The CCDC had the gall to have a booth there at Art Walk, but while artists are required to be there in person with their work, CCDC relied on elderly female "volunteers" to speak for themn.

Guess the CCDC board was too busy this weekend to be at Art Walk, representing their work. (Perhaps they only go downtown on weekends for ball games? I would have liked to talk some sense into them, but they just sent some propaganda pamphlets on their wisdom and generousity.

Artists work might be flood damaged, I don't know. But I'm confident CCDC lost nothing on Art Walk.

Their booth hand nothing of real value, so I'm sure the lady volunteers didn't have to scramble out of the water.

There were brilliant displays of athleticism at the Art Wash, with San Diegans leaping over narrow expanses of rushing chocolate latte colored water.

A sad end to Art Walk. Otherwise, I was happy to attend and participate in this rare cultural event, (though I got sunburnt).



Don Bauder April 27, 2008 @ 8:02 p.m.

Response to post #15: CCDC is in the pockets of the big developers. Only city council can rein in CCDC. But council, with the lone exception of Donna Frye, is in the pockets of big developers. So is the mayor, the so-called "strong mayor." A puppet on a string is not strong. Best, Don Bauder


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