Visitors to downtown hotels are a piddling few. Residents of downtown condos are a piddling few. But that won’t stop the establishment from diddling taxpayers for more downtown development — a travesty because outlying parks, libraries, beaches, and other assets are in such bad shape.
As interviews reveal, conservatives and liberals alike believe that San Diego’s grand design to build up downtown while neglecting other areas has failed dismally: cleaning up and restoring parks and beaches, for example, would bring tourists and also boost residents’ quality of life. The hospitality industry should try to recruit families, not convention attendees who will get more of what they want (vice) in Las Vegas.
Although the City is broke, the focus remains on downtown. Mark Fabiani, propagandist for the Chargers, hails “a new willingness of the City of San Diego to work with us” in finding a downtown location for a football stadium. There is a big push to put a combined library/school next to the ballpark, thus providing infrastructure to be tapped by the Padres, whose $300 million–plus subsidy was apparently insufficient, even though this year’s average attendance is running lower than the last year at Qualcomm Stadium (2003). Despite the dismal tourism outlook and plunge in transient occupancy tax (hotel tax) receipts, the establishment pushes for an expansion of the convention center, perhaps accompanied by a City-financed hotel to compete with other severely ailing, subsidized hotels. Businesses will be assessed to put money in a business improvement district in East Village.
“The parks are dreadful,” says Bruce Henderson, former councilmember, a conservative. “We should have enhanced Balboa Park to make it more attractive to San Diegans as well as tourists. We should long ago have put underground parking at the zoo.” Over the years, says Henderson, moneybags “from outside San Diego came to take advantage of the financing and subsidies offered by the City of San Diego in the name of redevelopment. A few very greedy business people saw a power vacuum. John Moores did to San Diego what he did to Peregrine shareholders.” (Moores, the Texan who once almost entirely controlled the Padres and raked in a bundle on East Village real estate, was chairman of Peregrine Systems and dumped almost $500 million of his stock during the period when the books were cooked.) “Instead of more livable, they made San Diego less livable.”
As to the Chargers, Henderson says there is no room for a stadium downtown “unless they want to hang it on a skyhook above the convention center or build a vertical stadium. They need 100 to 150 acres to build a new stadium and a vast panoply of other related facilities, but those days are gone.” The Chargers, who really want to move to Los Angeles, have been going through the motions in Chula Vista, Oceanside, and downtown because “they have to demonstrate to National Football League owners that they are making an effort to work with the community. The league wants to avoid a backlash in which Congress enacts punitive legislation to stop teams from moving to other cities.”
The push to build a downtown library/school “is a money grab by developers,” says Councilmember Carl DeMaio, another conservative. “The dirty secret” is that the school will need parking for 400 to 700 people and have 30 parking spots. “I pressed [administration officials] and was told that the students can park across the street in a private garage that John Moores owns.” The $80 million in redevelopment funds that Centre City Development Corporation proposes to put into the library “should be used for vital public services — underfunded services citywide.”
Liberals feel the same way. Says Steve Erie, professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego, “San Diego has a different way of doing development. We put all of our eggs in the downtown [Centre City Development Corporation] basket. Places like Los Angeles and San Francisco have spread the tax-increment public investment to the neighborhoods. We have also put too many eggs in the tourism basket; we have produced a welter of low-wage jobs without fringe benefits.”
He cites a classic example: San Diego took the old Naval Training Center and basically converted it to upscale housing. There was some historical preservation, but not much for the citizenry or visitors to enjoy. By contrast, San Francisco converted the Presidio into a park with 800 acres of open space, 145 acres of native plant communities, and 300 acres of forest. There are 870 structures at the Presidio, and 470 are historic — buildings from the days of yore. The facility attracts 5 million visitors a year. “San Francisco is much more devoted to public facilities,” says Erie. “Look at the transportation system. They really guard the public space and value it; we don’t.”
Continues Erie, “Our own crown jewels are at risk: parks, beaches. Balboa Park may be headed into privatization. There will be naming rights and neon signs everywhere.” Erie’s book, Paradise Plundered: Fiscal Crisis and Growth Politics in San Diego, will come out next year.
“Downtown redevelopment has been at the expense of the neighborhoods, public spaces, and libraries,” says Mike Davis, a Golden Hill resident who is a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside and coauthor of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See. Redevelopment funds were originally for such purposes as affordable housing but were “hijacked” by downtown developers. San Diego “has the most backward redevelopment program in the whole state.” The overwhelming emphasis has been on “high-end residential” while other cities stress affordable housing. In San Diego, “The naked fact is that downtown has been a black hole of tax-increment financing, self-government by the downtown landowners and business interests with minimum concessions to the neighborhoods.” In Los Angeles and San Francisco, “There were big revolts against tax-increment financing and redevelopment; [those cities] had to pay some tribute to social needs.”
Says Norma Damashek, president of the League of Women Voters, “Balboa Park is for citizens but is a huge draw for tourists. We are letting that go. Mission Bay is a disaster, a pollution pit. We don’t take care of assets that bring tourists. The City never solved the storm-water drainage problem, and that has had a negative impact on the beaches. The money is going into the pockets of major moneymaking interests.”
Councilmember Donna Frye has fought for years to make Centre City Development Corporation pay back the money it owes the City rather than launch new downtown projects. She wants more money for neighborhoods. “I would argue that safe neighborhoods, safe parks, amenities are ways to promote tourism and also benefit the people who live here,” says Frye.
Sums up Davis, “San Diego has become an icon as the downtown that works — the most successful example of redevelopment on the coast. My opinion is that it is little short of disastrous.”