Doug Austin and his old, unexecuted design for a new U-T building. “I’ve always seen the paper as a beacon of the community,” he said.
Two years ago, Union-Tribune publisher, developer, and Republican kingpin Douglas Manchester put $356,000 into the campaign to make Kevin Faulconer mayor, and it didn’t take long for the political investment to pay off in a big way. In one of his first major appointments, Faulconer named architect Doug Austin to the city planning commission. “Mr. Austin is a widely renowned expert in urban development,” Faulconer announced in April, 2014. “He established his own firm over 32 years ago that focuses on planning, architecture and design.
Mr. Austin served as chair of Design and Construction Task Force for the city of San Diego’s Petco Park and Ballpark District as well as vice chairman of San Diego’s Center [sic] City Development Corporation.” Added the mayor, “He has been the recipient of over 100 Design Awards as well as several other awards for his contributions to his profession.” Unmentioned was the fact that Austin was a longtime architect for Manchester and his development projects in the city, including the real-estate mogul’s plan to replace what was then the U-T’s Mission Valley headquarters with a new office high-rise featuring a glowing lighthouse on top and a 24-hour news ticker around the parapet.
“I’ve always seen the paper as a beacon of the community, so it’s symbolic of that,” Austin was quoted by Manchester’s U-T as saying of his design. “It’s out there to be the eyes and ears of the community — it’s a light. That’s the big inspiration piece.” Then in May 2015, Manchester abruptly unloaded the newspaper to Chicago-based Tribune Publishing — now called tronc — for $85 million. Last September, after getting the controversial project through the planning commission, he sold the former newspaper building and its development permits to BBL Commercial Real Estate for something in the neighborhood of $50 million, news reports said.
Austin officially stood aside last year as Manchester’s high-profile Mission Valley proposal was making its way through the planning department, and recused himself from the commission’s vote of approval. But that wasn’t the case with another Manchester project, according to a stipulated agreement he signed with the city’s ethics commission earlier this month.
“On February 5, 2015,” the document says, Austin “participated in an item included on the docket at the Planning Commission meeting concerning a permit for a wireless communication facility located at the Grand Del Mar golf course. Both T-Mobile and Grand Del Mar Resort LP were identified as applicants on the permit application, and were therefore financially affected by the Planning Commission decision. Because Manchester Financial Group owned and controlled both Mission Valley Holdings and Grand Del Mar Resort LLP at the time of the Planning Commission decision, both entities were considered sources of income to Respondent and he was therefore required to disqualify himself from participating in this item.”
In addition, on his annual financial disclosure statement filed in March of last year, Austin “failed to disclose the individual sources of income of $10,000 or more he received,” including Mission Valley Holdings, Inc., the Manchester entity that was developing the land under the Union-Tribune. Only after being caught by ethics commission staffers last December did Austin amend his filings, agreeing to a $6000 fine while contending the matter was simply “an oversight and not intentional.”
Shortly after the city granted the Grand Del Mar its permits, resolving longstanding environmental and land-use violations at the property, Manchester sold the hotel and golf course in March 2015 to a group led by mega-millionaire Richard Blum, husband of Democratic U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein. The settlement by the ethics commission with Austin was agreed to and made public this June 9, conveniently two days after Faulconer was handily re-elected mayor.