San Diego Business Journal

The defeat of the Barrio Logan community plan strikes a sour note with Mark Steele.

Steele is an architect with a practice in Barrio Logan, San Diego’s hub for U.S. Navy ship repair and new ship construction. In the weeks leading up to the June 3 election, he was part of the effort to convince San Diego voters to ratify the city-sponsored Barrio Logan plan by passing Propositions B and C.

The ship repair industry objected to the plan and spent an estimated

$1.4 million to put the Barrio Logan blueprint before San Diego voters and urge them to vote no. Voters did just that.

In the wake of the election, some land-use specialists and politicians suggest that what happened in Barrio Logan could mark a change in the way San Diegans play the development game.

“The results of this election disrupt the decades-long San Diego tradition of citizens being able to shape their own community plan,” Steele said recently. “The success of the moneyed interest that opposed the Barrio Logan plan would seem to put all other communities at risk now.”

The Barrio Logan vote was “an unprecedented action as far as I’m aware,” said Eric Naslund, a principal with

Studio E Architects downtown and former chairman of the San Diego Planning Commission. He was termed out of the latter job in May.

Joe LaCava, chairman of the La

Jolla Community Planning Association, agreed that the events were unprecedented, saying he doesn’t know whether

Barrio Logan was an anomaly or something more. Referendums are expensive; but a referendum, or the threat of a referendum, could be a “tool in the toolbox” for future planning fights, said LaCava, who runs the Avetterra development firm in La Jolla.

Democracy Vs. Democracy

And Sherri Lightner, who represents northern coastal communities on the San Diego City Council, said the process of putting together the Barrio Logan plan was “democracy in action at its best” and that she was unhappy to see it undone by business interests.

City planning in San Diego is done with the help of neighborhood advisory groups. There are 41 community planning groups in the city, for neighborhoods from San Pasqual Valley in the north to San Ysidro in the south.

The community planning group environment is one that enables people with differing opinions to work out compromises, Steele said. Along the way, he said, city staff members, environmental regulations and state law “temper” the community’s will. Issues not resolved there get resolved before the city’s Planning Commission and City Council.

Since he works as an architect, Steele has been a part of that process for decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, he worked on plans for the high-density neighborhood that was to surround the University Towne Center mall.

In the years after 2000, a group from Barrio Logan spent five years working with city staff to come up with new zoning for their neighborhood, which mixes heavy industry with housing. The city last updated Barrio Logan’s plan in 1978.

But Derry Pence, president of the Port of San Diego Ship Repair Association, said that City Hall did not adhere to its usual process in coming up with the Barrio Logan community plan.

The group that drew up the plan was not the typical community planning group but a stakeholder group that, Pence alleged, includes members from outside the neighborhood. Industry has not been happy with the presence of the Environmental Health Coalition.

Pence also said that city officials settled on a final plan in an irregular manner, and that two alternatives rather than one should have been presented to the City Council for a decision. Jerry Sanders, CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the same thing.

As things happened, the City Council narrowly approved the plan — the vote was 5-4 — in September. The ship repair industry said aspects of the plan were bad for business. They particularly objected to zoning that limited the possible growth of ship repair subcontractors in an area adjacent to the shipyards, and housing too close to the shipyards.

In the end, the shipbuilding industry and its allies gathered signatures for a citywide referendum on the plan, which appeared on the ballot as Propositions B and C — for which a “no” vote voided the City Council’s action.

Steele argued that it was wrong to have a community fine-tune its own plan, only to have people from other parts of the city judge it, particularly when residents of other neighborhoods lack a grasp of issues unique to that community.

Should Barrio Logan residents be able to weigh in on a planning issue in Rancho Bernardo, he asked. And hypothetically, if Rancho Bernardo citizens rejected a development in the middle of their community, could the developer go to the voters to overturn the will of the neighborhood?

A “Blunt Instrument’

The community plan process offers a detail-oriented, even granular approach to a problem, Steele said. By contrast, he said a referendum is a “blunt instrument.”

Election Day is not a day to have “a deep and nuanced discussion,” Naslund said, adding that Barrio Logan is a unique community, and that both sides of the issue — residents and industry — saw something to lose in the ballot fight.

In the future, Naslund and LaCava said residents might not want to spend an extensive amount of time in the community planning process if they believe it can be overturned at the ballot box.

Sanders acknowledged that there were 100 public meetings on the Barrio Logan plan and laid blame on City Hall leaders for politicizing the process. The former mayor also said there were wider issues at play, including jobs. What happens in Barrio Logan affects the region as a whole, he said.

Steele signed the ballot arguments in favor of Propositions B and C. He is president of MW Steele Group Inc., an architecture, urban planning and interior design firm based in Barrio Logan. He is a former chairman of the San Diego Planning Commission.

His wife, Dale Steele, has been part of an effort to get a farmers market running in a former boiler factory in Barrio Logan, a short walk from her husband’s architecture office.

BAE Systems, Continental Maritime and General Dynamics Nassco (NYSE: GD) all repair ships at their yards in Barrio Logan. Nassco, which also does new construction, announced a new commercial shipbuilding project on June 16. Shipyard subcontractors are also part of the neighborhood.