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Monday, Feb 6, 2023
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Councilmen Add Polish To Tarnished Image of City

A new year, a new strong mayor, and two new city councilmen in place have many in the business community hoping that the bad old days that have plagued San Diego for so long will soon be a fading memory.

With Jerry Sanders officially in place as the city’s first strong mayor, and the City Council finally free of vacancies, the honeymoon appears to be well under way.

On Jan. 23, Kevin Faulconer and Ben Hueso were formally sworn in to finish up the terms of Michael Zucchet, who represented the 2nd District and Ralph Inzunza, the 8th District.

The 2nd District includes Downtown, Point Loma, the beach communities and Old Town; while the 8th District includes Barrio Logan, Otay Mesa, San Ysidro and the Tijuana River Valley.

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Both districts are considered to be emerging economic engines for the entire county, and many business leaders seem to be relieved that leadership voids have now been filled.


A Broader Perspective

“It’s been somewhat stagnant for some time,” said Doug Wilson, the president and chief executive officer of the Douglas Wilson Cos., and a major Downtown developer who also has South County projects in the pipeline. “To have a full council is a good thing. I think having Kevin’s presence is good. I’ve known him for some time, and I am impressed. He seems to be a very thoughtful, even-handed conscientious individual. That is refreshing, and he seems very focused on representing his district. Downtown is one of the economic engines for that district.”

In the 8th District, Cindy Gompper Graves, the CEO of the South County Economic Development Council, said: “The region is growing in South County and Ben has an opportunity to capture this energy and be part of it. We are thrilled to have a voice once again for south San Diego.”

She credits Hueso for his business savvy, and said that her group would be working with him “to capture the economic benefits of a third border crossing in Otay Mesa and to address infrastructure needs in San Ysidro.”

Wilson said of Hueso: “I’ve met him, but don’t really know him. By reputation, he seems to be well-respected. Barrio Logan abuts Downtown, and is an important part of Downtown. We have to be respectful of its heritage, which is unique.”

But while all the districts should be properly represented, he said, they all should keep an eye on the big picture.

“I personally think it’s important for all of these districts to understand that they are a portion of the greater city,” said Wilson. “I’ve always been a little concerned about strong district representation. They all must work together to be a successful city.”

Sherm Harmer, co-founder of the San Diego-based Urban Housing Partners, Inc., a redevelopment firm specializing in urban mixed-use projects, considers the 2nd District to be the centerpiece of San Diego.

“I am thrilled to have that seat be reoccupied,” he said. “We’ve had several meetings with Kevin Faulconer, and he understands that Downtown is not just for a few people who live and work here, but it’s a great regional asset.”


Long-Term Visions

A major issue looming in the 2nd District is the Centre City Development Corp.’s community plan update that is set to go before the City Council for final approval on Feb. 21. The plan, last revised in 1992, is designed to guide Downtown’s growth and development through 2030.

“We need to get the community plan update finished, and incentives put in place for more parks, and for affordable housing,” said Harmer. “All this is in the new plan. This is critical. It’s been through 30 community groups, and has been in the planning stage for three years.”

Faulconer calls the plan update “a critical document.”

“It lays out in my mind how we put all of the pieces of this puzzle together , jobs, housing, schools, entertainment, all of these are the keys for us as an urban core. My job is to ensure the best possible document. We need to keep the momentum going,” he added.

Nancy Graham is another new leader in the city, having replaced Peter Hall as CCDC’s president and chief operating officer. She, too, is optimistic about the district now that it has full-time representation again.

“I have been having positive meetings with Kevin, and they have been extremely productive,” she said.

But Graham, who once served as West Palm Beach, Fla.’s mayor, added, “With the strong mayor system, we need to make sure we run anything by the mayor first to see that’s where we want to go on certain things, as well as by the City Council.”

In the 8th District, Graham also hopes to foster better relations with neighborhoods that are now, or are likely to be, impacted by Downtown development.

“I really want to work closer with Ben and the surrounding neighborhoods, to be better neighbors,” she said. “What we do does have an impact.”


Building Borders

A debate that continues to simmer in the 8th District is the issue of employment land being jeopardized by encroaching residential development. While this has been especially sensitive in Otay Mesa, it also impacts areas around the port, Barrio Logan and Golden Hill, said Graham.

“It’s an important issue,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of wonderful waterfront here, but it’s important to keep jobs. They don’t want to lose jobs. We’ve been working with the Working Waterfront folks to give them a comfort level and help solve some of the issues.”

Her plan is to bring all of the players together, along with designers, to work out visually attractive buffers that would help balance the needs of employment land and residential development.

“We need to do more collaboration, and I want to work with the council district to do that,” said Graham.

Linda Greenberg, senior vice president in the Downtown office of Colliers International, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based firm that sells and leases nonresidential properties, also is concerned about the potential impact of housing on employment land.

“How does it coexist with the existing industrial, which to a very large extent support shipyards and the Navy?” she asked. “They can’t be moved to Otay or another sub-market. We need those jobs and the shipyards need the services. The shipyards and Navy have no location alternatives, other than completely leaving San Diego.”

Rick Otis, the president and chief executive officer of RPM Material Handling Co. in Otay Mesa and a past president of the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce, is a seasoned 8th District activist and observer.

“A lot of people in Otay Mesa say, ‘No residential, it won’t mix with the industrial setting.’ That’s being shortsighted,” he said. “There is a gigantic need in this community for more housing.

“How does the community with Ben Hueso, Mayor Sanders and others in the planning process make it the best there is for the community, so you don’t upset people in the community, because the trucks are driving down the street?” Otis asked. “This will be a major thing coming down the pike in the next two years. Everyone has to get in a room together and work out the best possible scenario.”

Otis has even come up with a possible scenario of his own to solve this dilemma, and find a way to fund the completion of the long-anticipated state Route 905. The route will connect Interstates 5 and 805 to the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, the only commercial vehicle crossing serving San Diego and Tijuana, according to the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional association of 18 cities and the county government. Hand the problem to the housing developers, he said.

“They can help build 905 out as mitigation to help build the rooftops,” said Otis. “If there is enough money in their deals to help build 905, there is a solution.”

Stath Karras, the president and CEO of Burnham Real Estate, said the solution is all a matter of balance.

“If you drive too far in any direction, it will impact the others,” he said. “It’s not mutually exclusive. If you keep pushing residential at the expense of commercial growth, there will be no employers, and no jobs. You have to keep everything in balance.

“It’s the cyclical nature of business and the economy,” he said. “During a recession, everyone gets on the bandwagon for employment growth, and the rules of engagement become more business friendly. When we start to prosper, everyone focuses on the negative side of growth.”

For Hueso’s part, he said he hopes to find a way to serve both residential and industrial needs in his district.

“If you look at San Ysidro, and the Tijuana River Valley, Nestor, Otay Mesa , this is a very, very large area, and it’s pretty much very underutilized,” he said. “There is potential for growth, and it has an airport connected to it. There are a lot of opportunities to attract business well served by a small community airport. It’s such a large area, that we could set aside some of it for light industrial use, with spaces for retail opportunity, office space, and some opportunity for housing as well.”

But, said Hueso, who lives in Logan Heights, he wants to do it right.

“I have firsthand experience of mixing residential and industrial in the Logan Heights area,” he said. “I do not want to duplicate the problem in the Otay Mesa area.”


Housing Needs

Matthew Adams, the vice president of governmental affairs for the Building Industry Association of San Diego, also calls for a balance between residential and industrial lands.

“We have to ensure an appropriate supply for both, to ensure economic competitiveness and ability to attract and retain companies, and provide the necessary housing opportunities for people who are here and coming here,” he said. “It’s always a struggle to find equilibrium.

“We need a realistic analysis of land that is zoned for employment and for residential,” he added. “There is plenty of land in San Diego, but the government has done a fine job of limiting where you can build and where you can’t. The government holds the key, and it’s up to them to do the job and ensure that there is appropriate land for both.”

Commented Faulconer: “I always believed that incentives play a big part in this , density bonuses. The carrot usually works better with a stick if you encourage a particular type of housing , adequate and viable work force housing.”


Time Is Money

San Diego’s building community also has been vocal about what it considers to be excessive rules, regulations and permits, adding time and money to every project.

“Regulations are important, but I think people deserve some clear rules to the game,” said Faulconer. “To the extent that we can streamline the process is important. Time is money. I don’t want to shortchange the necessity for public and environmental reviews, we have to follow the rules. But we have to be able to say with certainty, ‘You know what to expect in terms of a timeline.’ ”

Wilson said he just wants everyone to work together to find “reasonable, balanced solutions, and not impose limitations and quotas that are not economically viable.”

“It’s important to keep our eye on the ball,” he said. “Costs have come up so much with these projects, it’s not like 52 buildings are going to be built next year. It won’t happen. The pause button has been pressed. But it’s not Armageddon.

“We are in a sea change, and that’s a good thing,” Wilson added. “It’s been too frenzied, and there have been a lot of not-ready-for-prime-time players getting involved. We must separate the wheat from the chaff. Those of us who have been through these numerous cycles understand all that.”


Taking On Tourism

Faulconer lists among his top priorities the fiscal reform of a city that has been sinking in a swamp of pension and budget woes, in addition to coping with federal investigations and scandal.

“Until our financial house is in order, we are not going to have money that is desperately needed for services, street repairs, park maintenance, clean beaches, cops on the street,” he said.

As for the hospitality industry overall, Faulconer said he intends to foster a good relationship.

“Tourism is one of the strongest economic engines in the city, and certainly this district,” he said. “I have a good relationship with the tourism industry, and will work with them to come up with some creative solutions, so they can take control of their own destiny.

“We’ve seen TOT (transient occupancy tax) dollars for marketing decrease over the last several years, and the tourism industry is trying to see how they can be creative,” he said. “The city needs to work with them to find a good solution that ensures that we don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Faulconer also hopes to convince national companies to locate their headquarters in his district.

“We’ve had tremendous residential growth Downtown, but I would like to see headquarters Downtown, too,” he said. “We will work with the EDC (San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp.) and the chamber (San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce), who have made that a priority. Downtown is only halfway what it will ultimately become.”


Fair Shares

Faulconer, who referred to himself as an outspoken critic of the city’s tendency “of robbing Peter to pay Paul,” plans to ring some other chimes, too.

“It’s indicative of a larger problem in our municipal government, where we’ve had a variety of budget shell games all going on at the same time,” he said. “The effect is bad management, no internal controls, and simply not providing resources where they need to go.”

Hueso also intends to fight for what he considers to be money that was earmarked for the city, but, in this case, redirected by the governor to other programs around the state.

“We need to go to Sacramento and fight to get that money back,” he said. “I’m working with local legislators and representative bodies so we can go to Sacramento and get our fair share. The city supported the governor, and the governor needs to support the city.”


Going Global

Hueso, whose other priorities include border issues, said he intends to work with U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, billed on his Web site as “California’s border congressman,” to forge better relations with Mexico.

“We’re trying to reach out to Mexico and its elected leaders over human health and safety issues, economic development issues,” said Hueso. “It’s important to our region.”

Hueso takes a decidedly international view when he speaks of his district. He calls the Otay Mesa Community Plan, now in the works, “a great tool to attract business,” and one that he hopes will be “a global community plan.”

“We need an international community-type environment, and businesses that want to do business globally,” he said. “We want to include mass transit into the area as well.

“If you create the infrastructure, it will attract business,” said Hueso. “We have zones that give businesses incentives in my district, and I plan to make businesses aware of these incentives, and try to attract more infrastructure dollars, federal and state.”


New Chapter

Come June 6, Faulconer and Hueso will have to compete for their seats all over again in the regularly scheduled election.

Their predecessors, Zucchet and Inzunza, resigned from office following their July 18 convictions on corruption charges. Zucchet later was acquitted of seven of nine charges, and was granted a new trial on the remaining two. The U.S. attorney’s office still could pursue an appeal of the acquittals.

But those bad old days, too, appear to be fast receding into San Diego’s past, while the city’s business leaders seem intent to focus on the future.

Burnham Realty’s Karras, looking ahead to the rest of the year, struck a philosophical tone.

“We’ve been a dysfunctional city and grown in spite of ourselves,” he said. “Now, we have a new mayor and new councilmen, who are viewed as a team who want to enhance the prosperity of business in San Diego, and allow them to grow.

“Before, you didn’t have that element, and now you do,” he added. “What impact will that have? I think it will be positive. We’ve had growth in spite of a city that hasn’t made it easy for business.”

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