The future of Civic San Diego, the city-run nonprofit tasked with handling projects downtown, is in doubt.
Last week a bill advanced through a state Assembly committee that would dramatically rein in Civic San Diego’s authority.
It’s only one of the speed bumps Civic San Diego has hit in recent months, and local leaders have become pretty clearly divided over how much of a role the group should have going forward.
To look forward – that is, to wildly prognosticate about what the future holds for Civic San Diego – let’s look back. Here’s how we got where we are.
Jump back to late 2013. Civic San Diego, born from the ashes of redevelopment in 2012 to handle urban renewal downtown, was already facing an identity crisis.
The nonprofit wanted to take over planning and permitting authority, which was and still is in the hands of city employees, in neighborhoods like Encanto and City Heights. Its claim was that it could lower the cost of building there by issuing permits faster, and attract private investment to help subsidize new development in the area.
Doing that would have required negotiations with the union representing city planners. That still hasn’t happened.
Civic San Diego’s president bowed out in February last year,replaced by developer Reese Jarrett a few months later.
The organization has been putting out fires ever since.
Last October, City Council considered hemming Civic San Diego’s authority whenever it tries to take on new debt. The Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committeevoted to give Civic San Diego the benefit of the doubt and let it keep going through this spring.
Around the same time, Civic’s board chair, Cynthia Morgan (disclosure: Morgan is a new member of Voice of San Diego’s board of directors), tried to pass a gag rule that would bar any other members of the board from discussing Civic-related issues with other elected officials. Two board members had previously voiced concerns about the organization to a Council office.
On March 5, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez took up the City Council’s battle to rein in Civic San Diego and give Council members final say on its decisions – more on that in a bit.
The turbulence worsened the following month. Morgan, then Civic San Diego’s treasurer, and CFO/COO Andrew Phillips both resigned. Board member Murtaza Baxamusa, along with the San Diego County Building & Construction Trades Council, filed a lawsuit to clarify “CivicSD’s responsibilities and potential conflicts of interest.”
Donna Frye, president of Californians Aware and an ex-City Councilwoman wrote an op-ed wary of Civic’s power:
“In the absence of information from Civic or anyone else, we could all sit and speculate about what is going on. Or we could start asking our elected officials to explain to us how this city-owned nonprofit works and also provide us with the documents showing that the structure they created is legal.”
Go East, Young Man
This is all a dramatic departure from the conversation Civic San Diego supporters want to be having: whether it can spur development in neighborhoods other than downtown.
Civic San Diego points to its ability to process permits faster than city planners. But as Joe LaCava, chair of the Community Planners Committee, put it, Civic works downtown, and the other neighborhoods it wants to move into aren’t like downtown.
“When you go to other communities, it’s totally different,” LaCava told Andrew Keatts. “People like where they live. They think their quality of life is pretty high. Out in the neighborhoods, there isn’t universal agreement for what the future should look like.”
Civic San Diego had an important, ardent supporter early on in this fight. While campaigning for her District 4 seat, which includes Encanto, Councilwoman Myrtle Cole spoke up in favor of allowing Civic San Diego to intervene in her district’s neighborhoods.
“We want to make the permitting process more streamlined, to attract developers and that’s what Civic San Diego will be doing, and that will help, because investors did not want to come into our district because it took them so long to develop and it cost them so much,” she said in a KPBS interview in May 2013.
Cole re-upped that support as recently as when Jarrett was confirmed by City Council as new head of the group, in September last year.
Cole hasn’t publicly yanked back that support. But she’s being awfully restrained about it now that Civic San Diego’s under fire from Gonzalez.
Here’s how Gonzalez framed things when she introduced her bill to give City Council final say on Civic San Diego decisions:
Gonzalez’s office says the organization’s “potential authority to dramatically engineer the future of neighborhoods with little supervision or accountability presents a serious conflict of interest.”
She said Civic San Diego is currently operating in a legal gray area anyway.
“I think we’re protecting the city from itself,” she said. “The city won’t be happy, but we’re putting in place a way for Civic San Diego to continue to operate in a legal fashion.”
Gonzalez’s play had another angle as well: It could help local labor unions. When approving new projects, the City Council could make certain wage or other labor standards a condition of approval.
It’s a similar battle to what went down in 2010, when the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, then run by Gonzalez, and Democrats on the City Council pushed a resolution that would have given the Council final say on building any downtown hotel with more than 100 rooms.
“The idea,” Keatts wrote, “was to give the Democrat-controlled Council authority to approve new hotels, so it could reject those that didn’t pay enough. Though it wouldn’t have mandated hotels to unionize, it would have made it far more likely.”
Progressives in town didn’t take too kindly to Keatts’ highlighting of the similarities, but Gonzalez herself said yes, the bill was mainly about protecting workers, a cause close to her heart and political career.
And again, rather pointedly, Cole has backed away from her outspoken support of welcoming Civic San Diego into Encanto. Her office issued a bland statement this Thursday (what, with all the reporters clamoring for comment):
“As Chair of the Economic Development & Intergovernmental Relations Committee, the matter of Civic San Diego’s oversight will come before my Committee in June and I will address strengthening the Council’s oversight where applicable at that time.”
And now here we are. Gonzalez’s bill cleared the Assembly’s Local Government Committee on Thursday, legislation Mayor Kevin Faulconer and various business leaders have said they’ll lobby against. From City News Service:
“Civic San Diego has long served as catalyst for positive change in San Diego, helping to create jobs and build affordable housing,” Faulconer told reporters. “Communities like Encanto need Civic San Diego to help them succeed, and we can’t let Sacramento stop our progress with one unnecessary bill.”
Next step? Gonzalez’s bill should go before the full Assembly within a month.