“Papa Doug’s” Got a Brand New Bag: the UT Goes All In For Big and Shiny Downtown San Diego

by on January 24, 2012 · 10 comments

in Culture, Economy, Environment, Media, Popular, San Diego

Artist rendering of Papa Doug's master plan for San Diego's waterfront: new stadium and expanded convention center. Published in U-T on 1/23/12.

There was little doubt in anybody’s mind that developer Doug Manchester’s purchase of San Diego’s daily newspaper would result in a new wave of grand plans and big box economic boosterism. And this last Sunday’s newspaper, replete with a front page editorial and a special opinion section (printed on higher quality paper for those who might want to preserve the words of wisdom contained therein) did not disappoint.

Clearly the visionaries in Papa Doug’s planning sessions for this outburst of expansionist thinking heeded the call to go Bigger, more Badass and Bolder at every turn. Take a look for yourself here.

New football stadium? Check. Bigger Convention Center? Check. New Sports Arena? Check. Concessions for Organized Labor? Check.  Sops to the Coastal Commission? Check. New home for the San Diego ‘Wings’ sculpture that nobody seems to want on the waterfront? Check (I think). Vague promises about how this project will improve life for people living in communities of color? Check. The only two things I couldn’t find in the plan were a location for the urban SuperWalmart that we urgently needed so badly last year and a new City Hall building. I’m guessing if that City Council President Tony Young endorses this plan, they’ll find a place for the Walmart.

What the SDUT’s plan does is take a bunch of ideas, dial them up a notch and roll them into one. Of course just how this will all be paid for is another question, but the answer seems to lie in combining a series of “revenue measures” that lie just outside the realm of what the Taxpayer Association would term as tax increases. Assumption after assumption (so many ifs!) are piled on top of each other leaving the casual reader with the impression that the funding for this is completely doable as long as we trust in the creative financing plans of America’s Finest City’s powerbrokers. Do take the time to peruse the details here.  Scott Lewis over at Voice of San Diego also ponders the money question here.

I don’t know if the term “house of cards” exists in the lexicon of Papa Doug’s financial advisors for this project, but it should.

One example: IF the City can prevail in its lawsuit over the polluted (can you spell Superfund?) soil under Qualcomm Stadium, assuming that the defendants don’t declare bankruptcy, and the real estate market makes a strong recovery, then San Diego might find itself with a hundred million or so left over after it pays off the existing debt on the stadium.

Another: IF the City can find a buyer for the land underneath the old Sports Arena, persuade Viejas to give up their lease (no cost mentioned here) and the Coastal Commission agrees to suspend the 30 foot limitation on new developments for that project, then there could be more money for the grand plan.

Then there are the unannounced costs and questionable assumptions that go along with each of the components of this vision.  Take any version of the San Diego Convention Center expansion, for instance. Despite mounting evidence that this kind of development often bases its promises of returns on flawed or falsified date (good examples here), and that the taxpayers are ultimately directly or indirectly subsidizing these deals, we are just asked to accept by the SDUT that the Convention Center Expansion is desirable or even needed.

And I’ll go one step further by making an educated guess that many infrastructure related costs are not even included in the Papa Doug “I have a dream” scenario. To their credit, the editorial gang at the SDUT admits that there are likely some unanticipated problems with this plan. But we’re asked to buy into the vision anyway, for the good of our fair city, as these problems are just speed bumps of the road to progress. As they say in their editorial:

 Within our reach is a world-class city with a downtown that is both aesthetically striking and economically thriving — an engine for growth and jobs, a magnet for tourism and new investment, and so much more.

 As the risk of being defined by Manchester’s minions as being in the class of  “naysayers obsessed with the city’s rocky recent history and by skeptics who think this recent history has trapped us in mediocrity”, let me say “hold your horses!”, “Whoa!” or even “Are you kidding me?”.

Let’s back up all the way past the first assumption made by our newly enfranchised Grand Planners, the one that says that we all agree that further mega development downtown is such a great idea.

We don’t all agree that Bigger, More Badass and Bolder are they way to go for a Better San Diego. We see our streets filled with potholes, our libraries operating at diminished capacity, our public employees being scapegoated for past bad financial practices and we have to wonder just how it is that putting up big shiny structures is gonna solve those problems–especially when promises of past “windfalls” from additional property tax revenues have been consistently diverted from City services.

The absence of any informed discussion about whether further public support of developing downtown is just the start of questions that need to be posed here. How about: “Is this really a viable economic model, given the restructuring of our retail economy that’s underway?”  What about the thought that local clustering and/or neighborhood based micro economies can be a viable developmental model?

The point here is that I think it’s wrong for a developer, even one without overtly vested interests, that should be allowed to cheerlead a developmental plan for this City that does not look at the needs of the Whole City and just not Downtown.  (The article contained this disclaimer–Editor’s note: U-T San Diego Chairman and Publisher Douglas F. Manchester, a hotel developer and owner, no longer owns the hotels adjacent to the existing Convention Center and has no interest in any hotels or other components proposed in this editorial.)

Here’s one example by the San Diego Foundation of some forward thinking about our City’s future that takes a passing interest in what the citizens of our city think. Visit the link and give them your input.

And let us know what you think in the comments below.

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