More On Civic San Diego: The Push-Back Begins and Just Who Are the Stakeholders?

by on March 17, 2015 · 2 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, Economy, Environment, History, Media, Politics, San Diego

san diego snowEditor: Our online media partner, the San Diego Free Press, has of late been shining a spotlight on Civic San Diego. In doing so, it has been providing much needed observation, commentary and discussion on the activities of this separate organization, a nonprofit that is unaccountable to the voters of the city, but that is in charge, apparently, of San Diego’s future.

Here below is Doug Porter’s Pushback on Civic San Diego Accountability: Here Comes the “Uncertainty” Ploy published on March 16th and Anna Daniels’ Civic San Diego and Its Stakeholders published today, March 17th.


Pushback on Civic San Diego

by Doug Porter

A showdown is in the works over community input on plans by Civic San Diego to absorb neighborhoods beyond downtown for permitting and planning development projects. For the moment we’re talking about Encanto and City Heights. I doubt it will stop there.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez has introduced legislation to clarify the ability of non-profit groups like Civic San Diego to perform permitting work for local governments, as it’s uncertain what legal authority in California law the organization has to approve building projects on behalf of the City of San Diego after redevelopment’s demise. Specifically AB504 calls for the City Council to have final say on projects.

The “uncertainty” defense is being rolled out on behalf of Civic San Diego (and the developers who love it) by former Mayor and Chamber of commerce CEO Jerry Sanders, along with Kris Michell, president and CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership by way of a commentary published earlier today by Voice of San Diego. Used with great success in previous campaigns to pull the wool over the eyes of San Diegans, this sort of effort is supposed to instill fear the local economy will be damaged if (fill-in-the-blank) happens.

Step One: Introduce Some Truthiness

The VOSD op-ed piece, starts off by telling us about Civic San Diego “as the model of government efficiency when it comes to approving development projects.” They even cite a story about permits issued by the agency being issued “more than twice as fast as the city of San Diego’s Development Services Department.”

Wow. Sounds impressive, huh? An agency that slashes through the government bureaucracy to get stuff done. Who wouldn’t want that?

From the VOSD commentary:

…AB 504 seeks to undo those efforts by making it more difficult to have projects move forward by requiring the City Council to weigh in on every project.

Step Two: Make People Afraid

Continuing the spiel from Sanders and Michell:

AB 504 removes that certainty and replaces it with politics, flying in the face of what the downtown community has identified as priorities for its neighborhoods.

It also undercuts the work Civic San Diego is currently doing to help community planning groups in Encanto and City Heights identify their priorities so they, too, can update their community plans and benefit from a streamlined and sensible permitting process.

Step Three: We Know What’s Best

After all, we’re told by Sanders and Michell, Civic San Diego is already accountable to the “city’s Economic Development Department and Civic San Diego’s board of directors serve at the pleasure of the mayor and City Council.”

Imaginary future storyline #1: The city council asks for the resignation of CSD board members with a 5-4 vote. The Mayor vetoes it. End of story.

Imaginary future storyline #2: Economic Development Department rejects CSD planning. Mayor transfers or fires employees responsible. End of story.

There is no doubt in my mind that this whopper about accountability and the evils of ‘politics’ will be echoed through other media outlets in the coming weeks.

Deconstructing the Truthiness

In order to understand why the Gospel of Development’s argument is flawed it’s necessary to start with the premise that Civic San Diego is a marvel of efficiency.

What they omit is one itty-bitty fact: the projects approved and permitted have all been downtown.

From another article at Voice of San Diego:

Downtown is something of an anomaly among San Diego neighborhoods. Its community plan was updated after the Clinton administration (2006 to be exact) – that makes it recent by San Diego standards.

A recent-ish plan means downtown has already gone through the process of sorting out what types of developments should go in which places.

More importantly, all the different development possibilities spelled out in that plan have already been through an environmental review. If developers propose projects in line with what’s considered in the plan, they don’t need to do another environmental review of their own.

In fact there’s only one other community plan up-to-date: Otay Mesa. There are eight community plans in the pipeline (the OB plan is awaiting an expected approval by the Coastal Commission.)

The Barrio Logan community plan was crushed after downtown business interests (Sanders, et. al., plus the shipbuilders) put it up for a city-wide vote following a propaganda campaign that would have made many a small-time dictator proud.

Navy barrio loganAnd these community plans aren’t up to date because, why?

I’m so glad you asked. Because the city government (mostly under Jerry Sanders) gutted the planning department, cut funding for community plans and failed miserably at outsourcing the work that was done.

Our $15 million in tax dollars over the past 13 years in the 12 neighborhoods that have taken steps towards developing a plan have produced two plans approved by the city council, one of which was vetoed. (All this privatization stuff requires oversight, something the City of San Diego has yet to grasp.)

The Truth of the Matter

As assorted articles here in San Diego Free Press have pointed out, (and there are more in the pipeline) the issue at hand is community benefits, specifically who gets a say in what is done in conjunction with development.

Civic San Diego has held a series of community forums (and they have an app!) that have proven to be unsatisfactory to many stakeholders. The general sense is CSD is doing this for show and that they’re in a hurry to expand their sources of funding via permitting fees.

That’s why people from the City of San Diego’s Community Planners Committee, environmental groups and unions joined Assemblywoman Gonzalez at the press conference announcing the introduction of AB504.

“If you’re going to have one entity in charge of making sure the complex needs of complex communities all over San Diego are met, it should be an organization accountable first to the public, not to maintaining its funding streams,” said Joe LaCava, Chair of the Community Planners Committee. “Permitting authority needs to be with our government, the City of San Diego.”

Last week the Community Budget Alliance (CBA), a coalition of around 25 advocacy groups, sent a letter to the City Council calling for all publicly funded land deals brokered by Civic San Diego to include enforceable minimum standards, including requirements for construction wages, local hiring, affordable housing and public input.

I get the sense this concept of accountability is exactly what Civic San Diego’s hoping to avoid.

From City Beat’s coverage by Joshua Emerson Smith, which should be required reading on the subject:

Without such oversight, delegating decision-making authority to the nonprofit could violate state law, Gonzalez said. “It’s not just illegal; it’s bad policy. It lacks transparency and accountability.”

Subject to council approval would be Civic San Diego’s authority to permit and plan development projects Downtown, a unique situation statewide that’s relished by the local business community.

There will be a hearing before the council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee at 2 p.m. Wednesday, March 18, at City Hall where officials from Civic San Diego are expected to testify about their activities.

One Other Potential Problem

Civic San Diego’s scheme may not be legal.


Civic San Diego and Its Stakeholders

By Anna Daniels

Gordian Knot  (Jesse Scaturro, 2008)

Gordian Knot by Jesse Scaturro

Who are Civic San Diego‘s stakeholders? Who are the people and institutions who have the most to benefit from their success? And who has the most to lose if they are not successful? The answer depends upon whom you are talking to—CivicSD and its surrogates; City of San Diego elected representatives; or community residents and resident based organizations.

Community residents and community based organizations from areas of the city which have been designated by CivicSD as their immediate focus for economic revitalization have been particularly vocal on this matter, but they are hardly the only ones.

Community voices have been articulating the need for an enforceable city policy regarding the kinds of community benefits that must be generated in tandem with CivicSD’s economic development projects, as well as additional City of San Diego oversight of development activities. They have called for more transparency and accountability in CivicSD’s operation.

In short, those communities which are already fully aware of the economic and social problems that they face, are asking to be recognized as stakeholders and to be given the participatory power to shape the development process.

Meanwhile, CivicSD continues to consolidate and centralize its power, both political and financial. The demands for community benefits, fair labor agreements and oversight have been more of a distraction rather than a major disruptor of those consolidation efforts. But CivicSD is legally tied to the City, and in some instances, operates as the City. It is also tied to those under-served communities by virtue of the requirements for receiving New Market Tax Credits as well as other public funds.

If nothing else, the optics are bad if it appears that CivicSD has shut impacted communities out of the development conversation and it also has to be careful about how hard it can bite the hand that feeds it—i.e. the City Council as guardians of the public, collective good and public purse.

Until this past October, CivicSD has largely been able to ignore community concerns while benefiting from the council’s—and mayor’s largesse—reflected in their FY’15 budget. That began to change at the October 29, 2014 Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods committee. Committee chair Marti Emerald and District 4 council member Myrtle Cole requested CivicSD to report back at the March 18, 2015 meeting on six different points.

CivicSD Motion Oct 2014 Committee Meeting

Oct 2014 Committee Motion RE CivicSD (Click for full motion)

At this Wednesday’s meeting there is a Request for Committee Action that includes 1) appointing a representative of the IBA (Independent Budget Analyst) to the Board of Directors of CivicSD’s Economic Growth and Neighborhood Investment Fund; 2) amending CivicSD’s bylaws under “Purpose” to include community benefit language related to promoting affordable housing and creating well paying jobs; and 3) requiring the approval of the City Council for agreements entered into by CivicSD involving either the transfer of City money or the disposition of City owned land valued at $500,000 or more.

How should these requests for committee action be evaluated by those of us who are asking to be viewed as stakeholders and even partners in the economic development of our “challenged neighborhoods”? How much closer do these requests for committee action bring us to the accountability, transparency, responsiveness and representation that is required to be stakeholders and partners?

Will the Real Stakeholders please come forward! CivicSD brings out surrogates Kris Michell and Jerry Sanders

Disney "Chicken Little" movie posterKris Michell, president and CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership, and Jerry Sanders, president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, co-wrote an opinion piece “Don’t Block Civic San Diego’s Process and Progress” for Voice of San Diego. It was a predictable jeremiad. SDFP editor Doug Porter deftly takes Michell and Sander’s arguments apart in his Starting Line column “Pushback on Civic San Diego Accountability: Here Comes the Uncertainty Ploy.”

There is also a subtext worth noting. It is telling that Civic San Diego has representatives of the Downtown San Diego Partnership and San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce speaking on its behalf. Let that settle in for a moment. The last minute pitch for CivicSD didn’t come from a community group pointing to the ways in which their community has benefited from CivicSD development.

Communities are challenged because they do not have equal and equitable access to political and financial resources. And that is exactly the thing that CivicSD and it’s surrogates is not about to do—share power with those who are affected by their decisions.

In fact the authors completely avoid the very real and sustained dissatisfaction that residents and community groups have expressed toward CivicSD. They fixate instead on Lorena Gonzalez’ proposed bill AB 504 Local Government Accountability for Planning, Zoning and Permitting as if the dissatisfaction and bill are not related. The epithet of “job killer” and the Reaganesque touch of describing AB 504 as creating a solution in search of a problem are enough to engender the requisite knee jerk responses in the usual sectors.

Kris Michell and Jerry Sander’s attitude toward the actual people who want to be involved in the process couldn’t be clearer.

The description of how AB 504 undercuts the work of Civic San Diego in Encanto and City Heights reveals how the model of the parent- child relationship is reconstituted as experts versus the inept, inexperienced and uninformed.

It also undercuts the work Civic San Diego is currently doing to help community planning groups in Encanto and City Heights identify their priorities so they, too, can update their community plans and benefit from a streamlined and sensible permitting process.

City Heights has been identifying its planning and economic development priorities for decades. It had it’s very own Redevelopment Agency and a PAC back in the 1990’s. The City Heights Project Area Committee goes through the mind numbing formal procedure every budget season of reducing the lengthy list of infrastructure needs to the top ten—and hope that a few make it into the budget. The City Heights Community Development Corporation has initiated studies, held community workshops and generated reports which identify priorities and solutions.

City Heights, and I suspect other challenged communities, don’t need help identifying their priorities. City Heights doesn’t need a mechanism to streamline the process, as if City Heights can’t have nice things because bureaucratic dolts in City Planning have been gumming up the works for decades. Streamlining the process as envisioned by CivicSD doesn’t address the inequity of how public and private investments are made in San Diego. It will in fact exacerbate it.

Communities are challenged because they do not have equal and equitable access to political and financial resources. And that is exactly the thing CivicSD and it’s surrogates is not about to do—share power with those who are affected by their decisions.

The Michell/Sanders opinion piece was strategically aimed a specific audience, a call to circle the wagons at the committee meeting. These are the stakeholders that CivicSD acknowledges and whom their development work ultimately benefits.

Where does this leave those asking for some more, please?

It should be a reminder that the Request for Committee Action is an incremental step in achieving responsiveness to community needs and accountability. That counts. It should also be a reminder that entrenched interests aren’t going to willingly cede any of their power and privileges. One test will be whether the requirement for approval of projects over $500K which involve city money or land is left intact at the end of the meeting.

Community members have an opportunity to advocate for their role as stakeholders in this process, and to continue pressing for a meaningful community benefit policy. It is easy to forget that citizens bring a great deal to this discussion in the form of public subsidies to CivicSD and that CivicSD is greatly dependent on those subsidies at this time. It is ironic that when citizens ask for some more, please they are essentially asking for their share of what they have put in. That point needs to be clearly made.

A number of questions remain. Is CivicSD the appropriate mechanism for economic and social revitalization? Why aren’t we looking at an alternative of community based approaches and supporting community based capacity for economic development instead?

We do not have to accept the outsourcing of basic city functions to CivicSD, nor do we have to accept what has been described as their cynical and blighted vision of San Diego’s future. Alternatives can only happen if we recognize that we are indeed the real stakeholders and understand the power that we can wield, at least for now. That may very well require a much more direct approach—slicing through the Gordian Knot.

There will be a hearing before the council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee at 2 p.m. Wednesday, March 18, at City Hall where officials from Civic San Diego are expected to report back to the committee.

Anna Daniels is a past president and board member of the City Heights Community Development Corporation and long time resident of City Heights. She is also a retired member of MEA, the Municipal Employees Association. She is a current member of the Community Budget Alliance, representing the Library Organizing Project. The opinions expressed in this article are her own.

Previous San Diego Free Press coverage on the topic of CivicSD:

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Pete R March 19, 2015 at 4:36 am

Interesting topic, but these pieces are way too long. If you want to raise more popular support for your positions, consider shortening them substantially – or create a brief bullet list or executive summary up front.

You don’t need this many words to make a good argument. Using fewer words will increase the odds that someone might actually read them.



Laurie Macrae March 20, 2015 at 10:07 am

Excellent analysis.


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