A Beach, Burb, and Billionaire “Citizens’ Plan” for San Diego’s Urban Neighborhoods

by on January 26, 2016 · 0 comments

in Culture, Economy, Environment, History, Media, Politics, San Diego, Sports

Editor: Some months ago Attorney Cory Briggs and others rolled out the “Citizens’ Plan for the Responsible Management of Major Tourism and Entertainment Resources,” better known as the Citizens Plan. They are hoping to have this on the November 2016 ballot as an alternative to the current tourism/development scheme, which is dominated by hotel industry’s financial interests.

UrbDezine’s Bill Adams raises serious questions in the article below about just what it is would be accomplished should the Citizen’s Plan be adopted. What is important about this debate about the future of San Diego’s downtown is that neither author is assuming the status quo is acceptable.

Photo by Doug Porter

Overlooking tailgate park and MTS building Photo by Doug Porter

By Bill Adams / San Diego UrbDeZine

They’re calling it the “Citizens’ Plan” initiative. Like all such initiatives, the name is misleading. Said citizens are an alliance of a billionaire and a few advocates for a limited selection of public interests. Not included are the citizens who are most impacted nor the economic interests of the City’s working populace. Citizen Kane Plan might be a more appropriate name for the way it attempts to manipulate public opinion into believing it is a grassroots plan.

The Citizens’ Plan is oblivious to the urban neighborhoods it most impacts.

It Begins:

“The City of San Diego’s most valuable resource for both tourists and residents is the City’s connection to the Pacific Ocean and its beaches, bays, harbors, rivers and tributaries, which are supported by major tourism- and entertainment-related facilities and infrastructure that benefit from and impact this resource. This Ordinance is necessary to ensure that the benefits of this resource can be accessed and enjoyed by tourists and residents alike in the near and distant future, and to establish transparent financing mechanisms that support each of them paying their fair share for the facilities and infrastructure that benefit from and impact this resource.”

It Concludes:

“Our connection to the Pacific Ocean and its beaches, bays, harbors, rivers and tributaries, and our tourism and entertainment resources, are big parts of San Diego’s identity. Critically important to our economy and quality of life, these resources require responsible management in order to accommodate visitors and residents who demand access to our waterways, beautiful, first-class venues, and very best of experiences.Tourism and entertainment both benefit from, and impact, San Diego’s infrastructure and facilities, and the health of each is inextricably linked. . .”

Sounds great if you live in Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, another city, state, or country, or want to develop a hotel downtown – a plan for pleasure seekers near and far.

Downtown Convention and Entertainment Zone proposed by the Citizens’ Plan initiative

Downtown Convention and Entertainment Zone proposed by the Citizens’ Plan initiative

In between, the Citizens’ Plan initiative (“the Plan”) talks about creating a Downtown Convention and Entertainment Overlay Zone in East Village, a Tourism Marketing District, prohibiting a contiguous waterfront convention center expansion, setting aside open space at the Qualcomm site, developing recreational facilities, transferring the Qualcomm site to SDSU or UCSD, creating a park and recreation facilities fund, eliminating taxpayer stadium funding (it’s most admirable ingredient*), setting the transient occupancy tax (TOT) rate, appointing committees to oversee the same, and compliance.

While the Plan obsesses about tourism, entertainment, coastal and river views, and taxes, nary a word is in the Plan about creating economic opportunities, educational opportunities, social justice, environmental health, homelessness, affordable housing, nor even the plans or aspirations of the neighborhoods it directly impacts. Of course, not every ordinance or plan can address or even touch upon these issues. However, the Citizens Plan is a 36-page initiative (77 pages including attachments) which purports to plan the land uses of large areas of both downtown and Mission Valley, dedicate a large swath of land that is the center of San Diego’s homeless population and adjacent to long abused urban neighborhoods. The downtown site also happens to be San Diego’s most valuable land for creating real economic opportunity for working families.

The urban neighborhoods are doing well without their Plan

East Village and Barrio Logan have been experiencing a quiet innovation revolution. The expanded City College campus, the new Central Library, the New School of Architecture, the Woodbury School of Architecture, Thomas Jefferson Law School, the Cesar E. Chavez campus, and several schools in the K – 12 range. Educational facilities not only pay respectable wages, they also catalyze high tech, artisan, and other innovative businesses. The proponents of the IDEA District and the Makers Quarter recognize this fact in East Village. Barrio Logan warehouses have surged with design and artisan businesses. Additionally, Golden Hill, Sherman Heights, Logan Heights, and South Park all stand to gain as livable, walkable, working and creative neighborhoods. This trend toward an educational and high wage job cluster has not been smooth sailing, in part due to the loss of so many of the more affordable commercial structures that only recently occupied the area – much of it for parking for Petco Park and the Gaslamp Quarter.

The Plan would impede the growth of an innovation district and replace it with a convention and entertainment zone

San Diego’s downtown remains the only major downtown in the country without a satellite campus of a major university – a fact that several people are working to correct, e.g., the possibility of a UCSD Co-Laboratory in East Village. Such “anchor institutions” provide powerful boosts to a city’s economic and cultural life.

Nevertheless, this area is San Diego’s best shot – maybe it’s only shot – to create an innovation district, i.e., an education and high tech cluster similar to what has happened near UCSD, or more analogously, downtown Boston or San Francisco. Such districts produce business startups, high wages, and careers. Another benefit of such clusters is that their business and institutional occupants are much less likely to move to cities offering lower taxes or regulations. Thus, they are often referred to as “sticky capital” a term that contrasts with the phrase “race to the bottom” to describe the competition between cities and states to attract traditional employers by giving up environmental protection, labor standards, and much needed tax revenue. As I’ve previously written, the area is uniquely blessed with infrastructure for such a cluster, which could boost economic opportunities for the City’s wage earners, tech entrepreneurs, and young people just beginning their careers – much more so than Mission Valley where the Plan would direct academic expansion.

See also recent guest editorials in the Union-Tribune: A higher and better use for downtown and Downtown has bright future with or without Chargers.

Tailgate park

Tailgate park

The land at issue is the last large track of undeveloped land downtown. It would best serve San Diego’s future – that segment of the population hoping to be able to afford raising a family here – if it were dedicated to an anchor institution – whether that be a university tech campus or a high-tech powerhouse like Google or Qualcomm. That would almost certainly lock-in the area as a high wage super cluster.

Instead, the Plan sets aside the land for another downtown entertainment playground for tourists and well-heeled locals though such downtown entertainment already is abundant.

A non-contiguous convention center or downtown stadium are not worth doing:

Convention center expansion is already a risky endeavor in a cul-de-sac city without a major airport or rail connection competing in a country in which there is a glut of convention space. A non-contiguous facility makes the investment even more risky by eliminating the mega-conventions which need contiguous space.

The lack of economic benefit of NFL stadiums is well documented. (see also this recent Sports Illustrated interview of several economists about stadiums) Additionally, the reasons that the Stadium Task Force chose the Mission Valley site, according to its Chairman Adam Day as reported by one article, was that:

“. . . downtown would be more expensive, would take longer and would be ‘far more complicated’ . . . [than] building in Mission Valley . . . which was expected to save about $250 million and would protect the team and fans from years of uncertainty, he said.”

Of course, tourism, conventions, and NFL stadiums are notorious for creating nothing more than low wage jobs – often requiring taxpayer subsidy through social services – to support their working poor. Moreover, there is no even trade in the Plan. The area in which the Plan will ban a convention center expansion will not be made available for economic or educational opportunities to offset the area lost in East Village to the Convention and Entertainment Overlay Zone. Rather, it will be set aside for yet more recreation – for those with the time and money to enjoy it.

The public access red-herring:

Harbor-side contiguous Convention Center expansion rendering – banned under JMI-Briggs “Citizens Plan” – image from San Diego Convention Center Corp.

Harbor-side contiguous Convention Center expansion rendering – banned under JMI-Briggs “Citizens Plan” – image from San Diego Convention Center Corp.

The Plan’s “coastal access” claim is misleading. At issue is a 200 – 300 foot gap between the existing convention center and the Bayside Hilton Hotel. This gap is already cut-off to all but harbor-side hotel dwellers and conventioneers by multiple parallel train and trolley tracks, which are fenced-off, necessitating the elaborate elevator-served pedestrian bridge near Petco Park. In any case, the contiguous convention center expansion, which the Plan would ban, leaves this gap largely untouched.

Most of the expansion would be side-by-side, not end-to-end, to the existing convention center. It would expand toward the waterfront while extending the existing public promenade to also maintain linear waterfront access. Moreover, the harborside convention center expansion improves public access and amenities, including the addition of a sloped park extending onto the expansion rooftop and a 4th Ave. pedestrian bridge connecting with the existing center. As people familiar with the downtown waterfront know, the most important access improvement would be to widen and enhance the visibility of the largely hidden passageway between the existing convention center and the Marriott Marquis Hotel – a concession that would more likely be attained with the contiguous expansion than with the Plan’s expansion ban.

If a convention center expansion must be, a harbor-side contiguous expansion both improves the chances of an economically useful expansion and, contrary to the Plan claims, improves coastal access and public space.

How the Plan impacts urban neighborhoods and deprives them of input

New Central Library dome in background; JMI Ballpark Village in foreground

In exchange for this fictional coastal access preservation, the Plan would snuff-out, or at least significantly impair the education and innovation revolution in East Village and Barrio Logan as high rent – low wage hotels and sports bars replace light industrial space. Urban neighborhoods would once again get the low wage jobs while educational and high wage opportunities would be directed to Mission Valley – north of I-8 – reaffirming the historic economic dividing line.

In addition to low wages, the new entertainment district will create additional demands for event parking, which in turn will cause the further demolition of affordable commercial and residential structures, already depleted by the parking demand created by Petco Park and the Gaslamp Quarter. Anyone who has read the works of preeminent urban sage Jane Jacobs knows the importance of older buildings in creating a diverse urban economic environment, or the cataclysmic effect on such diversity created by large monolithic structures, whether it be a stadium, convention center, or the parking structures and lots meant to serve them. In the interim, the Plan will ensure the land remains vacant while convention center annex and stadium financing and approvals are obtained – likely years, even a decade or more. This uncertainty will have a chilling effect on surrounding revitalization efforts.

The impacted neighborhoods would even be deprived of CEQA input, despite the gigantic size and numerous impacts of the development contemplated under the Plan. The Plan backers would accomplish this bypass with the Plan’s incorporation of new Public Resources Code sec. 21178, et seq., which was intended for

“projects . . . that would replace old and outmoded facilities with new job-creating facilities to meet those regions’ needs while also establishing new, cutting-edge environmental benefits to those regions.”

Residents would be deprived of input or recourse, even regarding health impacts (an especially sensitive issue in Barrio Logan due to the high air pollution and asthma levels in that neighborhood, which would likely be exacerbated by stadium and convention traffic). Plan-backer Cory Briggs has made CEQA exemption a key selling point in promoting the Plan – this is what he is referring to when he talks about avoiding CEQA lawsuits. Such review and input exemption is ironic, even hypocritical, for an attorney priding himself on transparency and community empowerment. In contrast, the contiguous convention center expansion was never exempted from Coastal Commission Review or CEQA.

Plan backers and motivations

Former Padre owner, Petco Park and land developer, and hotel magnate, John Moores, is funding the Citizens Plan initiative. He stands to benefit from a convention annex and stadium closer to his land holdings rather than the waterfront and Mission Valley, respectively – profitable for him but not for the city’s working population. He is also said to be a staunch supporter of SDSU expansion but apparently not an expansion south of I-8. Tax and transparency watchdog attorney Cory Briggs is also a principle author. Former City Councilmember, Mayoral candidate, beach and environmental advocate Donna Frye is another backer. They accomplish goals of both limiting and facilitating a taxpayer subsidy of the convention center and stadium, and some modest environmental, recreational, and coastal access goals.

History repeated in undermining urban neighborhoods

Gods Extended Hand 16th & Island

Gods Extended Hand 16th & Island

This country has a long history of eviscerating and ruining diverse urban neighborhoods. Often such neighborhoods were revitalizing from within at the time of destructive interventions by outside forces. These interventions happened in a number of ways, from routing highways through urban neighborhoods while wealthier neighborhoods were left unscathed, or urban renewal programs which took property from small property owners for the benefit of wealthy developers, and sometimes in more violent interventions. The Plan follows this historic cycle.

The Plan is shockingly oblivious or callous to the challenges and aspirations of the surrounding communities, as well as the potential role the East Village site plays in San Diego’s economic future. Aspirations for high wage revitalization would vaporize. A cynical mind might suspect that the Plan’s backers view the surrounding neighborhoods as service quarters for their low wage jobs. More likely, they are just oblivious.

Barrio Logan has already been the victim of these heavy handed tactics with the initiative that overrode its Community Plan a year or so ago. Last time it was waterfront businesses and former Mayor Jerry Sanders and not-yet-Mayor Faulconer that led the charge, and suburban voters that handed over Barrio’s scalp. This time a hotel magnate and some beach activists got together and forgot to invite the most impacted neighbors to their party – or didn’t want to. It’s hard to imagine they would do the same if it was a beach or north of I-8 community. Once again Northern suburbanites are treating urban neighborhoods as their dumping ground. It’s time to allow urban neighborhoods determine their own future rather than letting Northern suburbanites decree their future.

The undemocratic, and sometimes unconstitutional, nature of comprehensive initiatives

California initiatives that seek to override district decision making or elected representatives are rarely a good idea. They undermine democratic decision-making by usurping multiple future democratic decisions with one sweeping decision, and create obstacles to future democratic adjustments. This Plan initiative is lengthy (36 pages) and comprehensive, and may even violate the California Constitution’s requirement that initiatives “embracing more than one subject may not be submitted to the electors or have any effect.” However, the Plan’s backers argue that the many moving parts of the Plan – TOT increase, waterfront expansion ban, Convention and Overlay Zone, tourism and marketing district creation and funding, convention annex and stadium funding, etc. – constitute “one unified subject.” In any case, it contains many more inflexible edicts than the “selling points” made to the public.


This Plan completely ignores the plans and aspirations of the urban neighborhoods it would re-plan, with monstrous brutalist structures and ancillary facilities. It locks these neighborhoods into the low-wage service sector and continues the pattern of limiting high wage and educational opportunities to north of I-8. It designates East Village as a playground for visitors, whether they be tourists, conventioneers, or beach and burb visitors. The Plan is designed by and written for the benefit of a billionaire and suburbanites from the beaches and north of I-8. It squanders a truly unique opportunity to create a new resilient education and high-tech job cluster that would benefit all of San Diego’s future work force. Worst of all, it once again imposes itself on these urban communities by a vote in which northern suburbanites constitute a majority.

San Diegans should reject this self-interested and paternalistic attempt to annex part of downtown for JMI’s benefit and to substitute a low wage future for the area in place of a high wage and academic future. The innovation growth already occurring in East Village and Barrio Logan should be allowed to continue and should be nurtured.



While the Citizens’ Plan initiative appears to prohibit direct taxpayer funding of stadium construction, it also appears to contemplate the oft-discussed combined convention annex / stadium development using city-owned property. It is unclear to this author at this time whether such land would be sold for fair market value for such purpose, or how the same would be accomplished in such a private-public partnership without the use of taxpayer funds or property.


Aerial image from Google Earth and Convention Center expansion image from San Diego Convention Center Corp. Photos by author, unless otherwise credited.

Bill Adams is the founder and chief editor of UrbDeZine. He is also a partner in the San Diego law firm of Norton, Moore, & Adams, LLP. He has been involved with land use and urban renewal for nearly 25 years, both as a professional and as a personal passion. He currently sits on the Boards of San Diego Historic Streetcars, The San Diego Architectural Foundation, The Food and Beverage Association of San Diego County, andThe Gaslamp Quarter Association Land Use Planning Committee.

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