Stealth Local Government Forces San Diegans to Read the ‘Fine Print’

by on August 27, 2021 · 28 comments

in San Diego

Political troubadour Pete Seeger had an apt formula for comparing education and experience: “Education is when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get when you don’t.”

For decades now, San Diegans unschooled in reading the fine print have lost hundreds of millions of dollars to painful experience: the public pension fiasco, the Chargers ticket guarantee fiasco, and more recently, the 101 Ash Street and inflated hotel purchase fiascos.

Each of these scandals began as a City Hall proposal sold quickly to a trusting public. Each erupted when taxpayers learned too late that they should have read the fine print, paid closer attention earlier, and asked tough questions.

And now a batch of stealth government ploys is costing San Diegans two commodities that are as precious and finite as money: public road space and neighborhood open space.

Two consecutive YIMBY mayors, goaded by YIMBY lobbyists with major development funding — nearly 80 percent of Circulate San Diego’s corporate members work in the land use sector — chose to invest millions in bike lanes as a “climate action” mechanism to reduce vehicle pollution.

In theory, a significant portion of the 55.8 percent of workers who commute by driving solo would join the 1.2 percent who commute by bike. But there’s never been any evidence to support that.

In fact, as Voice of San Diego has reported, a city engineer told city planners in 2014 that projections of bike lane usage “were arbitrary — they ‘did not come from anything measurable or related to actual increased ridership.’”

Still, the city persisted. Hundreds of curbside parking spaces across San Diego were removed to install bike lanes. Angry residents and small businesses complained that street parking was already scarce. A widespread public “bikelash” emerged.

Elected officials were in a quandary. They couldn’t risk defying furious constituents. And they couldn’t break with the lobbyists, especially since checking the “climate action” box (on the cheap) is a ticket to higher office in progressive California.

Enter stealth government.

Politicians who shrink from facing public resistance find ways to evade it. They hold town halls where only “pre-selected” questions are answered. And they keep controversial projects out of sight by shepherding them through the underground passages of planning group subcommittees and hand-picked commissions.

That’s what happened with North Park’s 30th Street Bike Lanes, which came as a complete shock to the North Park community when then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer abruptly announced in May 2019 that they were a done deal.

Another stealth trick is to stash radical land use measures in legislative undergrowth. When the City Council rewrote the “granny flat” ordinance last fall, staff said the changes were simply putting San Diego “in compliance with state law.” Buried in the staff report were giveaways to developers that far exceeded state codes: allowances for multiple rental units on single family lots with no required parking, landscaping, or setbacks.

And then there are the dense thickets of budget documents. This summer’s prize stealth gambit was nestled in page 13 of Mayor Todd Gloria’s 21-page “May Revision to the Proposed Fiscal Year 2022 Budget.”

At a time when city funds are tight and bike lane usage is still anemic, Gloria will spend $828,616 in TransNet funds on 12 full-time positions. The new hires “will be responsible for the design and installation of approximately nine miles of new or upgraded bicycle facilities throughout the city per year.” The money seems earmarked for personnel only. It’s unclear if any funds will support actual construction.

Now that you’ve read the fine print, ask yourself how San Diego might spend nearly a million dollars on more urgent transportation needs, like a more robust public transit system to support increased housing density.

Then ask your City Council representative if she or he thinks this cloaked expenditure for a dubious venture will deliver a solid return on investment.

Kate Callen is a co-founder of the SoNo Neighborhood Alliance.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Mat Wahlstrom August 27, 2021 at 3:01 pm

Good work, Kate.

For years I’ve been pointing out that it appears the city and SANDAG are laundering TransNet and other funds between each other, so the true costs and sources of money for projects are intentionally obscured. And just try getting either to comply with public records requests for grant proceeds, fee adjustments, budget allocations, names of personnel in the chain of decision making, etc.

It’s the very model of mushroom governance: keep us in the dark and only give us manure.


TD August 27, 2021 at 4:16 pm

My father in law always says, that “voters get what they deserve”.

If no one takes the time to read the fine print, where all the real language is, then this happens. They always hide stuff in the fine print.


Tom Bailey August 27, 2021 at 8:17 pm

I think it would be good in many ways, if more people rode bikes, where it is safe to do so. That makes bike lanes sound good. But I have been watching the bike lanes closely, and I see very few riders. This is anecdotal not solid evidence. Still I am very doubtful about the usefulness of bike lanes.


Greg August 28, 2021 at 8:24 am

It’s become clear this publication wants us to prioritize personal auto infrastructure above all. Welcome to Los Angeles!

Bicycle lanes won’t work unless we build a ton of them all across the region. Transit won’t work unless we allow high density housing. What are we left with? Welcome to Los Angeles!


Frank Gormlie August 28, 2021 at 9:35 am

Greg, what you’re getting out of this is your preordained narrative. I ride my bicycle all the time. But until we have a solid mass transit infrastructure, bike lanes cannot do the job. Bicycling extremists want to push us into creating a bike infrastructure first, basically a wish-fulfillment type of effort. But wishing people would ride bikes doesn’t work either.


Greg August 28, 2021 at 10:11 am

How can we have solid mass transit infrastructure without density? The narrative being pushed by this publication is that we need mass transit but without density. Explain how that works and costs out? It doesn’t make sense.


Mat Wahlstrom August 29, 2021 at 1:55 pm

‘Preordained narrative’ is right. Any questioning of the demand that we *must* have density in order to have transit is swatted at, with every counter example followed by serial asks for ‘research’ (which the proponent never provides for his claim), that others have the burden of ‘proving’ his proposition false.

Two additional problems with this. The first is the premise that _the population must serve the purpose of transit_ — not the other way around.

For the second, one need look no farther than the words of the San Diego Electric Railway magnate, J.D. Spreckels: “Before you can hope to get people to live anywhere…you must first of all show them that they can get there quickly, comfortably, and above all, cheaply. Transportation determines the flow of population.”

He did quite well from 1892, when the city’s population was only 2,670, to 1949 (population: 333,865), building world-class transit first. But somehow now with 1.54 million, we don’t have enough people to do it right?

Like all YIMBY arguments, scratch the surface and you’ll see they’re simply means to the end of allowing unchecked development.


Paul Webb August 28, 2021 at 12:25 pm

Okay, I’m going to say something that I know will bring a response of absolute disbelief. Do you know the identity of one of the densest metropolitan areas in the United States? I’ll tell you – Los Angeles! In fact I looked up the data and 25 of the 133 cities with the highest population density are located in Los Angeles County. The list of 133 cities was based upon the cities with over 10,000 population per square miles.

And while we’re at it, New York City is number six on this list – with one of the highest average home prices in the nation.

So, let’s stop equating density to affordable housing and transit. New York is really expensive, has really bad traffic congestion and has high density. LA is also pretty expensive, has really bad traffic congestion and has high population density. All higher density will give us is…wait for it…MORE HOMES.

I will admit that many urban planners feel that LA’s transit system is actually pretty good, because they built a transit system that connects places where people work and live. But that is a product of good planning, not population density.


Greg August 28, 2021 at 2:28 pm

Paul, I have come to respect your comments but this is a one is pretty rough. The CITY of New York has far greater population density than the CITY of Los Angeles. What you are referring to is the urbanized area of New York and the urbanized area of Los Angeles. No one would refer to a comparison between New York and Los Angeles where New York was of larger geographic size. Come on now.


Paul Webb August 28, 2021 at 3:30 pm

Not trying to start an argument, but I’m just going by the numbers. New York City has a population density of 27,016.3 per square mile. The five densest cities in the Los Angeles metropolitan area average just about 20,000 persons per square mile. The city with the least dense population in the LA metro area included in the list of 133 U.S. cities with a population density of greater than 10,000 per square mile has a population density of about 11,000 per square mile. So, is the LA area as dense as NYC? Well certainly not, but the popular image of LA as a spread out, low density urban area is not entirely accurate.

NYC is a lot more homogeneous than LA in the sense the NYC doesn’t have areas like Granada Hills, the Santa Monica Mountains, Sylmar (where I have seen horses in the streets), Hollywood Hills, etc., that are very dispersed if not entirely rural. NYC to my knowledge doesn’t have those kinds of spaces (although I’ve only been there once and I was limited to Manhattan and Queens so I may have a skewed image of the city).

Obviously, NYC has a great transportation system, as do other major and dense cities like Chicago, London, Tokyo, etc. I’m not arguing about that. I was just trying to say that the arguments that are currently being made that we need to densify to get better transit and cheaper housing are specious. We need to de-couple transit and housing prices from increased density.


Greg August 28, 2021 at 4:38 pm

How can one possible de-couple transit from increased density? It is a mode that makes most sense where density is present in terms of origin and destination. The access/egress problem is directly related to density in terms of housing and employment. It doesn’t make any sense to build and operate a transit system to/from low density environments, especially the kind of transit most people want/think of (separated rail). I am interested to be pointed at what research there is supporting a de-coupling of transit and density?


Paul Webb August 28, 2021 at 5:10 pm

I don’t have any research, because I’m not particularly interested in doing it. I can, however, point to at least one example of a less dense city that has made transit work – Seattle. They built one light rail line as the backbone of the system and designed it to work with a bus system that, in my experience, seems to work. Of course they actually started with a comprehensive plan for connecting the places where people want to go, rather than buying a rail line that was about to be abandoned and building the transit system around that. Just sayin’.

I didn’t mean to say that transit needs to be completely decoupled from density, but rather the whole argument that we must have greater density to have any decent transit and cheaper housing. I actually argue against the transit/density issue in that LA is denser than people think and has transit that is far more successful than, say, San Diego.

While I was still working I frequently had to go to LA for meetings and court dates and used Amtrak and LA’s light rail transit system which worked really, really well. Of course I drove my car to Santa Fe station or Old Town to get to Amtrak, because that part of my trip didn’t work very well at all on transit, and I live pretty close to both stations. And, also, of course, meetings at LAX pretty much required a car trip until they started running the Flyaway bus from Union Station to the airport.

I think the point I’m really trying to make is that merely cramming more housing into existing neighborhoods is not the answer. Density does not equate to good transit and cheap housing.


Greg August 29, 2021 at 8:57 am

Making the extraordinary claim that good transit should be de-coupled from density requires research to back up. Citing the single example of Seattle as showing transit working in a low density city does not support that claim. The City of San Diego would have to about double in population to match their population density.

I know you understand the entire issue with region-wide quality transit is the access/egress problem which is only solved via high density population and/or employment areas. The two issues cannot be de-coupled. One cannot expect quality transit here in San Diego to be built without increased density. It would require an incredibly expensive and wasteful system.


Geoff Page August 30, 2021 at 4:40 pm

There are already 1.4 million people in the city of San Diego. How many more do we need to pack in to reach the density goal that would then warrant good mass transit? Or are you expecting all of us to move into transit centers?


Greg September 2, 2021 at 7:43 am

Don’t assume my position is that of supporting increased density. I just want to make clear that this publication’s narrative of opposing increased density does not align with mass adoption of transit in the region.

A low density region coupled with minimal bicycle infrastructure leads us to gridlock on our roadways. That’s why I ask what the feasible alternatives are. Should we start digging tunnels, bulldozing houses, or double-decking to get the increased roadway capacity we need? What are the solutions to gridlock if we don’t support policy that makes transit and non-motorized travel feasible alternatives to personal autos?


Geoff Page September 2, 2021 at 10:05 am

The best start of all would be a bus system that is convenient, fast, and goes everywhere. There is no mass transit alternative. Imagine all that Caltrans money devoted to a mass transit system that is now used to build more lanes that fill up right away. This stupidity was first demonstrated by Robert Moses in New York years ago.

Sam September 2, 2021 at 10:44 am

I agree with Geoff. A reliable, efficient bus system should be the first step toward less dependence on cars.

I’d also like to point out that the “Field of Dreams” fantasy of the way the cycling community thinks that masses of people will start riding bikes “if only there were more bike lanes” is loony tunes. This was the premise that was used to add a protected bike lane on W. Pt. Loma from the Famosa Slough to Sports Arena. I’ve driven that stretch of road every single day since that lane was installed, let’s call it two years ago, and I can recall maybe 12 times that I’ve seen somebody riding a bike along that route. Just because you want it to happen doesn’t mean that it should.

We need to address these issues with common sense solutions that work for everybody, not just the squeaky wheels.

Tessa August 28, 2021 at 2:28 pm

I agree on your comment about density. I see SB 9 as a giveaway to developers, with the result being a further degradation of our already over crowded environment. And I am not a homeowner, just a long term renter trying to pay the rent.


Helen Rowe Allen August 28, 2021 at 2:44 pm

I’ve suffered through bad policy, lots of it, going way back to SD Mayor Charles Dail. But now here we are, god forbid that the City should listen to community. This is bad folks, really, really bad. Suggestion: Zoom in on a Community Planning Committee monthly meeting. CPC is the umbrella group for all the planning groups in SD – the authentic Community Voices. CPC is the real deal.


Frances O'Neill Zimmerman August 28, 2021 at 4:14 pm

In my experience, ommunity planning groups individually and in aggregate CPC form are conduits for developer-friendly City rules and carry no substantive local control over anything built — single-family homes, multiple-dwelling-unit condos, new or “remodeled” homes or commercial property. Community planning groups’ elected membership is heavily weighted toward builders, realtors, architects, lawyers and lobbyists. Appeals from any community planning group go to the Planning Commission — a smaller mayor-appointed group with the same profile — or the City Council whose members’ election campaign coffers depend on largesse from builders and their Labor brothers and sisters, realtors, architects, lawyers and lobbyists.


kh August 29, 2021 at 11:42 am

I disagree. Most of the planning groups i’ve dealt with do not fit that description. And CPC usually sees right through these developer giveaways. They are the least bought planning entity in the city, and therefore the most credible in my opinion. And that’s why they are routinely ignored. The city does not go to the CPC for input, they go there to “tell” them after it’s a done deal behind closed doors, so they can check that box on their outreach effort.

The city does not involve them in the planning process, especially on these cockamamie ideas with clever names.


Frances O'Neill Zimmerman August 28, 2021 at 4:17 pm

Otherwise, this was an excellent article. What’s happening on 30th Street is a travesty.


Paul Webb August 28, 2021 at 5:16 pm

Frances, I have a great deal of respect for you, but I think that your comments do not apply to all community planning groups. Some planning groups (see Mission Valley) are heavily over-weighted with large property owners and development interests. Others have many hard working, intelligent members who want only the best for their communities. And I will point out that they do it with only very minimal support, if any, from city hall. And, if their decisions are to recommend denial of a development proposal, they are nearly always over-ridden by the planning commission. The only time I ever saw a planning group recommendation of denial not overturned by the planning commission was an instance when the developer was caught in an obvious and significant lie in front of the planning commission.


korla eaquinta August 28, 2021 at 7:24 pm

Thank you Paul for your comments about Planning Groups. I am the PCPB rep to CPC and I see a dedicated but frustrated group working hard to protect our neighborhoods and quality of life here in San Diego! The city continually ignores Planning Groups. Spaces as Places is the latest fiasco where we were not given a chance for any meaningful input.


Frances O'Neill Zimmerman August 28, 2021 at 6:29 pm

Paul, I wish planning groups in this city actually effected positive change on behalf of their neighbors beyond just “wanting” it. I agree that members — even ones from the special interests mentioned — are residents of the community and do put in long hours of unpaid time and attention. But they lack essential authority. Community planning groups provide a useful forum for public comment and a feel-good town-hall atmosphere, but they are opiate-of-the-masses window-dressing.


Paul Webb August 30, 2021 at 9:18 am

Well, Frances, we wish we did too! We have no power, we get little respect, we receive no support from anybody, but once in a while we make a difference that has a positive outcome for our community.

I can tell you from seven years experience as a planning board member (I’m now in my third non-consecutive term) that there are very few feel-good-town-hall moments. Mostly those town halls have people yelling at us and calling us names, questioning our competence, intelligence and integrity. It is certainly more frustrating than feel good.

But sometimes a developer will listen to our comments and make changes that improve a project in a way that provides a benefit to the community that might not otherwise have occurred.

I know this sounds self-serving, because it is.


Laura August 30, 2021 at 10:10 am

Isn’t it the job of government to lead the way toward viable long term solutions? If a city doesn’t have reasonable alternatives to driving everywhere, won’t life on our roads get increasingly miserable for all? Make it easier and safer for people to leave their cars at home and eventually, the numbers of people who do will increase because it will be more convenient than driving!


Kate Callen August 30, 2021 at 10:50 am

A postscript: Someone emailed me 2020 Census figures on SD commute modes: 73.5% drive solo to work, .09% bike to work ( These figures are nearly unchanged from 2010 Census data. And they are more reliable than estimates from SANDAG, given the agency’s history of data mismanagement. So the question for elected officials is: Where are your bike lane numbers? How many commuters have to switch from cars to bikes to lower carbon emissions, and how many do you actually expect will make that switch?


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