Is the City’s ‘Build Better SD’ a Bridge Too Far for Todd Gloria?

by on March 28, 2022 · 9 comments

in San Diego

Screen grab from Build Better SD video.

Mayor Could Become Fall Guy as Tide of Opposition Rises Against Circulate San Diego Playbook

By Mat Wahlstrom

What is it about our electeds’ obsession with cringe-making videos?

Last week, eyeballs and intellects were assaulted with the most cynically messaged and slickly produced video to date, in order to bludgeon acceptance of “Build Better SD.”

Announced in the ‘State of the City’ address in January, but details not released until a few weeks ago, Build Better SD is a root-and-branch overhaul of the linkage between development impact fees (DIFs) and capital improvement projects (CIPs), spanning three of the ten General Plan elements and dozens of municipal code changes, allegedly in the name of equity.

Suddenly, just two days after first being presented to the Community Planners Committee last Tuesday, March 22 (with obviously no chance for input by any of their 42 community planning groups), it was put for a vote by the Planning Commission to recommend to the city council next month.

Although once again the bum’s rush has become the city’s standard operating procedure, with arbitrary timelines to meet artificial deadlines, what’s flagrant is they used all this time to produce an ad campaign rather than engage in genuine public outreach.

Which should tell you all you need to know about Build Better SD, if you read nothing else.

But for the curious: Development impact fees are collected as new developments are built within a community planning area, and deposited in a lockbox for capital improvement projects within it and lawful requirements on expenditures tied to the community plan and community planning group input that electeds can’t alter otherwise.

This input is codified in impact fee studies. Impact fee studies determine what percentage of monies collected must go toward which class of projects based on need. For instance, of the $11,241 DIF for a residential unit in Uptown in 2016, 88% was earmarked for parks, 9% for mobility, 2% for libraries, and 1% for fire-rescue. (DIFs from non-residential development for parks or libraries aren’t collected at all.)

Community planning groups establish a list of priority projects based on these proportions; and the fees collected from development in a community planning area must be spent in that area.

Build Better SD would eliminate both this local control and offsets for local development, putting all DIFs into the General Fund for spending as the mayor sees fit.

It would also change the assessment of residential DIFs from a per-dwelling unit basis to a square footage basis — as is currently done with non-residential development — which would lower construction costs. But without requirements to pass along this savings to ensure affordable housing, it will simply put more money in developers’ pockets.

It’s usually a given that the appointed members of the city’s boards and commissions — who serve at the pleasure of the mayor — rubber stamp whatever he puts in front of them. The Planning Commission, most of whose members are chosen from the development industry, is the most notorious example.

But last Thursday, they balked, voting for an extension to be provided more time and, most importantly, the actual fee studies — which the city still hasn’t completed in the mad rush to push this through — before they’d sign their names to it.

This absence of these fee studies was also a no-go for building interest representatives making public comment, as the city has said that this initiative would raise DIFs ‘slightly’ but hasn’t provided specifics.

The Planning Commission actually agreed with the Community Planners Committee’s concerns about the status on in-process projects and the fate of communities’ legacy funds, and that this is all too much, too fast.

In short, buried under all the rubric of equity, Build Better SD appears nothing more than an attempt by the mayor to get his hands on the pot of $222 million in existing DIFs and all new DIFs going forward to spend at his discretion to reward or punish councilmembers and pay for his personal agenda.

Also still unanswered is how this plan will negatively affect areas most impacted by current development, that is, neglected neighborhoods that are being gentrified, by no longer tying new DIF revenue to be spent in the communities of concern where density is now being increased — which is the opposite of the intention to provide equity.

There is a real concern that Build Better SD will treat public facilities and parks as fungible with bike lanes and public spaces for infrastructure. It would undermine providing for more libraries and public safety and parks that more density will require that have no other dedicated funding.

But transportation projects have several streams, with money for them coming from the city and SANDAG and the federal government. It would raid the lockbox for both the most affluent as well as our most vulnerable communities in order to underwrite mobility mandates by special interests that remain unfunded.

But what’s most distasteful about the video is the city’s paying an “engagement partner” to use “community members and high school students” as surrogates to preemptively endorse a plan even the mayor’s own Planning Commission balked for lack of specifics. It’s the equivalent of a fireplace video: all glow but no warmth.

Far from being a check or balance on our ‘strong mayor’ form of government, the city council repeatedly shows its belly, most appallingly by approving ‘Parks for All of Us.’ So it will be most interesting to see how it reacts once this finally reaches them.

And there’s a caution here for the mayor as well. Everything he’s been doing has followed the playbook and goals laid out by Circulate San Diego executive director and La Mesa city councilmember, Colin Parent. As the tide of dissatisfaction at the results rises against him, Todd Gloria may well find that — rather than being a man for all seasons — he’s really only a fall guy.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Mat Wahlstrom March 28, 2022 at 7:33 pm

Here’s a link to the Planning Commission meeting video,


Helen Rowe Allen (Dr/Ms/Esq) March 28, 2022 at 7:35 pm

DIFs the pot of gold – My POV, DIFs to be spent as Our Mayor dictates (with a little help from his friends). To wit: our San Diego community generated DIF funds will be spent by Gloria as he sees fit, that is, anywhere he wants for anything he wants. Community voices be damned.
Top Down Government-Say It Isn’t So


Pat Sexton March 29, 2022 at 3:24 pm

You’re spot on Mat and Helen. There is a ground swell forming……
The peasants that fund this City are thinking about what the “strong mayor form of government”, is doing TO us now. No consideration for what we the people who pay taxes and the mayor’s salary want in our communities. Of course the appointed positions are not going to oppose him, and neither are the department heads, Directors, and Deputy Directors, as they “work at the will of the mayor”, don’t have union protection, so he could fire them on a bad hair day. And the single focus puppets who work around him, won’t cross him, because they’ve got him drinking the Kool Aid, and he’s doing what they want while filling his war chest with developer campaign donations. But what’s he doing FOR we the people other than destroying neighborhoods????? Think about that for a while….


MICHAEL JACOBS March 29, 2022 at 4:40 pm

The Smash and Grab mayor continues to spit in the face of accountability. I wonder what his plans for the looted DIF include? Probably nothing more inaginative than a convention centre.


Mat Wahlstrom March 29, 2022 at 5:23 pm

I believe it’ll be earmarked for whatever his cronies and donors want.


Geoff Page March 29, 2022 at 5:03 pm

Excellent piece once again, Mat. Time to really focus the spotlight on Circulate San Diego.


Mat Wahlstrom March 29, 2022 at 5:30 pm

Thank you again. At this point, Circulate’s connivance in every unpopular policy by their members in government positions at all levels is so obvious that the only mystery is why more powerful media outlets haven’t called it out.


rich riel March 29, 2022 at 9:49 pm

As a former member of the OB Planning Board and 3 time candidate for Mayor of San Diego, I campaigned on the idea of stopping the sale of City owned land and leasing it instead. Using the Port District model eventually our City could become self sufficient. Any time a developer want to rezone his property he would agree to sell the land to the City and in return would get a long term lease on the land to complete his project and recapture his investment. In the future the land reverts back to the City. The only candidate running in District 2 who supports this idea is Dan Smiechowski. Stop the sale of City owned land by supporting any candidate who will promise to work for a charter change to accomplish this goal.


THERESA GEORGE March 30, 2022 at 11:18 am

Gloria needs to be recalled as he fills his coffers from Rich Developers and the Bike Coalition. He is ruining North Park! When multiple businesses go out of business, Gloria’s rich developers will come in and buy up the properties and build 10 story condo’s under the false claim of more affordable housing. What a joke, as we all know that is not going to happen. $2,000 rent for a studio apartment of 500 square feet and $900,000 condos for sale are going up all over in North Park, Normal Heights and beyond. We the residents and businesses want our Parking back and the removal of all Bike Lanes on 30th Street in North Park. There is a huge wide Street named Utah street that is two blocks over that will connect to the Pershing bikeway. The City is now tearing up University Ave too and taking out all the parking. When will all the insanity stop in North Park and beyond? The city claims that bike lanes are used to reduce climate change and emissions. Common sense will tell you that all the cars searching for parking in residential neighborhoods for 5 to 10 minutes is causing far more emissions and not reducing climate change.


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