3-Month Effort to Get City to Move Unsafe Fencing in Downtown San Diego

by on March 22, 2023 · 2 comments

in San Diego

By Geoff Page

Apparently, no one in city government cares if things fall off a downtown building and hit people on the head or care about pedestrians being hit by vehicles in the street. That is despicable enough, from a humanitarian standpoint. It is also a ridiculous financial risk of city money that is already in short supply.

Back in December 2022, a complaint on Twitter about a fence blocking the sidewalk on C Street and 4th Ave. caught this writer’s eye. Having had a long career in construction, it appeared that this was an illegal construction fence.

A visit to the downtown location showed fencing around the old California Theater on C St. between 3rd and 4th Avenues. The fence began blocking the entire sidewalks on 3rd and 4th halfway down the block, south of B St.

The fence sat on the curb blocking the entire 10-foot wide sidewalk. It then ran along the curb on C Street, blocking that sidewalk.

According to Google Maps, as of October 2022, the fence was close to the building and not blocking the sidewalks on any side of the building.

When the fence was moved, for unknown reasons, no provision was made for safe pedestrian traffic and people were walking in the street to get around it. On C Street, that meant walking alongside the trolley tracks.

Because the sidewalks are so wide next to the building, it made no sense to put the fence out to the curbs. Walking inside the fence were uniformed security guards. The guards were reluctant to talk, providing only the company name.

This began a three-month effort to get the fence moved 36 inches away from the curb to allow pedestrian to stay on the sidewalk instead of walking in the street. And it still is not over.

Mysteriously, the fence on C St. was moved away from the curb. It is possible that this writer’s complaints may have made someone think pedestrians walking alongside the trolley tracks was a bad idea. That, however, did not happen on 3rd and 4th.

The Municipal Code requires a contractor to provide safe, protected pedestrian passage if they need to take an entire sidewalk. This can consist of a protected walkway in the parking lane or a covered walkway on the sidewalk, if pedestrians have to be on the sidewalk.

What research revealed is a mess. An Australian company had plans to build a 40+ story building on the site and was pretty far along in the process when it went bankrupt last summer. The building is in receivership now.

The reason for the fence is to keep the homeless off the site. Apparently, there was a problem that had gotten out of hand so the fence and the security guards were put in place. It has been impossible to find out who is paying for the fence. Neither the fence company nor the security company would provide the name.

In order to place such a fence, a permit is required and there is no permit. That would be another way to discover who is responsible for the fence. This is easily confirmed by checking the city’s permit site.

After dealing with Get It Done, the Development Services Department, Code Enforcement, the SDPD, and Council member Whitburn, no progress has been made to date in getting the fence moved. The answer the city provided was amazing. In an email dated 2-3-23 the Code Enforcement department in the DSD stated:

There are falling hazards from the building, which is why the fences were moved out. The sidewalk is closed and there are signs around the building indicating this information.

Falling hazards. Here is the response this writer sent the city the same day.

I just drove downtown and had a look at the building. I have 47 years of construction experience. There is nothing in danger of falling off the building.

On 4th, the facade is solid, no evidence anywhere of where pieces may have come loose. The windows are all solidly seated, none are hanging. The eave is solid as well.

On 3rd, this answer makes less sense. The part of the building directly behind the sidewalk is only about two stories high. The taller part is set back and it is also solid. Even if something fell off here, it would hit the roof of the lower section, not the sidewalk.

There is another matter. This answer makes even less sense if things really are falling off the building. There is a 24-hour set of security guards walking the inside of the fence, constantly, right below the building. If falling items were really a threat, why would they be there?

Lastly, when an entity is issued a permit that allows them to take the full width of a sidewalk for a construction project, they are required to provide safe pedestrian passage past the site. This is done by either building a covered walkway or taking a parking lane and delineating passage. In this case, the easiest thing to do, for everyone, is pull the fence in the ADA minimum width of 36 inches.

Two requests for a response were sent, the last on 2-15-23, went unanswered.

Then, on 2-23-23, the city sent this email:

The required contact information is incomplete.  A complainant’s first and last name, home address, and phone number is required for CED to open an investigation.  A PO Box is not accepted in place of a home address, but can be included.  Please respond to this message within 24 hours to prevent closure of your Get It Done request.

This made no sense as this writer does not have a P.O. Box and all that information was provided in the complaint. The city failed to respond after being apprised of this.

On 2-26-23, the Get It Done site sent an email that said the complaint was closed and contained this:

Description: Fencing around 1122 4th Ave. is completely blocking the sidewalk on fourth Avenue and on C St. This is illegal and the fence needs to be moved in to allow for pedestrian passage

Location: 1120 Fourth Ave

Outcome: The DSD Code Enforcement Division reviewed your report, and based on the details provided, was unable to conduct an investigation. An email was previously sent to you requesting additional information about your report. Since we have not received a response with the information requested, your Get It Done request has been closed. Please submit a new report if the problem persists.

So, “based on the details provided” they were unable to “conduct an investigation.” What more information they needed is puzzling. The complaint description had all the information anyone needed to “conduct an investigation.” Fencing. 4th Ave. C Street. Blocking sidewalk. Seems that should have been plenty enough to “conduct an investigation.”

An email search did not find any email from the city requesting additional information. The complaint form requires a telephone number. No one called.

By 3-16 no response was received and none was received for the email sent that day either. Whitburn’s office, after three emails and several phone calls, has done nothing.

On 3-20-23, this writer sent an email to the city requesting a response to the 2-23-23 email and the city responded stating there was an active Code Enforcement case about this, which was never revealed to this writer. They provided the name and contact information for the Code Enforcement officer with the case.

This very helpful person called back on 3-21-21 and said he was given the explanation the city had already provided, that the fence was there to protect the pedestrians from stuff falling of the building. He said the matter is with the City Attorney now. When asked if he had apprised the people he spoke with that there were security guards inside the fence, the response was they knew nothing about that. No expression of concern.

Yesterday, an email was sent to the city’s Risk Management Department informing them of a dual liability. Security guards are at risk as well as pedestrians. If anyone is injured or killed the city, we San Diegans, will be liable.

Today, an email was sent to Mara Elliott who responded that the information would be passed along to the appropriate people immediately.

All during this ordeal, the city has been told repeatedly that all they need to do is move the fence 36 inches away from the curb. This would make it safe for pedestrians. This writer does not believe anything is falling off the building. This is an excuse to justify extreme measures dealing with the homeless at this location, at the expense of public safety.

Now, multiple people with the city have been notified of the risk. If anyone is injured or killed, the victim’s lawyer will receive a copy of this piece. The city has been adequately warned of the problem.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mat Wahlstrom March 22, 2023 at 2:31 pm

Thanks for sticking with this, Geoff. This episode is typical of the city’s latest regime, whereby any suggestion that originates from the community is automatically discounted, disparaged, and dismissed. Unless you’re paid to play, they don’t want to hear from us, even we we’re simply, genuinely trying to help them do what’s right.


Progressive guru March 26, 2023 at 10:24 pm

Perhaps it is a bizarre, dual-purpose fence that is designed to protect pedestrians from being on the sidewalk to avoid being potentially being hit by falling debris that has no potential to actually exist relative to the state of the building. The fence’s second purpose in this duality is to prevent homeless people from being on the sidewalk, which is guarded by security guards on that same sidewalk. The nonexistential falling debris must be magical, with an ability to only hit non-security people. Is it invisible too? Perhaps the security personnel should wear magical invisible hard hats to protect them from the invisible debris.

So, the city apparently cannot admit what appears to be virtually certainly the actual reason for the fence, as a human barrier to quell “undesirables”. Meantime, people walking there have to walk on the street and risk getting hit by a car. Is this a system?

I’d go with what the security guards said. The city seems to have placed you on a hamster wheel, requesting information repeatedly that was already furnished, to encourage futility. It seems like they will just say anything.


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