Stay up to Date
Get our weekly insiders guide to political and policy news (Saturdays)
How Turner Construction influences local politics, snags some of the most expensive taxpayer-funded projects and manages to create very few enemies.
This piece appeared in the winter edition of VOSD Quarterly.
The Central Library. The Convention Center expansion. The airport’s extreme makeover.
These are the kinds of projects that Turner Construction signs on to build or renovate. Landmarks that define major cities.
Of course, when you’re a giant like Turner, you can afford to be selective.
In the last six months, Turner has completed work on two of the most significant San Diego development projects of the last decade — the new Central Library and the expansion of Terminal 2 at the airport — earning praise from a broad range of civic leaders and business groups.
Turner has redefined San Diego’s landscape over the last four decades. It built the tallest government-subsidized housing complex on the West Coast and expanded the Convention Center twice. It converted an old athletic club into the city’s largest multi-service homeless shelter, and it would have dramatically remade Balboa Park if the Plaza de Panama project hadn’t fallen apart.
Many of Turner’s biggest projects in San Diego are bolstered with taxpayer money yet the company’s local leader, Richard Bach, is a member of the most powerful anti-tax organization in town, the Lincoln Club. And at a time when downtown development is under fire, Bach is working to spur more of it.
Turner has managed to do all of this while maintaining good relationships with both organized labor and those who oppose unions regularly.
And now Turner is poised to compete for Ballpark Village — the biggest plot of undeveloped land in the city’s urban core.
Turner’s presence in San Diego is most obvious downtown, where the company builds its biggest projects and its executives sit on the boards of influential, pro-development organizations.
“In the relationships they seem to have with local leaders, they’re top-notch,” said Mark Cafferty, president of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation. “They’ve built a reputation for themselves.”
Lori Ann Stevens, Turner’s director of business development, is a board member of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation, and Bach, a regional senior vice president, is on the boards of the Lincoln Club and the Downtown San Diego Partnership.
“Like most businesses, we engage in the civic process by belonging to various groups that support our industry and the growth of San Diego,” Bach told VOSD. “As a company, Turner does not make political endorsements.”
But the groups that Bach belongs to do. Both have endorsed Councilman Kevin Faulconer’s run for mayor, and both have raised sizable sums to support him.
Bach said he wasn’t involved in the Lincoln Club’s campaign to boot Republican-turned-Democrat Nathan Fletcher from the mayor’s race — he’s donated to Democrats and Republicans, including Fletcher — but he admits that he’s still involved in the Downtown Partnership’s San Diego Jobs Political Action Committee, which he helped create a few years ago when he was chairman of the board.
In October, that PAC contributed $25,000 to an independent but openly pro-Faulconer committee, and Bach gave $500 to Faulconer’s campaign.
“As a property owner and business person in San Diego, I have been impressed with Mr. Faulconer over the years and feel that he will help steer San Diego in an open and transparent manner,” Bach said.
It’s no secret that Bach and Faulconer are friends of downtown redevelopment. In a 2011 speech, Bach thanked Faulconer for leading the charge in City Council against Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to cut funding for the city’s former redevelopment agencies, which had funneled taxpayer money into massive construction projects in the past.
At the time, Bach had a few projects in mind: another convention center expansion. A new civic center. A downtown football stadium for the Chargers.
The plan to keep redevelopment funds flowing downtown didn’t pan out, but Bach still commends Faulconer and former Mayor Jerry Sanders for taking a stand against the governor.
“The record will show that city leaders did fight to keep it,” Bach said.
Even after the state deflated San Diego’s redevelopment agencies in 2012, Turner continued to pursue big-ticket projects downtown. It lagged behind the top three firms locally in the value of contracts signed— Balfour Beatty, Hensel Phelps and Swinerton—but it still grossed $100 million in San Diego.
In 2013, Turner’s patience paid off with the completion of the Central Library and the airport’s new Terminal 2.
Turner’s other significant projects in the region include the Village at Torrey Pines West, Ten Fifty B, which Turner describes as “the tallest affordable housing project on the West Coast,” a student residential community at UC San Diego, the living quarters for Marines at Camp Pendleton, the renovation of University of San Diego’s Fowler Park baseball stadium and the transformation of the old downtown athletic club into the Connections Housing center for San Diego’s homeless.
Turner also purchased hot tubs and urinals for the Hard Rock Hotel, but doesn’t emphasize that one so much.
The price tags for publicly subsidized projects that Turner has helped build in San Diego range from a few hundred thousand dollars to $820 million.
“To be considered for public works contracts of this kind, you need lots of money — pockets deep enough to handle financial issues,” said public-interest attorney Cory Briggs. “When you’re talking about a $1 billion public-works project, your pool of contractors is pretty slim.”
Turner doesn’t have the brand-name recognition of Ford or Campbell’s, but it bills itself as an American institution, albeit a peripheral one.
In 1904, two years after its founding, Turner built concrete stairs for New York City’s first subway system. And in 2010, it wrapped up construction of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, then the world’s tallest building.
It built quite a bit in between: churches and corporate offices, roads and research centers, concert halls and stadiums. You’d be hard-pressed to drive through a major American city without passing structures that Turner shaped in some way.
Projects like the National Constitution Center, the United Nations Secretariat and the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
“They do tend to win these big, iconic projects,” said Yehudi Gaffen, owner of Gafcon, a San Diego-based construction-consulting firm. “I often wonder how they did it.”
Last year, Turned signed $9 billion in new contracts nationwide and raked in more money than 50 of the world’s poorest countries.
It helps to have the financial backing of Hochtief, a German construction firm that consistently ranks among the most profitable in the world.
Since its acquisition of Turner in 1999, Hochtief has purchased a complete or controlling stake in a stable of firms — Flatiron, EE Cruz and Clark Builders — that each are able to compete for big contracts.
Hochtief’s companies are giants in their own right, but sometimes they work in tandem. That’s what Turner and Flatiron did at the San Diego airport.
Somehow Turner has managed to do all of this without making many enemies. And it has garnered praise from trade groups that rarely agree with one another: the pro-union Building Trades Council and the not-so-pro-union Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction.
“They put out a good product and they’re a quality contractor,” said Tom Lemmon, business manager of the Building Trades Council.
“You don’t get to be the size they are without producing a great product,” said Eric Christen, executive director of the coalition.
Even when Turner grapples with problems here, it seems to come out unscathed. As Briggs has found in looking at legal cases involving Turner, the gripe is often with another company that Turner has hired to help with a project.
“I’ve never been involved in a case where Turner was accused of doing anything inappropriate,” Briggs said. “By and large, they do what they agree to do.”
Even a client that dropped Turner, San Diego City College, said Turner had done nothing wrong.
SDCC decided not to renew Turner’s construction-management contract about halfway through an $89 million building project.
Thomas Fine, a campus project manager at SDCC, said that the college had made a “business decision to recompete” the contract. There were no allegations of misconduct. The college just wanted to give other firms a shot at the Proposition S- and N-funded project, he said.
Bach also described it as an amicable split. “We had a fixed sum,” he said. “We achieved that sum. There was no issue.”
Turner had the opportunity to put in another bid for the contract, but SDCC chose PCL Construction to take it over.
Ballpark Village has everything a giant could want in a construction project. The largest plot of undeveloped land downtown. A 34-story high rise that will stand out in San Diego’s skyline. A $250 million budget.
If done right, Ballpark Village could breathe new life into residential and retail development around Petco Park – the kind of development that Bach has been calling for.
Bach confirmed that JMI Realty has hired Turner to estimate how much it will cost to build each part of the project and how long it will take. But he won’t say much about the project until JMI gives him the green light.
“We don’t go for a job just to make a quick win,” Bach said. “We go for a job hoping to get another one.”