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Civic San Diego’s new CEO, Reese Jarrett, is taking over a group in transition. He says he wants to make the group “more nimble and more entrepreneurial” in its approach to community development.
Reese Jarrett says he knows the southeastern San Diego neighborhoods he’ll be tasked with revitalizing as the new head of Civic San Diego.
He grew up there, has developed projects there (that hasn’t always gone well) and recently lent his experience to Encanto’s community planning group as it tries to rewrite its long-term development guidelines.
But now, Civic San Diego is expected to write its own development plan for the area. The City Council nine months ago began the process of transferring planning responsibility in parts of southeastern San Diego to Civic San Diego. Formal negotiations with the union representing city planners have not yet started.
What Civic San Diego wants to do is draw up a development plan for portions of the community surrounding a few trolley stops. It would increase the amount of housing and commercial space developers could build there. And it would conduct an environmental review that would cover any new project a developer comes up with.
That would mean developers could build bigger (and more lucrative) projects, and wouldn’t have to pay for their own environmental reviews. The hope is together, those two things would encourage new development and deliver services to the area the community wants — like local restaurants, a better grocery store and cheap but quality housing.
Civic San Diego is already managing a program in the area for federal tax credits for low-income communities. And last week, its board moved forward with starting up a $50 million fund that would let the group play real estate investor there as well.
I sat down with Jarrett in Market Creek Plaza, where he walked me through his vision of the organization, and how it can help improve residents’ lives — if they want it to.
Civic San Diego’s idea to get permitting and planning authority to draw up a (development plan) for this area: What is it about that that makes you think it’s worthwhile, and why should people trust Civic San Diego to deliver a good result?
It’s an important part of the package that we have to present to the marketplace, the idea that some of the communities that have been underinvested in for years, are open for business again. And, I think that (City Council) District 4, and particularly in this Encanto area, is one of the areas that is eager to see new, balanced development take place, that provides jobs, provides a mixture of housing and retail, promotes pedestrians and biking, complete communities.
The things that urban areas closer to downtown are already seeing.
Precisely. What’s important to that is, as I said, that we have an opportunity that creates a certainty of outcome, for potential investors and developers.
The mayor has made that a very essential part of his One San Diego plan, that there is a certainty of outcome. The planning and permitting process that we hope to incorporate into the Encanto community, and potentially in City Heights, is going to be an important component of that. … What we want to do is, create an environment that, if there’s a project here that people are beating the doors down, trying to get into, that the community is receptive to, has job creation, good decent-quality housing and a mixture of retail and other services, that every neighborhood should have.
And we’re going to continue our efforts downtown. We’ll still support and be a part of the evolution and growth and maturity of downtown, as a complete community, where you can work, live and play. We want to attract more businesses back to the downtown neighborhoods, but our major focus and allocation as I see it, and I’ll be speaking with members of the Council to understand what their priorities are, but I think it’s important that the mayor expresses his desire, that we do reach out and make these communities inviting, with an opportunity for creating economic development and vitality in these neighborhoods.
Civic San Diego commissioned a market feasibility study that said, basically, development here still needs subsidy to pencil out. Is “certainty of outcome” and a more responsive regulatory agency, really enough to close a financing gap that would normally be closed by a cash subsidy?
My goal is to make Civic San Diego more nimble and more entrepreneurial in their approach to community development. We’re going to try to do different and innovative things that start to put public-private partnerships together, and create some energy about being able to invest in these neighborhoods. We can get, for example, an economic development oversight of this neighborhood that starts to bring in corporations to look at opportunities here, and/or to help underwrite opportunities that would bring returns to that investment, and then we’re on our way.
We have to be more aggressive about looking into private foundations, public foundations and close the investment gap, like you say, which is really infrastructure-based. We can do that and bring in investment dollars like New Market Tax Credits, and other things that are out there, and we can be in the forefront of understanding where those dollars are, and going out and demonstrating that there is a bottom-line return if people want to invest in these neighborhoods, and we can be successful.
My goal is to bring a more entrepreneurial spirit into Civic, with the understanding that I have the support of the mayor and Council and my board, to go out and really hustle investment into this neighborhood.
Among the small set of people who pay attention to this stuff closely, I think there’s an impression that Civic, since the dissolution of redevelopment, has been thinking “What can we find out there that helps us stay alive?” rather than “What needs to be done, and are we the right organization to do it?” A survival mindset. Do you think that’s a fair perception of Civic San Diego?
I think there’s a component of that. Clearly, over the next two years Civic has to find alternative sources of income. That’s real. I think it’s unfair to say that’s the mission. The mission is to be relevant. In order to be relevant, you have to be financially sound. And in order to be financially sound, you need to have a plan.
You go out and you submit a grant for a new market tax credit, yeah there are some overhead funds that are available in order for you to implement that program. I think that’s fair and reasonable. But, if there’s a perception that the mindset of Civic is survival, I think that will change dramatically under my leadership, because we’re talking about going out and making a difference in communities, and we’ll do so by creating opportunities, where survival won’t be an issue. We’ll get a return on our investment — fair work, fair return.
You were raised in this neighborhood.
You’ve built a lot of projects in this neighborhood.
It’s fair to say that you know this neighborhood.
Does this neighborhood want Civic San Diego to build a dense urban area here? Is that something the grassroots residents want?
I’ve been involved in a lot of the planning meetings leading up to the update of the community plan and clearly there is a diverse set of opinions. I think with the opportunities that exist with the property that the Jacobs Foundation has here, the property that Civic has here and the potential lands that the Metropolitan Transit System has in this community, there’s over 100 acres of potential development.
There’s an opportunity to invest and create a different and more inviting environment without impacting the residential nature of the neighborhood that’s around it. So we’re going to focus on those nodes, like here where we’re sitting at Market and Euclid, where we are sitting, one of the most utilized transit stops in the system — to create opportunities for housing, retail, jobs. Does the community want it? They want to know what it’s going to do, and what the impacts are, and that’s what we have to do a great job of explaining.
If you learn that the neighborhood doesn’t want it, that wouldn’t make them exceptional compared to what’s going on elsewhere in the city.
I’ve covered Bay Park, and also …
Right. There’s concern from residents everywhere that new development will make their lives worse, not better.
What we need to do is tell people it’s going to make their lives different and better, and yes there are going to be some impacts, but hopefully we can demonstrate that those impacts are going to be offset by the benefits, and there’s going to be a better place to live.
And there are always going to be people who aren’t going to be supportive of it. But generally, this community is supportive, and we’re going to go into the neighborhoods that are receptive. That’s part of this certainty of outcome that we’re trying to create. We don’t want to go into a neighborhood that says, ‘We don’t want this.’ So we want to do things that neighborhoods can buy into, that will help create those environments.
Correction: The City Council has started the process of initiating negotiations to transfer planning authority to Civic San Diego, but the negotiations themselves haven’t begun.