Taking Civic San Diego Beyond Downtown

Civic San Diego UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Taking Civic San Diego Beyond Downtown

Civic San Diego’s role downtown shouldn’t change. But its future lies in revitalizing other neighborhoods and building affordable housing.

Civic San Diego can’t stay out of the news.

A proposed state law would require that City Council review of all of its decisions; a Civic San Diego board member filed a lawsuit over the organization; community groups have lobbied to impose a so-called “community benefits” policy; the development industry is lobbying against any new restrictions; two board members abruptly resigned and a few community leaders have demanded that Civic San Diego simply disband.

What’s going on?

After the state ended redevelopment, the city formed Civic San Diego to wind down old redevelopment projects, continue managing downtown development and look for new ways to revitalize neighborhoods and build low-income housing.

As those redevelopment funds run out, Civic San Diego is searching for its future.

The city-owned nonprofit remains exceptional downtown. It helps developers get projects done in months rather than years. Investment continues despite the loss of public subsidies.

Civic San Diego’s role downtown shouldn’t change. But its future lies in revitalizing other neighborhoods and building affordable housing.

The city needs resources to help neglected neighborhoods, and Civic San Diego is a good candidate for the job. It has expert staff, credibility with developers and banks and a history of success.

Civic San Diego has proposed establishing a $100 million fund to promote development along transit corridors. It would combine public funds from local and federal sources with those from banks and philanthropies. It should also pursue other innovative financing tools.

The problem is, Civic San Diego has not come to grips with how to work with neighborhoods outside of downtown. While new development has been the primary goal downtown, other neighborhoods have different priorities – jobs, retail services, parks and open space, affordable housing.

Each community is different and needs to be individually assessed. New development in and of itself is not necessarily the goal.

City Heights, for example, was rezoned 40 years ago to allow new, dense development. That density imposed demands on infrastructure, retail services and civic institutions that were never upgraded to meet the demand. City Heights residents are leery of development for the sake of new buildings – they want development that meets the neighborhood’s needs.

That’s why in October 2013, I was among several board members who proposed Civic San Diego adopt a community benefits policy, which would give residents an active role in negotiating for their interests instead of just reviewing a done deal after the fact.

Downtown showed how this can work. Civic planners and downtown residents work out issues on developments before a project goes before the full Civic San Diego board. The developer knows where the community stands on its project. That same approach should be applied in other neighborhoods.

Profits drive a free market economy. I want investors to be successful and to earn solid returns on their investments in our neighborhoods. I’ve been told that burdening a development project with social or economic goals will hurt the bottom line, so investors will refuse to invest. I disagree.

A community benefits policy not only builds support, it attracts investment.

Federal law requires banks to make loans in previously neglected neighborhoods; they’re looking for strong investments that benefit the public. Philanthropies and other partners look for something similar. And if public resources are used to promote new development, the public needs to benefit from that as well.

As a minimum, these issues should be included in a community benefits policy:

• How Civic San Diego will engage neighborhoods: It can’t just bring a finished deal to a planning group; Residents need to be involved from the beginning. And the policy must describe how to identify and include other stakeholders.

Funding for affordable housing: Twenty percent of redevelopment funds went to affordable housing. There should be clear standards.

Making jobs from new development, including construction, available to neighborhood residents: This should include goals for employing local residents, how to recruit them and a commitment to a living wage.

A commitment that Civic San Diego work with existing community organizations: Those organizations have the history, knowledge, relationships and understanding of neighborhood needs.

Transparency and accountability to the city: This requires an appeal process to the City Council on every project agreement. This is critical to showing neighborhoods they have recourse on an undesired project.

Civic San Diego inherited the responsibility and has continued the success of revitalizing downtown. What it lacks in other neighborhoods is credibility and trust. Adopting a community benefits policy is the first step in building those out.

Mike Jenkins is a current Civic San Diego board member, and a past economic development director and redevelopment agency director for the city of San Diego. Jenkins’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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