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Politics Report: A New Day for Council Land Use Politics

Georgette Gomez
San Diego City Councilwoman Georgette Gomez / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Typically, when housing projects run into political trouble, it’s because residents objected over a plan to build what they think are too many homes in the neighborhood, and politicians took their side.

That was not the case for the Morena Apartment Homes, a 150-unit project that’s replacing an RV park on a six-acre site near a planned station on the $2 billion Mid-Coast trolley line.

In this case, developers had made peace with the community, earning its support by shaving their project down and staying below the 30-foot height limit.

And that’s what bothered the City Council: It wasn’t dense enough.

“We are looking for more density,” said Councilwoman Vivian Moreno. “I am looking for more density all over the city of San Diego.”

Councilman Scott Sherman was even more animated.

“The way it’s been cut down and restricted, I don’t like it,” he said. “At a six-acre site and we’re only getting 150 units? That’s not going to help our housing crisis at all. That’s why we don’t have middle-class housing. It’s right next to a trolley stop.”

Council President Georgette Gomez was upset enough about the project’s insufficient density that she voted against it.

“We have an opportunity to densify this area, in a way this project isn’t doing,” she said. “I understand the why, the community was pretty expressive about its opposition, but as a Council we have a responsibility to set a different tone. If this is the path that we’re going to be taking, and not maximizing transit-oriented areas, and this location is such, we are never going to get there.”

The Council nonetheless approved the project on a 6-3 vote. Councilwoman Jen Campbell, who represents the area, praised the project and the developers, and said it would improve what’s currently an eyesore. Councilwoman Barbara Bry said it was important not to change the rules on a company after it’s been working on the project for years under a certain expectation. When the company brought the plan forward, it was around the time that neighbors staged an angry town hall objecting to attempts to densify the area, booing people off stage who suggested building new homes could be good.

  • The Council expressed a clear preference for developers to push for their projects to be more dense, not less, even if that means getting on the wrong side of the community.

But besides Gomez, that wasn’t the reason for the no votes.

Instead, it was because the project didn’t include any low-income units on site. Developers can either reserve 10 percent of a project’s units for low-income residents or pay a fee into a city account used to build homes reserved for low-income residents.

Fairfield Homes, the developer, opted to pay the fee. The company offered to build four low-income units on-site, and pay a prorated fee for the remaining 11 units that would get them to 10 percent. But the city attorney said that wasn’t legal, based on current city law.

There’s been a push from Council Democrats to do away with the fee, ensuring that all projects would include on-site affordable homes. That isn’t in place yet, but it has momentum.

Councilman Chris Ward said he couldn’t vote for a project that didn’t include on-site affordable units. He praised the project for other reasons but said it was a simple red line for him.

And Councilwoman Monica Montgomery asked the city if it knew how many projects there were in Fairfield’s position, proposed years ago, when the political tide hadn’t turned against paying the affordable housing fee, that would be coming to Council soon and facing “changed rules,” to use Bry’s term.

“How long are we going to be faced with this as a Council?” she asked.

City staff said it didn’t know the answer but would try to look into it.

SANDAG Board Weighs in on Putting Airport Transit Station at SPAWAR

Jim Desmond
Jim Desmond at the US Grant Hotel on Election Night. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Hasan Ikhrata spoke to the SANDAG board he works for Friday, eager to tell them of his plans to acquire the Navy property that’s home to SPAWAR as the new site for a massive transit hub, including a rail connection to the San Diego International Airport.

The plan was met with unanimous approval and excitement from the board – progressive and conservative, north and south, rural and urban, everyone thought it was a righteous idea.

But County Supervisor Jim Desmond’s excitement was tempered by his frustration that a project near and dear to his constituents’ hearts – an expansion of State Route 78 – wasn’t generating the same enthusiasm from SANDAG as the airport transit project.

“Boy, Hasan, I’d love to have you advocate for the 78 the way you have for the airport,” Desmond said. “This body has set priorities – 10 years ago we promised certain projects, and they keep getting pushed back. … I want the airport to happen, but the pot is only so big.”

Desmond’s referring to the projects included in TransNet, the sales-tax measure extended by voters in 2004 that went into effect in 2008. Projects in the program have been far more expensive than anticipated, and the revenue it’s collected has been far below expectations.

Ikhrata has already acknowledged that those two factors mean the agency might not finish everything it promised voters. But his response to Desmond was even more direct and foreshadowed a grim presentation on the horizon next month.

He said he acknowledges that expanding the 78 – and State Routes 67 and 52 – are very important projects for the county, but tough decisions are coming.

“On Feb. 1, we’re going to come to you about an honest conversation about how much money TransNet has – if any – and how we’re going to go,” he said.

Yeesh.

  • One other point Ikhrata made during his presentation was that it’s time to toss the “intermodal transit center” concept in the garbage. Before the SPAWAR idea, that was SANDAG’s plan for bringing transit to the airport. He said it no longer makes sense, because there’s no longer a plan to relocate the terminals to the west side of the airport property.

San Diego Council President Georgette Gomez wasn’t ready to go there.

“I’m not sure I agree that it’s no longer a valid location,” she said. “I want us to look at it. If you look at a map, the distance is the same. It’s a location that had a lot of studies, and this new location had no new studies.”

Ikhrata jumped back in to add that the old ITC site is also too small to have trains from Coaster, Amtrak and the trolley come into it.

Musical Political Chairs in San Diego’s Urban Core

Chris Ward walks into Golden Hall with his husband, Thom Harpole. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Earlier this week, Assemblyman Todd Gloria announced he was running for mayor. In 2013, Gloria clearly enjoyed his time as the city’s interim mayor, after former Mayor Bob Filner resigned in disgrace, and said as he was leaving that he didn’t think it would be the last time he occupied 11th floor at City Hall.

Once he did so, Councilman Chris Ward announced he was running for Gloria’s soon-to-be vacant Assembly seat. Ward was elected to represent District 3 – covering downtown, Hillcrest, North Park and Golden Hill – after Gloria vacated that seat to move on to the Assembly.

It means Ward’s District 3 seat will now be open, too. No none has jumped into the fray yet.

We did, however, obtain a copy of a poll that someone conducted in October about possible District 3 contenders.

It’s not clear who paid for the poll, or if it was done on anyone’s behalf. But it asked respondents about two candidates from last election cycle who didn’t win their races but who live in District 3 – Omar Passons, who ran for the Board of Supervisors, and Matt Strabone, who ran for county assessor-recorder-clerk.

Strabone and Passons topped the poll at 22 percent and 16 percent, respectively. The pollster also asked respondents about community leader Delores Jacobs, party activist Will Rodriguez-Kennedy (who is currently running to lead the county’s Democratic Party), Gloria staffer Nick Serrano, Environmental Health Coalition head Diane Takvorian and former San Diego Pride director Stephen Whitburn. Forty-three percent of respondents were undecided.

New DA Calls for Transparency

Summer Stephan
District Attorney Summer Stephan appears at the US Grant Hotel on the night of the June 2018 primary election. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

It feels like a lifetime ago that the race for district attorney wrapped up with a landslide win for Summer Stephan. But she was finally sworn in this week for her first full four-year term.

At a long ceremony Monday at the new courthouse downtown, a steady stream of speakers delivered encomiums for the new DA. In her own speech, she thanked all her well-wishers, offered some characteristic awkwardness about her newfound prominence and then delivered reminders of her expected priorities: fighting elder and child abuse, taking on human trafficking at an even more pronounced level and continuing the culture of partnership with all local law enforcement agencies.

But then she offered a hot take about one of the lessons she seemed to pull from the grueling campaign. She said the public was demanding more transparency from law enforcement and everyone in the room — packed with hundreds of law enforcement leaders and officers — needed to listen.

She went on.

“There are members of law enforcement who don’t want to do that, who are judging books from the cover, who have prejudice, who have hate. We want them gone. We want transparency,” she said.

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