by Gary H. London
Two weeks ago Mayor Jerry Sanders announced final plans for a new City Hall. He is proposing a new building on the adjacent site that is now Golden Hall and demolishing the current site, for a total cost of $294 million. Despite that price tag, it is being touted as the most cost-effective solution, one that is in the best interests of its citizenry and our fiscal circumstances.
Mostly, I believe that. I believe there is much merit in the recommendation to finally move forward and at this time on this project, although it is not a perfect solution. My reasoning is this:
The Centre City Development Corp. and the mayor’s office have completed extensive economic studies that have determined that the net cost of building the new City Hall vs. maintaining the old one is less.
The current building is simply too costly to maintain. It is also unsafe, unhealthy for employees and visitors, inadequate and deplorably ugly.
There are incredible inefficiencies, even in our digital communications world, associated with the current practice of spreading city employees across several buildings downtown, which they do now through rental agreements. There is too much time wasted by city employees in moving around from place to place for meetings, too much sitting around at public hearings because these same employees cannot quickly move from their office to council chambers when their matter is about to come up, and too little communication between departments.
The city consultants and CCDC have explored a myriad of other alternatives, including consolidation with other agencies or buying an existing building, in addition to repairing the existing one. They have concluded that none of these other ideas are better.
There is room for growth. Although they are touting higher employee efficiencies in the new structure, I am betting that the efficiencies will be even greater in the future on a person-per-square-foot basis, leaving room for growth of the city work force, as inevitable. Perhaps the new City Hall can be promoted as a fixture to permanently cap the size of the city work force.
The Black Hole
The City Hall, either the new or the old, serve as an anchor on the C Street corridor. This corridor is an arterial wasteland, long ago destroyed by the exclusion of auto traffic to accommodate the San Diego Trolley line. Over the years, the absence of auto traffic has evolved into an absence of pedestrian traffic, which has deprived this corridor of people/patrons to shop at the storefronts, which initially resulted in lower quality retailers, and now, catalyzed also by the recession, in shuttered storefronts. So while the trolley makes its several stops on C Street, this area has become a breeding ground for illegal and degenerate activity.
The human underworld that was once confined to the eastern reaches of downtown has now moved west and north. It is possible that a new City Hall can anchor a rejuvenation of this area, completing an important part of the mosaic of downtown redevelopment that has been so successful in most of the other neighborhoods that have previously been resuscitated.
This is downtown’s black hole. It sucks the energy and life out of our city. A new building, acting as an anchor, much the same as Horton Plaza or Petco Park are anchors to their neighborhoods, should be welcomed. If it is fiscally responsible, I am in favor.
Homeless Shelter In, Business Out
This brings me to another important point. If the city is now prepared to act on rejuvenating this portion of downtown, why are they seemingly intent on risking another part of downtown, just four blocks away, by converting an office building that is owned by the city into a homeless shelter? This is exactly what is being proposed as an alternative use for the old office building, known as the World Trade Center San Diego, which sits between Fourth and Fifth avenues on A Street, a site just one block away from the heart of downtown’s business district.
This should be a no-brainer. It should be intuitively obvious that there is a conflict between a business district and a homeless shelter. No matter how much it is policed, there is little hope of regulating the new “population” of homeless that will migrate onto the sidewalks along B Street in the business district during the day and night.
This is also a particularly acute problem in down economic times when vacancy rates, hovering at nearly 20 percent, have already rendered fragile this area. B Street office buildings now also compete for lessees with portions of downtown further to the west. How can one expect new businesses to move into this space if they observe that the streets are not comfortable to walk on?
This is not a diatribe to ignore the plight of the homeless. Quite the opposite. This is a suggestion that we are going about solving this problem the wrong way and in the wrong place. In an attempt to meet a mandate to address the needs of the homeless, it doesn’t make sense to jeopardize an already fragile business district. Neither the homeless nor the business community can really find this solution palatable.
So how can the city find it palatable? The answer is because it is a “bid in the hand.” It is an easy solution to a vexing problem. In short, this is one of the most monumentally unintelligent ideas I have ever seen proposed for downtown. A more creative approach would be to simply sell the city-owned World Trade Center building and use the proceeds to serve the homeless elsewhere. And there are alternative proposals to do just that.
A Tough Sell
The City Hall proposal will be a tough sell to the citizens of San Diego when we, presumably, will get a chance to vote on it in the November elections. No matter how fiscally compelling, opposition is in place to decline such a project until the city gets its fiscal house in order. In a time of fiscal and economic crisis, big projects, particularly big projects in downtown, represent a tough sell.
Another primer on this is the current proposal for a new downtown library, which apparently now has traction after substantial private donations have been secured to dispel the concern that taxpayers will foot the bill. It comes down to this: I have been one to question the whole idea of a new, big library when we are rapidly approaching a digital reader age which will reach all economic classes. But I am willing to give its supporters a “mulligan” on the theory that they already know this and have, and will continue, to reshape this new civic venture into something more useful than a repository for old paper books. If they have raised the money, let them build it. The building, like the proposed future City Hall, is an architectural beauty.
The political problem with big projects — and the proposed new Chargers stadium will have to face this music as well — is that taxpayers do not trust the city to spend their money wisely. And they have every reason to maintain this position.
That is why the mayor has committed that the savings achieved by the construction of the new City Hall will be spent on basic city services. I believe him because I trust him, and I trust the process which has gotten us to this decision juncture.
The fact is that Mayor Sanders is guiding this city in the right direction to correct our fiscal errors, as well as the political and bureaucratic system that fostered them. Moreover, this mayor will not benefit personally from the construction of this City Hall.
The new proposal for City Hall is the culmination of a long, arduous and thoughtful process. Then why do I have this sinking feeling that a similar process is not being followed in the rush to redevelop the World Trade Center building? There is a giant disconnect in process going on here.
I think a lot of us would feel better if the city would apply the same rules to the game for all civic ventures as they have dedicated to the process of approving a new City Hall.