by Gary H. London

The Centre City Development Corp. is under attack. Its funding “cap” is in jeopardy and its money source could be disbursed for other city needs. Its very existence is being questioned. Because of the City of San Diego’s fiscal problems in this economic decline, the golden goose is being robbed of its future investment dollars. All of this as the agency is transitioning toward new leadership, political support and guidelines.

Some have even raised the provocative question of whether the agency should begin to “sunset.” After all, wasn’t that the point of a redevelopment agency to end after it is successful?

Playing a Vital Role

I would argue that the redevelopment tools are needed now more than ever. Downtown redevelopment has now entered the most challenging phase in its job to re-sculpt the downtown — the redevelopment of the East Village. While there is current focus on the Navy Broadway Complex and Convention Center Phase III, most of the future action is to the east: all of the real estate east of the Gaslamp Quarter.

The redevelopment west of the Gaslamp was the easy part. The hard part is still to come. Why? The western portion of downtown is the good real estate. Many of its high-rises are informed by the water. Once downtown redevelopment got under way, the downtown neighborhoods of the Marina District, Little Italy, Horton/Gaslamp, Columbia and Cortez were where most of the action took place.

While there was sparse redevelopment in East Village, most of that took place following the construction of Petco Park. In effect, the ballpark became the “attractor” to points east, just as the bay front was the attractor for points west.

The influence of Petco Park only covers several blocks. There are no attractors east and north of Petco. The new library is too close to Petco Park to have a distinguishing redevelopment influence.

Area Challenges

East Village remains the central repository of the social service delivery system for the homeless. Even though the World Trade Center will house some of the services (ironically shifting homeless issues to the B Street Business District) many agencies will remain in East Village, presenting a challenge.

Construction costs remain expensive, although a little less than several years ago; but rent and condo revenues cannot support most new construction at the present time.

There is a lot of land. The East Village consists of 325 acres, far overshadowing the physical size of all other downtown neighborhoods. It will take years for redevelopment of this area to play out. The recently proposed redevelopment of the multiblock Jerome’s Furniture Inc. holdings cannot be accomplished in less than a decade, even if it got started now. And this is an “easy” redevelopment target because it is under the control of one owner who has a desire to see the property redeveloped.

There isn’t a lot of money. The tax increment tool, indeed, the whole point of redevelopment financing is under attack by the San Diego City Council which has gradually been looking at its treasury as fair pickings to resolve general funding shortfalls.

Successful Marriage

The market is wary. The success of downtown redevelopment is owed to the fact that there was a successful “marriage” between marketplace and government programming. If there was only government programming then redevelopment would likely not have worked. One only has to look around at the other redevelopment agency efforts to understand this. There is a big question mark about consumer appetite — both residential and commercial — to move into the industrial and seedier parts of East Village.

I am sympathetic with the mantra that downtown is “more than just another neighborhood” as a justification to give it first billing for the attention of money and supportive political policies. Downtown redevelopment promoters argue that downtown stands above other areas, principally because it is the economic attractor to the region. They are right, of course. The entire city benefits from the monies which emanate from the San Diego Convention Center, hotels and tourist attractions downtown.

But it is not the only argument; it might not even be the right argument.

Prototype for Redevelopment

The reason that downtown should be supported is because it is a unique example of how to do things right. In effect, it is a prototype for redevelopment.

What is missing in the “should we keep it or take its money” issues and rhetoric surrounding CCDC is the fact that the agency ultimately has successfully demonstrated how to redevelop run-down areas of the city.

This is no small point. The San Diego Association of Governments projects that the only way that the San Diego region will accommodate its growth (an estimated 120,000 households during the next 10 years) is to redevelop its existing communities. There are precious few “green field” lands remaining to accommodate our growth. They are either developed or unavailable.

This means that the redevelopment tool has to be explored in all of its potential uses in virtually every community. Grantville is now under way with redevelopment planning and a designated redevelopment district. Qualcomm Stadium property is an obvious candidate for redevelopment, as are communities up the hill to the north, including Clairemont, Linda Vista and Serra Mesa, which are the “old” suburbs, still magnificently located near jobs and freeways. They are flat and easily developed — yet tired, worn and drastically underutilized.

Several City Council members have an “all neighborhoods are equal” attitude, suggesting that downtown shouldn’t get more than its equal share of funds in economically difficult times because there are potholes to be filled everywhere, needs in each of the communities.

But why wouldn’t our policymakers look at the redevelopment tool as a means of promoting what works and what government can do to resuscitate and otherwise fund similar efforts in their constituents’ neighborhoods?

In that regard, East Village’s redevelopment challenges are not unlike those of the many other neighborhoods in our city that are in need of revitalization. The point is that the hard work is ahead because what remains to be tackled is the highly problematic East Village.

Using the East Village Example

So, rather than focus the argument on an “us vs. them” approach, I would propose a paradigm shift in the debate: Start to micro-focus on what can be done in the East Village while the CCDC is still in place, and take what works to other neighborhoods.

Use the traditional tools of tax increment financing — where the city can bond against the increased value of the new development — thereby raising money for redevelopment.

Create focused districts. Not only is this being discussed in the context of a Sports Entertainment District which might include a new San Diego Chargers stadium, but there is another group in the early stages of creating a Design District in part of East Village. The CCDC is even focused on creating a Historic District in East Village, where it could place old homes. There is no shortage of creativity here.

Use community infrastructure mechanisms. Underlying all of this is a redevelopment agency’s ability to fund for new infrastructure, the backbone to redevelopment including pipes, parks, roads and services. There are special approaches to address all of this in the downtown redevelopment paradigm that can and need to be implemented in other neighborhoods. Infrastructure and services need new funding approaches. The seeds for those approaches are already downtown.

This should greatly satisfy those policymakers and their constituents who want a bigger piece of the fiscal pie. In fact, I can think of no better way to both serve the neighborhoods and downtown redevelopment at the same time. The tools can work in both places. But get the kinks out of them downtown, then, take the show on the road.

If they don’t, then what remains in the CCDC discretionary treasury is approximately enough money to build one more park. Maybe we can dedicate it to the City Council. Is this a way to “sunset” the CCDC, an agency that has created a model downtown that is the envy and aspiration of redevelopment throughout the United States?