Photo by Sam Hodgson
A view of downtown San Diego
The Downtown Partnership has been an outspoken advocate for the community it represents.
But suddenly, caring about neighborhoods is a much more popular than pushing for big things to happen downtown.
That’s partly why the Downtown Partnership’s new vision for the next 20 years was put together after dozens of town hall-style meetings around the city, to hear what non-downtown residents wanted out of the area.
“We went to our neighbors, and they said some things that were pretty strong to us,” said Kris Michell, CEO of the Downtown Partnership. “They said, ‘We haven’t seen you for 15 years, where have you been?’ That was really strong statement and we had to take a step back and say, ‘You’re right.’”
So the Downtown Partnership – a nonprofit with paying members that advocates for downtown, sort of like a Chamber of Commerce – is looking to relaunch itself.
It also has a pseudo-government function running the downtown business improvement district, doing things like cleaning graffiti and trimming trees. It also had another nonprofit arm that administered programs for the homeless.
But it brought in a consultant to plan for it to do all sorts of other things too — like operating a free public shuttle downtown, helping build parks and searching out partnerships with private groups to subsidize major developments.
The organization released its 20-year vision in a document titled “Imagine Downtown” describing specifically what types of things it wants to do within that new organizational structure.
Many details for each specific component — namely how to pay for them — haven’t been fleshed out yet.
And the group has the benefit of operating in the only community in the city that has an up-to-date community plan, its outline for future growth, which the city redid in 2006. This won’t affect the community plan, which is an official city policy document, but extends plans into all sorts of other things that aren’t addressed by city planners.
“If a community plan addressed things like creating a vibe, or bringing a national university to downtown, we’d be great,” said Michell. “This is an aspirational document, this isn’t constrained by any of that and we didn’t want it to be.”
The group took what it heard during its town halls and its own goals and put it into a document called “Imagine Downtown.” It’s the outline for what sorts of activities the Downtown Partnership will engage in as part of its new organizational structure.
So what’s in it?
The first chunk stays true to the group’s old role. It’s all about attracting, retaining and growing businesses in the area. One tangible goal it sets is luring a large, high-profile tech tenant to anchor a tech culture in the area.
But the plan also talks about launching two projects that, if they ever got off the ground, would have a major effect on the downtown area, and potentially the rest of the city.
One is to try to create what’s called an “infrastructure bank” — a tool to encourage private expenditures on certain public projects the city can’t afford to build. Chicago has launched a similar high-profile program.
Michell said it might be funded in part through new market tax credits, a federal program aimed at spurring development in low-income areas, or as part of a large municipal bond that’s becoming a catch-all solution around town.
But she admits they aren’t close to deciding on any financing options.
“Phase two is getting into the tactics of how we do these things,” she said.
The other big idea is to try to bring back tax-increment financing to “help advance catalytic projects” downtown. Tax-increment financing was the tool redevelopment agencies used to fund projects, before Gov. Jerry Brown ended the program. The state-instituted program tried to reinvigorate impoverished areas by taking tax revenue generated by new projects and funneling back into more projects in a given area.
Michell said it’s still too early to speculate what the legal basis for reinventing redevelopment would look like or how the financing structure would work.
“What we do know is that redevelopment money is gone and we need to look for new ways to finance our infrastructure, and that’s what phase two is about,” she said.
The plan also calls for a the creation of a privately funded shuttle to move people around downtown and better connect the community to Balboa Park, the Bay and even nearby neighborhoods like Hillcrest, North Park and Golden Hill. That could happen by 2015.
The plan’s mobility section — which also talks about making things more bikable and walkable — also has a lot to say about parking.
For one, the Downtown Partnership and old redevelopment agency, Civic San Diego, are rolling out next year a mobile app to help people locate one of the 65,000 parking spaces downtown rather than circling the block looking for a space, compounding traffic issues.
But the group also wants to push Civic San Diego and the city’s planning department to come up with ways for developers to satisfy parking requirements outside of just building more parking spaces.
Openly advocating for increased density and new parking solutions is part of what makes downtown different than other neighborhoods, said Keith Jones, chairman of the Downtown Partnership.
And that’s why he suspects those with authority to make those things happen, by changing the relevant planning documents with the city, will take the group’s new goals to heart.
“We are operating with a larger consensus voice,” he said. “We don’t have the neighbor next to us going, ‘I don’t want this.’”
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