Thursday, October 27, 2005 | On Jan. 1, the next mayor of San Diego will hold unprecedented influence on how development and planning are conducted within the city.
It’s a fact that isn’t lost on one local construction contractor. The oversized sign on the back of his big red truck issues a preference in this year’s mayoral race in bold letters: “I can’t afford to get Frye’d this election, can you?”
As the shiny truck rolls through city streets leading up to the Nov. 8 election, its lone message underscores perhaps the most central perception driving the differences between City Councilwoman Donna Frye and former police Chief Jerry Sanders.
Developers and others in the construction and real estate fields are said to generally fear Frye, an environmentalist who has been outspoken about some of the city’s development practices. By contrast, those in the industry appear to be fond of Sanders. They have pumped more than $110,000 into his campaign coffers – accounting for more than 17 percent of total his campaign revenue.
It’s also a perception that’s been obscured in the public eye, overshadowed by the broad financial crisis and each candidate’s plan for fiscal recovery.
The city switches to a voter-approved new form of government on Jan. 1, thereby giving the mayor the executive powers once held by the city manager. The mayor, therefore, will play boss to the directors of the planning and development services departments.
“There is a lot of clout the next mayor will have, if the person uses it – and that’s great if you like the person that’s in there,” said Norma Damashek, chairwoman of a citizen’s advisory committee on the strong mayor transition and leader of the League of Women Voters.
The City Council, as the legislative body, will still control policy issues. That means the council will approve community plans and the city’s general plan – the blueprints that guide city growth – and changes in zoning. For example, the council finalizes whether or not a certain chunk of land is changed from industrial use to residential use.
However, the strong mayor will be able to tell development services which projects to pursue and which projects to delay, Damashek said. That means they’ll essentially have control over which projects get completed and which don’t, she said.
“When you control all the departments in the city, you can set their priorities,” Damashek said.
The campaign presents San Diego with an interesting choice between Frye, who talks about holding developers responsible for promises made in past contracts, and Sanders, who talks about streamlining the city process for homebuilders.
Little has been discussed on the issue, though a number of high-profile issues await the next mayor, including several redevelopment projects and the Chargers’ development designs for 166 acres of prime city land.
“The issue of housing has been largely on the backburner in this campaign for both campaigns. I kind of imagine it will be a big deal as we move forward in the first year of strong mayor,” said Jerry Livingston, general counsel to the Building Industry Association.
As campaign contributions and the contractor’s shiny red truck testify, the industry has overwhelmingly placed its support behind its candidate, Sanders.
Flattening the city structure
“I think that as we start working much more closely with builders and with business and with citizens and with all of that, we’re going to see revenue increases like those we see this year,” he told a lunch group Friday.
Sanders’ financial plan relies to no small extent on a continued steady increase in city revenue. He said the city’s cumbersome development processes inflates the area’s home prices, calling the city an “obstacle” rather than a partner in the home building enterprise.
“We’ve artificially constrained that now by the processes we have. By how long it takes it adds costs to the consumer, takes forever to get done,” Sanders said. “Our houses wouldn’t be worth, you know, $600,000 on average if we had enough housing in this community.”
Streamlining the regulatory process, Livingston said, would cut 25 to 50 percent from the time it takes to get a small project approved. Small projects generally take two-to-five years to complete, he said.
Those in the industry complain that the city bogs down the process and increases costs by sending plans back to the developer every time an error is found for corrections – forcing the developer to pay fees for every new submission. Sanders said he would change this to ensure that only drafts be studied by city employees and all errors be dealt with at once.
“What I hear from people on all these things is that it’s very difficult to do these things and it’s very unfriendly,” he said.
One way to streamline the process, Sanders said, would be to give line-level employees more control in the process. By giving them guidelines and power for decision making, he said he can flatten out the city structure.
Sanders also talks about increasing density in urban neighborhoods, building along transportation lines and using mixed-use development to favor walkable neighborhoods.
A different kind of streamlining
The National Electrical Contractors Association board was set to endorse Sanders unanimously before sitting down with the two candidates for interviews. After meeting with Frye, they chose to take a neutral stance, determining that both candidates were well-qualified and capable of running the city.
“They’re different, but they both know what they are talking about,” said Andrew Berg, NECA director of governmental relations.
Frye’s first order of business would be continuing work on a definition of what constitutes a “significant environmental impact” in each community plan, something that the California Environmental Quality Act allows.
“For example in some communities, the biggest impact might by traffic. For some, the lack of a fire station. For others, it might be the need for more industrial use,” Frye said.
She stressed the need for regular updates to the community plans and the city’s general plan – the documents that prescribe the type of growth each neighborhood, and the city as a whole, will experience.
This, she said, will streamline the planning process. With clear, updated guidelines for development, builders won’t have to waste time working lengthy community plan updates through the council.
Frye would also change the constitution of the boards of the Planning Commission and Centre City Development Corp., for example. She has promised no lobbyists on any boards or commissions and said she would remove people such as architects or developers from such boards as CCDC.
“I don’t think we should have folks on the planning commission who have a financial interest in a quarter of the projects being built in the city of San Diego,” she said.
A common theme in Frye’s discussion on planning: getting the community more involved.
“We need to move into a new San Diego,” she said. “And the new San Diego needs to reflect the actual community and not just the people that are generally recycled from CCDC to the port commission.”
Frye would also focus her efforts on revising past development agreements to ensure that developers had paid for infrastructure improvements – such as roads, parks and fire stations – that they had promised.
When either Frye or Sanders takes office after the Nov. 8 election results are certified, they also reside over the city’s Redevelopment Agency – at least temporarily. The City Council chose this year to give the next mayor the redevelopment reigns for the first six months.
“What happens after that I’m sure depends on who wins,” Damashek said. “I think they (the City Council) were hedging their bets.”
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