Wednesday, January 04, 2006 | Some have seen the city’s switch to a strong-mayor form of governances as a way for the mayor to seize unprecedented powers over development. However, the candidates winning elections for two open City Council seats will have immediate sway over important planning and land use decisions as soon as they take office.

Sanders officially took control of the city bureaucracy this week as the voter-approved strong-mayor form of governance took effect, giving him day-to-day oversight of the departments handling planning and development services.

The mayor, however, will no longer have a vote on the council, leaving him out of a number of pending debates involving downtown’s blueprint for growth, public land sales and new redevelopment areas.

“You could argue on the one hand that the mayor has the enhanced abilities because he is the direct boss of the planning director and the development services director, but on the other hand, having the mayor removed from the council means he has no oversight on final land use issues,” said Craig Benedetto, a lobbyist for the San Diego Building Owners & Managers Association.

The two successful candidates that emerge from the District 2 and District 8 elections Tuesday will face at least one immediate, major policy decision related to development – the downtown community plan update. In interviews, the candidates produced guarded answers on a plan that could drastically change the way both council districts look.

Centre City Development Corp., the agency overseeing the redevelopment of downtown San Diego, is asking the Planning Commission and ultimately the City Council to allow an exceptional amount of density – both in residential units and office space – to be built in the city’s urban hub over the next 25 years.

The plan, which is downtown’s blueprint for growth for the next two-and-a-half decades, forecasts that downtown’s population will likely triple and that its workforce will more than double.

The plan update is expected to be heard before the City Council in late January, right about the time either public relations executive Kevin Faulconer or environmental attorney Lorena Gonzalez is sworn in to represent District 2. The winner of the District 8 race between school board president Luis Acle and organizational consultant Ben Hueso is expected to be instated at the same time.

Faulconer said studying the downtown update will be one of his top priorities if he is elected, but currently has questions about whether the plan will take into account the impacts of the new growth.

“Do we have adequate funding for the transportation element and park space? Have we thought enough about new school sites downtown?” he asked.

Gonzalez said the update smacked of being produced in “a culture where the developer controls what happens.” She said she was concerned that funding for infrastructure, such as parks and fire stations, was not being paid by developers, and said the city already had been shortchanging its infrastructure funding by $2 billion.

She pointed to the campaign donations received by Faulconer, questioning whether voters can count on him to stand up to real estate development interests when 48 percent of his receipts in the last month, or $83,000, came from individuals tied to the real estate industry. Gonzalez on the whole raised about $42,000 last month from a mix of educators, attorneys and environmentalists.

“I don’t think he told the building industry that he was going to hold the developers’ feet to the fire,” she said.

Faulconer defended his donors, saying they knew he was committed to reform as a result of having “deep roots in the community.”

“I have a pretty diverse base of support across all industries, and it’s indicative of people who want change and are not afraid of reform,” he said, pointing to the endorsement he won from Sanders.

Acle and Hueso also sounded off about the community plan update. Both said they appreciated the community input that has gone into the plan but that they wanted to study it further. Their district does not include the downtown area as drawn, but borders it to the south and east along Barrio Logan and Golden Hill.

“The area of development is a challenge but also an opportunity,” Acle said. “I believe we need to be mindful of the environmental impacts of the development, which means that we should be concerned about the conservation of water, energy and the best ways to combat pollution.”

Hueso said he favored more community input, but said he wanted to ensure that the plan called for more affordable housing, job-creating opportunities and infrastructure.

The council will probably consider selling public lands soon, as it has tentatively approved studying how to raise $100 million from lands sales as part of a three-year, $600 million “pension solutions plan.” The council agreed to raise $600 million by 2008 in its labor agreement with the blue-collar union.

Faulconer and Gonzalez both said they opposed land sales, but thought that the city should be savvier when leasing property. They said there were many “giveaways” that they wanted to reexamine when they took office.

“The city has not done a good job of getting a market rate on its leases, but I don’t believe wholesale land sale is something the city should do,” Faulconer said.

Gonzalez said the city shouldn’t sell land when it appears it doesn’t have a good grasp on what properties it actually owns.

Hueso said he thought selling land was, overall, not good public policy, but thought the city should study pieces of land that are “underperforming.”

“Normally you wouldn’t do that, but the city is not in the business of owning land just to own land,” Hueso said. “There are some pieces of land where we need to look at ways to make it better-performing.”

Acle said he was less sure about land sales.

“I want to make sure that whatever the council chooses is thoughtful and carefully examined,” Acle said.

The council will also take the reins of the city’s redevelopment agency. While the mayor fulfills the role of executive director under the new governing structure, the eight-member council will be granted the authority to sign off on projects and stake out new redevelopment areas.

A redevelopment agency can unilaterally declare a swath blighted by finding the area to be physically dilapidated or socially and economically futile. Properties within that area can be condemned through the power of eminent domain, which is also used for public works necessities, such as extending a freeway through privately held land. In the case of redevelopment, local governments can force private property owners to sell their land in the name of public benefit, although about 90 percent of the cases in San Diego are settled outside of court.

Faulconer and Gonzalez both said they did not want to declare any new areas within their district blighted to allow the land to be redeveloped.

Acle and Hueso said there were opportunities in District 8 to create jobs and better communities through the process of redevelopment, but wanted to make sure there was political will within that community before proposing it for redevelopment.

Hueso was more specific, saying that he thought Egger Highlands and Logan Heights were ripe to be declared redevelopment zones.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly at

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