Saturday, March 10, 2007 | A lot has changed in Chula Vista since the name “Cox” was scrawled on the entrance to the Mayor’s Office. The number of people residing in the South Bay city is approaching 230,000, nearly twice as many as when Greg Cox, now a longtime county supervisor, held the mayoralty.

Homes now line the once-barren fields that lay to the east, and the city has since made way for an Olympic Training Center, a water park and — soon, some hope — a four-year university, a convention center and one of the county’s largest hotels. Even the San Diego Chargers may be playing their home games in Chula Vista soon.

Sometimes Greg Cox gets to reminisce about the old days to the new mayor. But the woman currently leading Chula Vista seldom asks him to for a critique.

“Wives don’t ask their husbands if they’re right or wrong,” Cheryl Cox, Greg’s wife and the newly minted mayor of Chula Vista, said with a chuckle. Three months into her first term, she appreciates her politico husband’s perspectives, but says she relies on the leadership skills she honed in the local schools as teacher, principal and school board president to guide the city during a time of unmatched pressure and scrutiny.

Cox sat down with to discuss some of those pressures and other experiences she’s had during her the beginning of her tenure in the mayor’s seat.

What’s your impression of this job after three months?

You could have asked me that on Dec. 5 … I might have had a bit of an inkling, and three months later it’s an extraordinarily complex position to be in. But I look at the challenges and the opportunities and every time there’s a challenge, there’s another opportunity.

I gotta tell you I must be the luckiest woman in Chula Vista. I come to work every day, and … know that … over 1,200 employees … start their day wondering how they can contribute to their city and to their family and to their community by doing the job they were hired to do.

But there are also tough days. I’m no Pollyanna.

The Urban Core Specific Plan, which is supposed to allow for more residents and more opportunities for redevelopment close to downtown Chula Vista, has been stalled for more than a year. What’s going on?

The last time staff got together and did some updates based on community input was probably in September or October. When I came on board, realizing that there was some tugging going on regarding what the elements would be in the Urban Core Specific Plan, I just asked staff, “Let’s just take the month of December to kind of settle out and figure out where we are.” Back in January, we hit the ground running again.

For me, one of the key telling points on any set of zoning and design guidelines is going to come down to the benefit to the community. … I sat down with architects and people who build things for a living, and we went through some issues about what was a zoning guideline, what was a design guideline, and how can you create a sector of your community that is really ready for development and redevelopment when an opportunity comes up. [The urban core area] is just about is big as the big, wide, open space on the lower right-hand corner of the map (of Chula Vista) …

But there are very few things in that plan that could be accomplished in a year, even five years. It’s a long-range plan. There will be some things that will take 10, 20 or 30 years to accomplish, but at least we’ll have a plan.

Another development plan that has not come into fruition quite yet is the university park. What are some of the opportunities out there and when will the city have a plan ready?

We’re looking for 550 acres of land to the southeast areas of Chula Vista, sort of bounded by SR-125 and Hunt Parkway, that will become a combined university park and regional research center. We’ll make sure those uses are ultimately compatible with one another. Our goal is certainly to get a four-year college, possibly a school from a higher-education facility, and to mix that with the environmental research institutes that have already indicated their interest in coming to Chula Vista, along with High Tech High.

Before you can go out there and really recruit candidates to come, you have to have land. The recruitment will not have a tremendous amount of zeal or zest until you can actually say to someone, “Here is the 550 acres that we have.” We currently own 90 acres that is close to Otay Lakes and 140 acres [west] and what we hope to do is pick up all that property right up to SR-125.

How about a prediction? Are the Chargers coming to Chula Vista?

I don’t know yet. And I wouldn’t be able to weigh and measure whether they are more involved in Chula Vista than in either National City or Oceanside. What the Chargers have done is that they have indicated their seriousness by paying, fully, $200,000 for an external land use and stadium consultant. That consultant was chosen by Chula Vista, but paid for by the Chargers. And staff costs associated with the study … that’s being compensated by the Chargers as well.

Starting next week for seven weeks — we’re almost at the half-point for the 12-week study. The Chargers are looking at four sites in the city: two east of the city and two in the west.

About the west side of the city: One of the most exciting things going on in Chula Vista is the bay-front redevelopment project. We’ve seen that there are some concerns about the environmental impacts of locating a convention center, hotels and condos right there on the water. How is that going to sort itself out and become a reality?

Just imagine, in Chula Vista you can have a Seaport Village if that was your desire, you could have Harbor Island if that was your desire, the oceanfront mini-neighborhoods you see up and down the state.

Because we have so much wide-open space to accommodate a resort, a convention center, residential, commercial, retail and open space to buffer public use and public open space. That is in essence off limits so the indigenous species out there will certainly be part of a refuge-like territory.

But it’s very complicated because that’s what an environmental impact report is destined to do. It’s destined to raise whatever those environmental issues are — air quality, traffic, certainly we have the Sweetwater Wildlife Refuge to the north, we have the San Diego Wildlife Refuge much further to the south. But we only have one bay front, and we need to do it right.

One piece of news we’ve heard recently about the bay-front area is the Chula Vista City Council’s decision that it doesn’t want a power plant on its current site. What will replace it?

If you don’t have that lattice-work structure obstructing your view of San Diego Bay, there’s one component that can really fulfill your vision, the vision of our bay front, being able to see the sky, see the water. But to have a place to go with your family on a Sunday afternoon, or if you’re planning a wedding … there’s lots of opportunities for people to celebrate that. This is very, very special.

It’s one of the last fully undeveloped properties on the coastline in California, not just San Diego Bay. The opportunity (allows us) to have 135 acres, which is the full acreage (of the power plant site) — and we know that when the power plant comes down there will have to be a substation … of under eight acres …

How about a Chargers stadium on that spot?

What we have said when the Chargers and the land use consultant came down is we don’t want to put into a predicament property based on its ownership. So, public ownership, private ownership, public-private ownership, many different sources of private ownership — we haven’t been as specific as people want us to be about where are these four sites. That will come out, but before we can get to that point we want to see if we can get from four to maybe two, from two to one.

It doesn’t take too much rocket science to realize that your bay front is only so long, so if we’re going to have a site to the west, it’s probably on that platform somewhere. But it would be jumping to a foregone conclusion to say, “This is a site,” or, “That is a site.”

The search for a new city manager is underway in Chula Vista. When will a new executive be hired?

It’s taking a little longer than I think a lot of us wish it would. But you have a new mayor and a new council member, and it’s important that people who are working together — the five of us — need to get to know one another as well as what we’re looking for.

So, we’ve narrowed our search down to two candidates … and we just keep talking closer and closer to a candidate and obviously with candidate comes contract, and with contract comes budget. It could be pretty intricate.

The last city manager, Dave Rowlands, left several months ago with a gag agreement that he and the council consented to. Have the city officials in the know clued you in on what that’s about?

No, any exit provisions that are held under closed session are held … in perpetuity. Like you, I found out on election night (last June) that Mr. Rowlands would no longer be city manager. We have a very competent interim city manager, Jim Thomson.

Do you want to know more about why Mr. Rowlands left?

I suppose if I had time on my hands I could be curious. But, it’s done, it’s behind us now. We’ve got to look forward. We have enough things to keep us busy with the bay front and the power plant and whether the Chargers are coming or not … there’s a lot of things for us to focus on, so I pretty much don’t ask.

Do you speculate at all what happened?

No, not really, because I wasn’t there.

During last June’s primary, there was a general sentiment to distrust against development. The Espanada project was just shot down after public outcry and voters passed Proposition C, which banned eminent domain seizure of land for private redevelopment. Do you think that level of distrust still remains today?

Well, certainly the same gentleman (local property owner Earl Jentz) who submitted the signatures for the anti-eminent domain initiative has now submitted signatures for a height-limit initiative. I look at this and think this should not be a political issue on what is a planning issue.

If you are responsible in planning a community, you make sure you have broad community support, and part of our Urban Core Specific Plan is to make sure we’ve gone through those public hearings …but ultimately people will make decisions that may not be appreciated by one side or … another.

I just don’t believe that ballot-box planning is the way to look at zoning and design guidelines. And I don’t understand someone spending $100,000, at what amounts to $4 a signature, to put that on the ballot.

Why do you think he’s doing it?

I asked him at one time what his motivation is and he said he wanted to protect Chula Vista. … I wouldn’t speculate. It’s curious to me that your City Council is here, every Tuesday afternoon at six o’clock and we have public comments then. I have worked with dedication and with really strong interest to make sure that the public comes to a recognition that we as a City Council need to make the best decision we can with the best information.

Another thing Mr. Jentz is pushing for is an elected city attorney. What are your thoughts on that?

I don’t see turning a professional position into a political one. I don’t think there’s enough verification out there that an elected city attorney is going to be what Chula Vistans want. …

If you have an elected city attorney, their job might not be so much to represent the city as to represent those who might have assisted them in getting to that position. I think our system works fine. We have five electors, all residents of the city of Chula Vista, who have to come to a majority vote to keep the city attorney in place. That city attorney is an at-will employee. As soon as the support for that city attorney might shift, the city attorney knows that there is no job security.

Quite a while ago, your husband Greg Cox occupied the same mayor’s seat you’re sitting in today. Does the job come up at home?

We talk probably about perspective because when Greg was mayor it was 25 years ago and the city was in the mode of planning to grow and then the city grew … When we talk about perspective, they didn’t have the resources when Greg was mayor anymore than we have the resources now. It was that cusp in the middle where the development impact fees surged and allowed them to respond to the impact of development. …

But [as for] perspective, [we’ll say] “Here’s a situation and here’s what I’m thinking” and “Does this sound like an idea to you?” We don’t typically get down to the yes, no, or, “Am I right or wrong?” Because wives don’t ask their husbands if they’re right or wrong.

— Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN

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