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Thursday, March 29, 2007 | My wife is an officer in the Navy. Several years ago, she received a list of local establishments from her command. It was an account of places that — as upstanding representatives of the U.S. military — officers like her were not allowed to frequent. One of the places listed was a bathhouse in Little Italy, only two blocks from where we lived at the time.
It’s on Cedar Street, past Kettner.
Since then, I’ve always found it fascinating that there — across the street from an elementary school for homeless and at-risk kids and a kite string away from the ornate County Administration Center — is a bathhouse.
Anyway, on the other side of the bathhouse, to the east, lie the trolley tracks. Across the tracks, toward the heart of Little Italy, there is a parking lot.
It’s flat. It’s one of only areas in Little Italy that still looks unpolished. If you walk past it on the way to, say, the Santa Fe Depot, you might smell urine. This is normal in the rest of downtown but not in Little Italy.
This — all 52,000 square feet — is county land and Supervisor Ron Roberts has big hopes for it.
For years, Roberts has been pushing to develop this area. It seems to finally be happening. The county has officially asked developers to come up with proposals for the parcel. The proposals are due in June. They each have one major requirement: They have to build a parking lot capable of holding 750 automobiles. See, the deal is, whoever builds the county this parking lot will most likely get the property rights for whatever land remains. They can build a hotel, offices or condominiums on it.
It’s part of trend in the way local governments imagine building the projects of their dreams. Ever-cognizant of the stinginess of San Diego taxpayers, local leaders have decided that the best way to build major facilities in the future — sports stadiums, new government buildings and their parking garages — might be to give away government-owned land rights in return for a developer’s commitment to build these facilities.
The sting of a straight-up taxpayer investment in a project appears to be numbed a bit by plans like this.
Look at the Navy Broadway Complex; look at the Chargers’ hopes for a new stadium; look at the mayor’s recent push to build a new City Hall. They all revolve around the same concept.
It’s the swapsidy: Build me a nice City Hall and I’ll give you land so you can build condos right next to it.
It’s the blueprint and the most attractive way, apparently, now for government leaders to do the deals of their dreams.
Take Roberts. The supervisor and others, for years, have been chasing the elusive prospect of a massive park that would surround the County Administration Center right there on the bay front. It really would be a dreamy landscape, if it came out the way he describes it.
It seems like every year in the past seven, Roberts has announced a breakthrough in his quest to get this thing done. The county has considered it. The coastal commission has written it up.
But right now, that would-be park is actually two real-life parking lots. County employees and young people hoping to get married by County Assessor Greg Smith (perhaps the fastest talker in the county) have long had a very convenient place to park their cars.
Where else in downtown can you pull up close to the entry of the building where you have an appointment and park for free for a reasonable amount of time?
The parking lots on both sides of the county building right now contain 1,100 spaces. Roberts would like the county to build a 750-space parking garage up the street on top of the lot next to the bathhouse. Another 350 or so spaces would be built in a garage underneath the new park.
It’s a big project. The only way to get it done, according to Roberts, is to give some of that county land to developers.
Just south of Roberts’ dream land, the Navy plans to build a sparkling new headquarters on the Navy Broadway Complex. But why spend the money, the admirals wondered, when you could give away most of the property rights on the land to a developer in exchange for that builder’s commitment to build the headquarters?
Just east of that deal is City Hall. There are few more retro-looking buildings in town than the City Administration Building. It can’t be a safe building. If we experience an earthquake any time soon, I think I would rather be hanging out in the inner sanctum of a nuclear reactor when it hits.
The mayor wants to replace it with a bigger building — one that would fit all of the city government offices sprawled in other edifices of downtown’s core. He is planning to put out requests for proposals on that deal. How is Enron by the Sea going to pay for that?
And the Chargers. The team and its friends may someday soon persuade a local city that it and other local governments must act to keep professional football in San Diego. The Chargers, for a few years now, have been advocating for a new stadium. If National City, for instance, started to get the ball rolling on it, National City would need the city of San Diego to give the Chargers a bunch of land. The San Diego land wouldn’t house the stadium, it would be developed by the Chargers and the team’s partners into condos or offices or hotels or petting zoos — whatever made the most cash.
These deals are all swaps: the new government facility in exchange for property development rights or straight-up land ownership. And they are all subsidies of private businesses: the company who successfully ends up with the deal will, likely, earn millions.
They are swapsidies.
These projects and more will be part of our civic discussions for the indefinite future. They each have their benefits to the government — and therefore, supposedly, the public: a new, beautiful bay front park, a new military headquarters, a new stadium and a new City Hall.
But they will all have their downsides as well. Once you sell or give away land, you aren’t going to get it back.
There is a short-term outlook currently sweeping City Hall, for instance, as it considers the value of the properties it owns. The mayor recently announced he plans on selling $30 million worth of the city’s land.
Dumping assets like these may bring in money, but once you spend that money, it’s gone.
Proponents of these deals often make the case that the land they are talking about handing over the rights to is in shambles or is underutilized. They point out the immediate advantages of developing it.
But just because there is a plan to utilize land better now doesn’t mean it’s the best plan. And land, just like any other asset is an investment. It might very well be in a government’s and therefore community’s interest to leave land alone — to “land bank.”
What San Diegans will need to prepare themselves to do is analyze these deals in coming years. Is the parking lot next to the bathhouse really only worth what Roberts hopes to get out of it? Do we want to exchange city of San Diego’s land for the prospect that we will have football in town for years to come?
If the community decides, after all the facts are on the table, that it wants to swapsidize a project, let’s do it.
We shouldn’t be under any illusion, however, that we are somehow obligated to do these deals or that they are cheaper than other kinds of subsidies. These are choices.
The best the elected officials can do is give us good options.