Note: Murtaza Baxamusa hosted the Café San Diego on Tuesday.

Saturday, June 16, 2007 | The witch-hunt for nefarious actors on the Sunroad project ignores the reality of the sweet deal developers get every day at the Development Services Department. As developers enter the main lobby of 1222 First Avenue, they are greeted by an on-the-floor ombudsman doing spot checks to see that everyone is happy and a posted “Customer Bill of Rights” on imitation parchment paper meant to resemble the 1791 Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution. For example:

You have the right to receive a return phone call from your inspector by 10 a.m., when a message is left before 7:45 a.m.

Development Services boasts of efforts to “streamline the permitting process,” including over-the-counter permits and “inspectors for hire,” demonstrating an apologetic culture in implementing regulations. Departmental staff continually report to an advisory committee consisting mainly of building industry lobbyists on everything from minor staffing changes to major land-use policies.

The results are impressive. Development Services continues to get high customer service points in developer surveys. It performs three-quarters of all reviews in two or fewer cycles (which saves developers the additional drawings, project changes and waiting time required by more cycles) and aims for even faster reviews. In a study of other jurisdictions nationwide, none had shorter review times than San Diego.

The sweet deal for developers in San Diego is demonstrated in our development agreements as well. These agreements are intended to guarantee developers entitlements (right-to-build) into the future in exchange for public benefits. In the case of Sunroad, the developer promised “extraordinary benefits” in 1997 when the original agreement was approved. Then, the goalposts started moving around in subsequent amendments Several amendments occurred long after a 45-foot height limit was imposed on the underlying zone in January 2000. But Development Services interpreted the developer’s entitlements quite generously:

The proposed building height of 180 feet is adequate because the old CA zone has no building height limit.

So we made an agreement with no building height limit! Conferring the underlying zone’s unlimited height in 1997 to completely different projects is like backdating stock options.

Add a developer-friendly streamlined review process to a badly written development agreement, and you have a disaster waiting to happen. In a previous voiceofsandiego.org blog, I mentioned a history of bad deals the City has made: the Chargers ticket guarantee, Naval Training Center, Navy Broadway Complex and the College Grove Wal-Mart. Add Sunroad to this list.

In January 2005, the city first came to know of Sunroad’s intentions to build a 180 feet tower. It took an entire year of reviews, especially because of concerns by planning and engineering staff whether the project substantially conformed with the original agreement, and could be approved without City Council hearings. In January 2006, Mayor Sanders’ administration got new-found powers under “Strong Mayor” to directly control the Development Services Department. In less than a month, Sunroad’s 180 feet tower’s Substantial Conformance Review was completed. In planning terms, this is equivalent to a promissory note by the city to approve all future development permits without public review.

Within three months, the developer started pulling permits, and soon construction began. Development Services had been cast into a spell by its own streamlining mantra.

In April 2006, FAA started noticing this tall building, and the rest is history …

Murtaza Baxamusa is a certified planner. Send a letter to the editor.

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