Back to the Top Ten stories to look for in 2008. Bear in mind that this list may reflect not only what I, in my best judgment and research, believe will become big stories in the coming year but also what I want to become big stories. So there’s that.

With that disclosure in mind, let’s take it to No. 4 in the list of stories that I think will be big in local politics and policy in 2008.

4. Redevelopment

If you didn’t see this story, which ran Jan. 2, give it a look. The story by Will Carless and Andrew Donohue further documents the questionable sequence of events that have led to the current development plan for the Valencia Business Park in Southeast San Diego.

Commercial or Industrial? Whatever the developer wants.

Here’s a brief backgrounder for those who haven’t followed this saga: The Southeastern Economic Development Corp., or SEDC, originally planned to make Valencia a plot of industrial land. They chose a developer based on that firm’s plan for an industrial park. But since then, SEDC has allowed the developer to essentially rewrite the terms. And the agency’s leader went to bizarre lengths to help the developer, a well-connected Beverly Hills-based firm, clear obstacles in the way of its plans for the area.

Now though, the developer wants to go a different route. Although demand for industrial land exists and there’s no indication that they ever marketed it to potential tenants who might want to build industrial facilities, the agency and the developer threw up their hands and declared that nobody was interested in it as industrial land.

They decided to zone it for commercial. That approval is making its way to the City Council, which has ultimate authority over SEDC actions. If the developer gets its way, the value of its investment in the property will likely skyrocket as the commercial zoning will allow for a much more lucrative grocery store and surrounding amenities. Yet the city has no plans to make the developer pay more for the land it received at a dirt cheap rate.

Many say a grocery store is what is needed for the area. But the path SEDC has taken to get it there and to direct such a well-connected developer to a potential boon is characteristically suspicious.

This is one of the many strange stories to emerge from SEDC after reporting in The agency has failed to ensure that people who purchased government-subsidized affordable housing weren’t able to immediately flip the properties for substantial profits. And it has been less than truthful about its employee salaries in explanations to the City Council.

Redevelopment agencies in San Diego have long pretended that they were somehow independent of City Hall and therefore somehow removed from scrutiny. They have argued that the money they spend is not the city’s it’s the “redevelopment agency’s” and so $80 million, for instance, on a downtown library is not tax dollars, it’s a contribution from a downtown “corporation.”

Redevelopment can be a good thing. What has happened downtown is, in many ways, spectacular. But the city’s redevelopment agencies perform a basic task: they give away government money and land in order to stimulate development. This process can easily be abused or mismanaged and it demands intense scrutiny.

SEDC’s intense secrecy, however, has only generated suspicion. The mayor has promised a thorough audit. The City Council has unenthusiastically done so as well.

Any results of efforts to open SEDC up will surely provide important stories for 2008. And as SEDC’s counterpart downtown, the Centre City Development Corp., sets its priorities for a post condo-boom reality, it will make news. Its leaders say they are planning for a new phase: Building the infrastructure and quality-of-life amenities that will fill in the canyons between the massive condo towers they built first.

We’ll see this process formalized in coming months. How San Diego spends its redevelopment dollars must continue to become a public exercise — not the private process many have counted on it being.

As long as people keep shining a light on how that money is spent, we have a chance of spending it well.


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