Wednesday, March 5, 2008 | It seems presumptuous to be presenting five things needed in San Diego. How can any person purport to have answers that are accurate or meaningful to the citizens as a whole? What is “needed” depends greatly upon an individual’s current realities.

A young person looking for a first job or a place to live has a very different priority list than a working couple with a young family to raise and educate, who themselves have very different needs than someone like me with grown children and my place in the community essentially established.

This reality leads to what I believe to be an essential first priority — a meaningful platform for all viewpoints to be heard and debated, ultimately leading to more broadly supported public policy initiatives. Too much “noise” claiming to represent community-wide values and goals is made by too few.

Yet, participating regularly in the public policy process is a luxury, and the vast majority of citizens, regardless of their level of commitment and caring, simply do not the time or realistic opportunity to do so.

The good news is that there are people of goodwill and high energy in our community who can speak to the perspectives and needs of otherwise unheard segments of the population. Unfortunately, in the current structure most often their voices are only heard, after interminable and painful waits, in two or three-minute presentations at a public hearing. It is almost impossible to imagine a more inefficient and unworkable format for true policy discussion than the overly structured and too often adversarial environment of a public hearing before a legislative body.

Currently, there are individuals and organizations actively discussing the need for a meaningful, inclusive platform for community engagement and discussion. What this platform will ultimately look like, if constructed, is not yet clear. As they evolve, these efforts should be encouraged and supported. Imagine a place where people can freely share concerns and offer and debate ideas for a better San Diego. With leadership and a commitment to mutual respect, such a place could well become the incubator for real and achievable policies and initiatives, ultimately adopted as part of our community framework and culture.

In most local political jurisdictions many heated and contentious debates involve land use decisions. Every land use decision impacts someone’s real or perceived financial interest or sense of place. Yet I believe we can minimize the “land use wars,” increase the predictability of outcomes for communities, individuals and property owners, and in a small way improve affordability.

Doing so requires that we (and in this section I’m referring only to the city of San Diego, since it is the regulatory pattern I know best) need to simplify our land use regulations and codes. Let me emphatically emphasize that to simplify is not to deregulate or alter the regulatory intent. In fact, I do not believe our regulatory goals are excessive for a maturing area like San Diego. What is excessive are the redundant, inconsistent and overlapping regulatory codes and rules.

The rewriting of the land use codes and regulations is a perfect place where a broad-based, inclusive community process, as envisioned above, is essential. Done properly, property owners would know what is permitted and not permitted on their properties, as well as adjoining parcels, resulting in greater certainty to owners, neighbors, communities and investors. As part of the area-wide determinations, master EIR’s would be completed, and the resulting constraints and mitigations identified. With the allowed land uses known and vested, the variables are reduced to design and statutory conformance.

Known land use options reduce speculation and stabilize prices.

My conclusion when I was part of the process is that as the rules are now written individuals and neighborhoods lose more than they gain by the current unpredictable, expensive and adversarial system.

For any planning to work, infrastructure must keep pace. For decades San Diego, and in fact all of urban California, has lived in a fantasy land that public infrastructure can go under-maintained for long periods of time without consequence. We are now waking up to the fact that it cannot. Whether or not a single new housing unit is built or business started we must find the money to maintain the public infrastructure we expect and demand. To do so means we need to support a funding mechanism to generate restricted dollars to repair and improve public infrastructure.

There are various options available to generate the needed funding. We are a large and relatively affluent region. In a 2005 study the Center on Policy Initiatives compared the taxes paid in the city of San Diego to other large metropolitan areas of California. We were the lowest or next to the lowest in every category! For example, unlike the vast majority of cities, San Diego has no real estate transfer tax.

A city councilman recently noted that if we imposed a nominal 0.3 percent (one-third of one percent) real estate transfer tax — on a $400,000 sale this would produce a tax of $1,333 — the city would generate $150,000,000 per annum in revenue that could be spent on infrastructure. Our believing our trash should be collected for free is another example.

A good source of revenue, with many additional public policy benefits, is paid parking. There are amazing studies on the cost of free parking on a city. I confess that I hate to pay to park and will drive around for blocks to find an open free space or a cheap meter. And that is the point. We collectively clog our streets with many thousands of additional miles and pump tons of avoidable exhaust into the air as we look for something that, I submit, is not available and we do not expect to find in any other city.

Where would the money from paid parking go? Into infrastructure in the communities where it is generated. Paid parking at a nominal amount would pay for every improvement needed in Balboa Park, including very low visibility, structured parking, which would allow some of the current horrible asphalt lots to be reclaimed as real park space. The walls and sidewalks at the beaches could be kept in perfect repair, and a free beach shuttle from the freeways could be fully funded from beach parking fees. It’s disingenuous for our leaders and citizens to bemoan the area’s dependence on the automobile, while continuing to subsidize and encourage car driving by resisting paid parking.

Under California law, if the money collected is going to be restricted to infrastructure, a two-thirds vote is required. Therefore, broad public involvement and support will be critical. If we are serious about maintaining our fantastic and envied quality of life, we need to invest in our public assets. No one likes taxes, but we can’t not pay on one hand and criticize the results of not paying on the other.

We need to participate in and support the construction of the new city hall and civic center. The public input process is currently underway. I anticipate that when the facts are all in and analyzed the case for a new Civic Center will be clear and compelling.

If it were up to me, I would combine the new, downtown library with the new Civic Center project. While I appreciate the time and money that has already been spent on the currently proposed library site, the economic benefits and the increased energy that would result from combining these two important public uses are huge.

Beyond the long-term economic benefits to the city, this project can serve as an example of this community working together to do something bold and positive, verses our too often negative and “no we can’t” attitude. Let’s work together to build the greenest and most dynamic civic center in America. Combined with the opportunity that exists to work with the state of California on its adjacent surplus properties and the Centre City Development Corp.’s plan to revitalize C Street, a new Civic Center would transform our city’s image, and our image of our city.

The second, third and fourth suggestions above not only require broad-based community input and participation but above all will need political leadership willing to articulate a broad vision and determined to rise or fall politically in the effort to carry out that vision. Why is it so difficult to find that type of political leadership? From my brief time in government, I concluded that the system works to negate strong vision and visionaries. Men and women get elected to office with high hopes and strong goals. From there it goes downhill.

I don’t pretend to know all the reasons why. If I had to pick one, it would be because in the day-to-day conduct of government, it is a small minority of negative voices and special interests that dominate the discussion, attend the hearings, and rant on the blogs. The daily assaults from all sides feel unrelenting from the inside and ultimately create such a negative and painful internal environment that elected officials unknowingly shrink back into an ever smaller circle of advisors and adopt the easy and uncontroversial. The “political experts” constantly preach that the key to reelection is the avoidance of controversy, and the way to avoid controversy is to do nothing dramatic! By not insisting otherwise, citizens unintentionally give credence to this cynical and unproductive advice.

When I began writing this piece it was not my intention to end by circling back to the first of my listed needs, but that is what happened. If we, the vast majority of the community, want the type of strong, visionary leaders we claim we yearn for, we must organize our collective voice to actively and consistently demand and then support the types of achievable and visionary actions our community is capable of creating and carrying to fruition.

Jim Waring is a local lawyer and former deputy chief operating officer for land use and economic development. What are the five things you think San Diego needs? Write your piece and e-mail it here.

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