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Saturday, Jan. 20, 2007 | Mary McLellan didn’t expect to double the female contingent when she walked into a national meeting of 50 chapter representatives of the Urban Land Institute last year. “There were only two women — one other than me,” she said. “I was shocked. I had never thought of it before.”

Maybe McLellan hadn’t thought about it because she was too busy running a consulting practice and working with community members in the Logan Heights, Stockton and Grant Hill neighborhoods to stave off what they considered the imminent sweep of development from downtown’s East Village. She’s also worked for other community-development companies and been involved in the Downtown San Diego Partnership.

McLellan was recently named the first executive director for the San Diego/Tijuana ULI District Council. ULI hosts well-attended panels and discussion groups on local land-use and development issues. She chaired its board for the last two years.

McLellan sat down with us for a chat about the relationship between developers and government, and what the region can learn from studying other cities in the world.

What’s the Urban Land Institute all about?

It’s about city building and ULI is really known for being on the edge of what’s happening. It’s still a wonderful place to network and do business — you know, the best in the industry come to ULI, both nationally and internationally. But it’s more, where are we going as an industry? How are we going to get there? What’s the plan for the region, the city? What do the citizens want? What’s the vision? And how does the industry connect to all of that? … We do not lobby, but we advocate. We bring people together to dialog about how the city is unfolding.

What’s the difference between lobbying and advocating?

That’s a good question. You know, we don’t make trips to City Hall, or to the state Legislature, and say, “This is good, or that’s good,” but we try to present all sides. During this last election, we had a panel discussion on Prop. 90 (an eminent domain ballot measure), and we discussed both sides, and it got pretty heated. And I was chair of the board at the time … and people in the audience, before, were putting pressure on me and saying, “ULI needs to stand up and tell people what to do.” And I said, “You just can’t do that. Listen to what these folks have to say and make your decision.”

So, with these kind of discussions, what’s the ultimate goal? Is consensus the ultimate goal? Is it just furthering the discussion? Or is there ever some sort of ULI-recommended course of action?

Well, not politically. But we have a program … that we do at the national and the local level, where a community would invite us and say, “We have this challenge; we want to make our area more walkable,” or “We’re not having any luck attracting retailers,” or “Our transportation system is not working very well,” and we call our membership and find experts, put a panel together, and it can be a long process. … There, we would offer recommendations — it would be like a client. … San Diego (ULI district) started out more as a breakfast club, and over time, it’s grown to a place where we look at issues that are challenging.

How would you characterize the relationship between city government and the developers?

Well, I can’t say overall, but I do think there’s some antagonism. … With a city that’s growing at the rate that we’re growing — and the projection is to add another million people in the next 30 years — there’s a lot of pressure. We’re going to need to be creative to develop this region, we’re going to have to densify. We’re going to have to look at the hard issues of infrastructure financing. I mean, we’re millions of dollars in deficit in infrastructure financing already. How are we going to put more density in there? We’re going to have to have that in place. And it’s really challenging.

And so, I have found that developers across the board are more engaged in their communities where they’re building. They want to know what is happening, where the economic bases are, the pulse of a community, you know. …

I think in our city, and in our nation — especially on the coasts, where a lot of the growth is expected to take place — citizens are going to have to get a lot more involved. And with globalization, where will our country fit? Everyone will need to pay more attention.

How likely is that to happen, for citizens to pay more attention and get more involved civically — let’s say, in the next decade or so?

Oh, well, it’s imperative. Because we’re going to get left behind. … You know, what’s the future of San Diego; what are we going to be when we grow up? That’s always the question. I don’t think it’s ever been answered. It’s always kind of moved around, around, around. From defense to high-tech, to bio-tech, to tourism — which are great — but if we’re looking out, then what are the opportunities?

What do you think that future might look like?

I think that, because we’re in California, and because San Diegans are just crazy about the environment here — they love being outside, they love the mountains, the ocean, Balboa Park, they love to be out and walk, to hike. One of our top values in this region is the environment. And I think we can capitalize on that value. And we can also use it as something that brings us pride. … Develop industries based on new forms of energy: solar, wind. Also, look at how we develop our buildings — what kind of materials are we using?

I think that we have the opportunity to be a city that’s really forward-looking. Places like Shanghai, because hundreds of thousands of people are moving in from the countryside, they’re forced to build their new cities in a totally sustainable way. So they’re setting a template for all of the cities around the world. And they’re doing it from scratch, it’s brand new. So we can learn from their mistakes. What works, what doesn’t work.

Do you think that the developers here, especially right now, in a slower time for residential development, will be friendly to those kinds of alternative energy sources that may cost more right now but save residents and the city in the long term?

The cost issue — I mean, it’s really becoming more and more affordable. … Any developer, any business owner, any government official, any citizen, who’s not paying attention to what’s happening in this world, from an environmental perspective, they’re going to miss out. Because it’s not 10 years, 20 years down the road; it’s right now. And so anyone that’s looking for excuses, better start paying attention.

Do San Diegans tend to just hope that everything will be OK?

I think that’s kind of — I hate to say it — but it’s human nature. We don’t move, we don’t evolve, we don’t make things happen in a new way until we have a fire lit under us. That’s just human nature.

‘Smart growth’ is bounced around a lot, that phrase. How do you define it?

It does change meaning … but really, the bottom line of smart growth is developing projects in communities or cities from holistic perspectives. How do you get around most efficiently — from a transit perspective, from a pedestrian perspective? How does the sunlight hit the building so that you can use less energy, use photovoltaic cells? Those kinds of things.

And are there any neighborhoods in San Diego — I know there was the City of Villages idea — that seem to exhibit those qualities? Or has that kind of fallen off the radar?

Well, downtown is an example, and it’s only half-done. It’s just starting to be populated. And the retail will start coming, and the markets will come. It’s slowed down a little bit now, but we do know, over time, that it’ll get more dense downtown. And this is really our laboratory to see, in this much density, how people live together, work together. …

But each place is different. Downtown does not belong in Golden Hill or Chula Vista or Lakeside. Each community has its own flavor.

One of the biggest issues in the development world and in real estate, especially residential real estate, is the affordability. What would you say to a working class family with three kids in San Diego? Are they priced out forever? Should home-owning be an ultimate goal?

That’s a really good question — should that be the goal? Is homeownership for everyone? That’s one question for us. But I think that affordability… should maybe be a public-private partnership. Maybe the market just can’t support affordable homes. … We need a range of houses for people to live in. Maybe the marketplace needs some incentives to build them.

What responsibility does a city have to care for its homeowners and its working class? Is that something that city dollars should be going to subsidize? Or should it be a natural thing — if you can’t afford a home, then you rent. Or you live, maybe, across the border. Or you live in Riverside County.

Those are your choices, your options now. I don’t think we’ve found any solutions that are really working. We’ve tried some incentives, but everyone pays in-lieu fees. So obviously that didn’t work. It was a good idea, but it didn’t work. … All big cities are struggling. …. The affordability issue, I don’t think anyone’s got their arms around that yet. It requires the creativity and the entrepreneurship that the marketplace holds, working with the government.

How is it being a woman in the culture of development in San Diego, which seems so predominantly male?

I think it is a perfect time for women to be more involved in real estate development, because women bring a very different perspective, and many times one that is more creative. Men tend to be really focused and logical and methodical — not that women aren’t — but women bring strengths more in the area of creativity. And I think that together, having more women in this industry, and more women in our government — you know, Nancy Pelosi is just very exciting — it brings in a different dynamic. And we need that right now, ’cause we’re headed down a road that needs more creativity.

— Interview by KELLY BENNETT

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