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After a tough weekend for those who care about public affairs, I thought it might be good to review some reasons to be optimistic in San Diego.

I. Compromise and Leadership on the Waterfront: I was extremely excited to learn in the last few days that critics and public officials had forged a compromise about the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan. (Some background may be in order: If you have three minutes, watch this San Diego Explained.)

Basically, go to the corner of Broadway and Harbor Drive in San Diego. When you get there, you’ll see it’s drab, yet full of potential.

It’s San Diego’s front porch. It has easy access to the County Administration Building and Little Italy, the Midway and Maritime Museums, downtown and the new Lane Field project. It’s the waterfront — nice to look at no matter what.

But the port had ruined the appetite for a revitalization of this area when it plopped a gigantic cruise ship terminal down on Broadway Pier. The terminal and the cruise ships require heavy vehicular access so the port scuttled plans to build a public park at that intersection — however informal they may have been — and that infuriated a group of activists, who, led by Ian Trowbridge were able to put together a strong and organized opposition that eventually killed the whole plan in front of the Coastal Commission.

The Mayor’s Office has shown nothing but scorn for the activists, labeling them as part of a theme in San Diego history of stubborn, irrational naysayers in the face of great visions. Others decided to go ahead and treat them like people.

It was clear that what was happening was not just blanket opposition. The activists wanted to improve the North Embarcadero but had seen plans reach what they thought was unacceptable for public space. The port was not innocent in the crisis of the waterfront revival. “Just deal with it” is not how you persuade someone who’s frustrated. 

The argument could have gone on for years and the waterfront could have languished. But thanks to leadership from City Councilman Kevin Faulconer, Labor Council chief Lorena Gonzalez, port officials Scott Peters and Steve Cushman, and Trowbridge’s group, a compromise was reached. The project to the north of Broadway — Lane Field — will now include substantial land for a “grand public plaza” as the U-T called it. Labor also gains the chance to organize workers more freely at the new hotel that will rise out of the Lane Field project.

In exchange, the port will return to the Coastal Commission unified with its critics and looking to get its project back on track.

What this shows is that if you listen to people who are upset with how a project goes forward, perhaps you can work with them on a solution. Kudos to all who kept the pressure on and to the leaders who saw more value in compromising than in stubbornly letting things crumble.

II. Balboa Park: The plan to remake the Plaza de Panama into a pedestrian-friendly and comfortable gathering spot faced apparently intense scrutiny at a public meeting last Saturday. Here is the presentation that proponents of the plan offered.

For background, I would start with my Dec. 1 piece on Balboa Park at a crossroads and, again, if you have three minutes, you should catch up with San Diego Explained.

The preservationists at Save Our Heritage Organization, or SOHO, have lined up as the chief critics of Irwin Jacobs’ idea to reroute traffic coming from the Cabrillo Bridge into a new garage and revitalizing the central Plaza de Panama as a place where you can comfortably walk and gather.  Jacobs and SOHO’s Bruce Coons had a lively debate on KPBS the other day.

SOHO leaders have focused their horror about this plan almost exclusively on the off-ramp at the east end of the bridge envisioned by Jacobs’ team (which has now become the Plaza de Panama Committee).

In their words, this …

… would destroy the historic Cabrillo bridge.

And it would ruin this view of the historic building (which is currently unviewable):

Ironically, they want to protect the Spanish colonial architecture. Giving the plaza back to pedestrians would be more Spanish than any of the alternatives suggested. (I confess to being infected by a love for Spain and its public spaces. The idea we are close to having something similar in such a beautiful place is wonderful to me.)

So why is the current strife a reason to be optimistic? Because the park and the Plaza de Panama are finally getting the attention they deserve. I don’t think that it’s impossible for Jacobs and SOHO to come to a compromise or an understanding. And Councilman Todd Gloria, along with Mayor Jerry Sanders, has the opportunity to lead and create something beautiful. Jacobs, the city’s lead philanthropist (and a VOSD supporter), might take much of the financial problem off the table.

I’m optimistic that I’ll take my then-5-year-old son to the new Plaza de Panama. You can catch up on everything at the new site the park has created for background on this issue.

Combined with the news above about the North Embarcadero, and in the construction of the new Main Library (yes, the one I relentlessly criticized) the revitalization of the Plaza de Panama could begin a new era of public spaces in this city that could not have a climate better suited to have the best of them.

III. Reality from the Governor: As details emerged about Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal spread throughout the state this morning, I’m sure jaws dropped in more than one office.

Two things make me optimistic: One is his proposal to lower state workers’ pay. This is obviously not something to be excited about as these are people’s livelihoods, but I’ll try to explain. The second is he’s providing a major reality check on redevelopment.

Let’s deal with the pay issue. Most of us who have been following the public sector pension crisis for many years have had to come to terms with something: You can’t very easily just wipe away public workers’ pension benefits and the gigantic obligations they’ve built up.

But you can control and even lower the pension burden by changing the salary workers get.

I think salaries are going to be ground zero now for pension talks, as signaled by our own Councilman Carl DeMaio as well. If public sector workers want to protect their guaranteed pension benefits at all costs, then we’ll have to deal with their salaries.

And on redevelopment, the governor could not have been clearer.

As part of the determination of which level of government is best equipped to provide what service, it became clear that the state’s investment in local economic development and redevelopment agencies is less critical than other activities.

Sounds like the discussion on priorities I’ve been dreaming about.

But the governor also suggests something equally as important in my view: Tucked in his proposal is support of the concept of allowing governments to raise taxes for projects they want to build if they’re able to get 55 percent of residents to approve of them in votes.

Right now, you need two-thirds support from voters if you want to, say, raise a sales tax or hotel-room tax to build a new convention center or stadium. If the governor’s idea went through, you would only need 55 percent and it would actually be realistic to imagine it happening.

 These are all very rational discussions to be happening. The more we can make government simple and rational, the more we can really hammer out priorities and set ourselves up for a long-term recovery.

And that’s yet another reason to be optimistic.

IV. The Mayor’s Race: Carl DeMaio decided he wanted to make it clear he as running as early as possible and so, even with 2012 some time away, we will begin to see the framework for the mayor’s race taking shape. Now, whether you can’t stand DeMaio or can’t stand to be without him, appreciate this: None of his rivals are as effective at framing issues as he has proven to be.

Why do I find this a reason for optimism? Because with him in the race and having a chance, the focus of the contest will be right where it has to be: What’s the plan for the recovery of city government and why are you the best person to carry it out?

If U.S. Rep. Bob Filner really is the Democrats’ preferred alternative, he’s going to have to say something, anything, about San Diego public affairs, about our financial crisis, and our deteriorating infrastructure. He’s going to have to do it soon. It may be more politically advantageous for him to sit back and watch DeMaio pick fights with Councilman Faulconer and Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher (maybe even former candidate Steve Francis). But I don’t think that’s acceptable to residents.

All of those Republicans have engaged with San Diego issues. Does Filner even know what we’re dealing with here? Does he care about redevelopment? Fire station brownouts? Parks, libraries and rec centers?

I’m sure he does but here’s hoping that if he is leading the progressives, he actually, you know, leads them in this discussion.

We’ll see, but the focus on city priorities and how we’re going to pay for them will be a valuable one.

You can contact me directly at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!): twitter.com/vosdscott.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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