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The last couple of weeks have been a bit of a roller coaster for Irwin Jacobs. Last week, a controversial initiative the Qualcomm co-founder, billionaire and local philanthropist bankrolled to remake the San Diego Unified School Board failed. Really badly.
On Tuesday, things were looking better for Jacobs after the San Diego City Council voted to support him as he develops a just-as-controversial plan to make over Balboa Park. He had already spent roughly $2 million on the project, but suspended work after a council committee deferred its support last month.
Jacobs has long been known for his support of local universities, arts and cultural institutions. But recently, he’s assumed a more public profile for leading these campaigns and backing the new downtown central library. Controversy is common in business, he said, but in philanthropy, he’s never encountered as much resistance as he has on his plan to transform Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama.
We sat down with Jacobs this week at his home to talk about his recent newsworthy campaigns, the controversy that has surrounded them, and the evolving nature of his philanthropy as he increasingly funds local government projects.
Have you spoken with your team about resuming work on the Balboa Park project?
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I did it right there at the meeting. I told them let’s go and run with it.
A criticism of this project is that there hasn’t really been a public process, that because you were funding it you’ve been able to decide what this beloved public place is going to look like, that the public has been shut out of the process because of that.
That seems a little silly to me. We announced it publicly at a public press event with pictures of what we had in mind over a year ago. That was in all the papers. There have been 80 to 90 meetings since with people, many making arguments against. Those meetings have caused various changes to get made. But when you come down to it there are really, unless someone comes up with some miraculous approach, only two ways to get cars out of the Plaza de Panama, Plaza de California, and the Prado. That’s either to build the centennial bypass bridge or to close the Cabrillo Bridge, and that would cause other problems.
There are two approaches, and we think ours is the better one. But at some point the city is going to have to decide which way to go ahead.
Would you consider putting the parking structure at the west end of Cabrillo Bridge?
That’ll be one of the alternatives in the environmental study. That creates a much longer passage in, and will be expensive. People on the west side don’t really want a parking garage there. We’ll see what happens.
We’ll look at the traffic counts, parking spaces, so we can make decisions based on facts.
At the council meeting there were a lot of long-time San Diegans and people with an intimate connection to the park opposing your plan. But with the exception of a few people, the supporters of it were mostly representing the institutions within the park. Why weren’t there more people from the general public there to support it?
A number of people have written in. I think the question is what moves people and gets them to come in. I would hope that as more information comes out from the EIR, they’ll say this is something we can support.
Have you encountered this level of public controversy on things you’ve funded in the past?
I suppose this probably is the most controversial. Typically we don’t get much attention of this sort.
If you have money and want to do something for the park that’s exciting and really restore it and make it a better place for San Diegans, why not sit down with stakeholders from step one and find out what they want?
We had a press conference and large meeting, and have been listening ever since. If you’re going to get something done at some point, you’re going to have to make some decisions.
Now that the City Council has voted to support you, do you begin fundraising immediately?
Yes. We’ll probably be doing that by looking at some large donations up front, and then move ahead to the general public.
Todd Gloria asked you what would happen if the Plaza de Panama committee runs out of money. You said you didn’t think that would happen. Can you illuminate the subtext there?
I’m confident that if the project moves ahead by the city and hasn’t grown in size and cost, that we’ll be able to get it funded.
Does that mean you’re going to fund it?
I’m hopeful that we’ll get many others to fund it. We’ll certainly do our share.
The city is increasingly coming to rely on outside funding sources —
So-called public-private partnerships.
One of the fundamental discomforts that opponents of your plan have is that the city has had to relinquish some of the control of this plan.
No, the city is going to adopt which approach it wants to go forward, including no approach whatsoever.
But in the end you have the final say on whether to fund the project.
Our position was that if in fact a superior plan comes up that still clears the cars, we would seriously consider it. You have to do something that’s going to get people excited. If you do some halfway measure that doesn’t really improve things, nobody’s going to get behind it, and that’s what’s been happening to date. There’s been no effort to go out and do fundraising because there wasn’t something very exciting to do. If cars keep coming into the plaza, that’s not very exciting. That was the plan the mayor originally brought, and I couldn’t get excited about it.
That’s what it came down to? You weren’t excited about it and didn’t want to fund it?
That particular one I would not fund, that’s right. If it’s not going to get people excited it’s not going to raise funds. The downtown central library is another example. It became an exciting project that we were able to fund.
What was the catalyst that got you to fund the library?
That’s a little harder decision, because what’s the future of libraries is a question, given the huge increase of electronic devices and the internet. But every time we visited cities we always went to the libraries. Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Denver. They’re full of people, always full of people. So whatever the other issues are, they’re great gathering places and socialization places around books.
And then having a school in the library, even though the Voice has taken somewhat of a skeptical attitude, I think is fantastic. What can be better than having kids go to schools very closely associated with books? I was very positive once the school came in.
We recently reported that the Library Foundation is still short on the funding for the downtown library that it needs by January. As of last month they were still more than $25 million short. Does that concern you?
They’re talking with lots and lots of people. Once you have something coming out of the ground and people can say it’s going to happen, it’s a lot easier to raise money. I think there’ll be progress.
If there’s not, will you fund the rest of it?
Uh, I would hope there will be progress.
But if there isn’t?
We just have to look and see where things are.
Do you want your name on the library?
We haven’t made any such decision. It’s hard to say. If someone else came and was willing to make a donation to put their name on the library, that would be fine.
You recently backed the San Diegans 4 Great Schools effort to remake the school board. That failed last week. How did you react?
I was surprised. Everyone was a bit surprised because there were so many duplicate signatures. People are trying to understand what happened.
But there is a remaining need to improve our school system. How best to do that is still an open issue.
Why did you fund that particular initiative?
The school board is responsible for a lot of activities.
Hiring superintendents, setting policies, micromanaging if that is their instinct — which I think is the wrong instinct — getting ready for new approaches. Hiring teachers where the last one hired is the first one fired is a disaster. You get young teachers coming in, they’re the first ones fired, they typically have been put in lower performing schools because they don’t have the seniority. Those schools continue to get hurt by this. You need further discussion as to how to improve this.
Over the next decade there are going to be major changes to education. We’ve talked about technology impacting education for three decades but nothing much has happened. I think this decade, because the devices are so powerful, there will be a major impact.
So you want people thinking about that in great depth. So bringing some expertise to the board and causing it to ask some of these questions I think would be very useful. I’m a great believer of boards having major impact. Good governance can make a major difference. Bringing in four experts plus five elected people kind of is a balance between the appointed and the elected.
That initiative was criticized as being undemocratic because board members would be appointed.
I think allowing people to vote on something, it’s hard to think of that as undemocratic. If people turn it down, fine.
You’ve got pictures here of yourself with Bill Clinton. I saw the letter from Barack Obama out front. Being politically liberal, what did you think of the school board initiative being cast as a business-backed, anti-labor power grab?
As a very liberal Democrat who has voted for good Republicans, I think in this case the unions have overreached a bit as far as limiting the length of the school days and school year, letting go of people based on seniority. There are issues I have, but generally I’m very supportive of most progressive liberal causes.
Traditionally your philanthropy has been focused on culture, arts and education. But not so much on public government projects like these. Is that a departure from your philanthropic philosophy?
Plaza de Panama is a little different. The mayor came to us and we thought we found a much better project. Once you make a suggestion you have to be in the position to follow through on it. So we’re following through.
Have you decided who you’re supporting for the mayor’s race?
Would you like to make it public now?
San Diego has this reputation for spending beyond its means, with talk of the new City Hall, the Convention Center expansion, the downtown stadium. You’re providing partial but not complete funding for the public library and the Plaza de Panama project. By doing that, are you encouraging the city to spend and helping perpetuate that reputation?
I think it’s important to have some civic projects we can all be proud of. The more we do here in San Diego, the more positive it will be. One does have to worry about operating costs, and that was one reason we put additional money up for the central library operations. That’s why having paid parking in the plaza project is important. But I think it’s very important.
What have you learned from the Plaza de Panama process up to now?
That people can object to a lot of different things. That one needs to be patient and persistent. It’s very similar to the business situation. You come up with something innovative, there are going to be a lot of naysayers.
Ultimately they all say they invented it. That’s OK.
Disclosure: Jacobs is a major donor to voiceofsandiego.org.