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Analysis: Democratic mayoral candidate Bob Filner has bold ideas about changing redevelopment in San Diego.
He wants to “abolish” the city’s downtown redevelopment agency, the Centre City Development Corp., and replace it with a program that focuses on other neighborhoods.
Filner says downtown’s relative prosperity means redevelopment’s work is done. And he argues he has the bona fides to know.
He has repeated a familiar tale. As the story goes, before redevelopment began, sailors frequented the Gaslamp’s pornography shops and tattoo parlors and city spent millions cleaning up its squalor. Today, after years of redevelopment, tourists frequent the Gaslamp’s bars and restaurants and the city reaps millions from their spending.
Filner claims revitalizing the Gaslamp was his work.
“When I was a city councilman, I represented downtown,” Filner said at a mayoral debate last week. “I wrote the Gaslamp plan. The Gaslamp went from zero to an incredible, lively thing because we had a focused program of investment and neighborhood input.”
It’s true that Filner represented downtown when he served on the council from 1987 to 1992. It’s also true that there were changes to Gaslamp’s redevelopment plan during his time in office.
But the key steps in Gaslamp redevelopment happened long before Filner became a councilman.
Jimmy Parker, the executive director of the Gaslamp Quarter Association business group, has a framed brochure on the wall in his office. It details the first plans for Gaslamp revitalization down to the kinds of sidewalk pavers and brick patterns.
The brochure is dated April 1978, nine years before Filner was elected.
“On the visioning, this was way ahead of his time,” Parker said.
That brochure lists Michael Stepner as a city planner on the Gaslamp plan. Stepner, who now teaches at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design, was in charge of Gaslamp revitalization efforts from the mid 1970s to the early 1990s. He oversaw the neighborhood when it became a formal redevelopment zone in 1982, a landmark step in plans for its revitalization.
During Filner’s tenure, the city made changes to urban design regulations in the Gaslamp and later merged the project with others as part of a massive expansion of downtown redevelopment. That plan continued redevelopment in the Gaslamp and brought the program to East Village for the first time.
Stepner said Filner was an active participant during that process. But by then, Gaslamp redevelopment was well underway.
“There were a lot of people involved in this, and Bob was one of them,” Stepner said. “But he wasn’t the single-handed hero that maybe the statement implies.”
Archives from the Union-Tribune support that view. The expansion plan took years of work, numerous meetings and a 26-member community panel headed by Horton Plaza developer Ernest Hahn, stories said. Filner was quoted as the councilman representing the area and he made the formal motion to approve the merger and expansion plan. The newspaper never identified him as an author of that plan or any Gaslamp plan.
We don’t know precisely what Filner means by “wrote the Gaslamp plan.” We contacted his campaign, but didn’t receive a response.
The full context of Filner’s statement at the debate, however, implies that he was the key figure in Gaslamp redevelopment. And the statement is a talking point on his campaign.
Here’s what he said to the local Democratic Party in a September speech. (It starts at about the 5 minute, 20 second mark in the video linked to this East County Magazine article):
“We’ve all watched downtown redevelopment. It’s been a success to some degree, in terms of the degrees that they defined it. In fact, when I was on the City Council, I represented downtown. It’s so long ago nobody here was born yet, probably. [Laughter]
I wrote the Gaslamp plan. You go down to the Gaslamp today, whereas 15 years ago – it’s lively, it’s dynamic, there’s things happening, it brings tourists. Fifteen years ago, there was zero people on the street. I mean there was some porno shops. [Laughter]
There were tattoo parlors. The Navy guys strolled around but that was it. We changed that through a concentrated effort at planning and investment, which changed the whole nature of downtown.”
Our definition of a misleading statement is one that takes an element of truth and badly distorts it or exaggerates it giving a deceptive impression. It fits here.
In this case, the element of truth is that Filner represented downtown and was involved in the process of merging Gaslamp redevelopment with other neighborhoods and expanding redevelopment into East Village. But there are two key distortions that give a deceptive impression to his statement.
A Gaslamp revitalization plan was in place almost a decade before Filner came into office. There’s no evidence he was anything more than an active participant in a plan that continued Gaslamp redevelopment while he was a councilman. In short, others had laid the groundwork for Gaslamp revitalization and redevelopment years before Filner was elected to the council.
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Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects.
Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5663.
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