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The first pro-Kevin Faulconer mailer arrived at my house Friday. Paid for by the Building Industry Association and the California Restaurant Association, it touted Faulconer’s effort to save jobs at Solar Turbines near Little Italy.
“When Solar Turbines’ presence was threatened in San Diego, Kevin fought to protect the company’s facility and the thousands of jobs provided to San Diegans,” it reads.
What the mailer didn’t mention was that the downtown community plan Faulconer helped put into place was at the heart of why Solar Turbines felt threatened in the first place.
The whole story not only sheds light on how much the city and Faulconer have changed during his long term on the City Council but also on the very similar fight now taking place in Barrio Logan a few miles to the south.
In 2011, Solar Turbines began a war with Fat City Lofts. Fat City was poised to develop the old restaurant owned by Tom Fat and his family. They were going to build apartments for rent. The developer and his architect, Jonathan Segal, had assuaged worried preservationists and were close to breaking ground.
The developer, Garth Erdossy, had been a big fan of building downtown. As he gushed to me at the time, downtown’s 2006 community plan made it easy to build. You merely conformed to the plan, and you were pretty much a go.
His new project at Fat City conformed to the community plan.
But Solar Turbines was worried. Fat City was right across the street from Solar Turbines. If residents moved in, the manufacturer might be in trouble. Solar Turbines occasionally has to get permits for small amounts of pollution the company let out when testing new ways of making their turbines more efficient.
Were residents to move in so close, getting those permits might become more difficult.
The company began rallying support. Pretty soon, almost all local elected officials (except Mayor Jerry Sanders) united at the company’s side. Several local leaders, including Faulconer and his now-rival, Nathan Fletcher, appeared at a big press conference at Solar Turbines.
As lobbying got intense, CCDC rejected Fat City’s plan. The big decision next was headed to the Planning Commission and may have come down to the City Council. But before it could get more controversial, Fat City announced that it would build a hotel instead of a housing project.
The hotel was approved and Solar Turbines felt saved. Now, an update to the community plan is moving through the process and it will have a buffer around Solar Turbines.
The mailer this week claims Faulconer “helped bring leaders together from the community and nearly every level of government to keep Solar Turbines in San Diego.”
That may be. But five years earlier, Faulconer and a crucial majority of his colleagues did not heed Solar Turbines’ pleas not let this happen in the first place.
Dial back to 2005. The housing market was soaring. The city and many housing developers wanted to increase how many housing units could be built downtown. Led by the Centre City Development Corp., the city was working hastily on a community plan that would make it as easy as possible to build big housing projects. It was Faulconer’s district and he worked closely with CCDC.
Solar Turbines lobbied CCDC, which made preliminary decisions on the plan, to not let land around the company be zoned for homes.
“We lobbied, worked very hard with CCDC, many people did, including the Port of San Diego, the Industrial Environmental Association, to do something about this zoning and we were unsuccessful with CCDC in 2006,” said Craig Anderson, a Solar Turbines executive, in a 2011 interview.
Solar Turbines’ president, Jim Umpleby, reiterated it in that same exchange with me in 2011.
“We did lodge our objection, in writing, at the time it was put together,” Umpleby said.
But Faulconer made the motion and, with a 6-2 vote, the City Council approved the community plan. That decision set in motion the confrontation with a housing developer Solar Turbines would face five years later.
I asked Faulconer’s team whether it wanted to add any perspective to what happened.
“These plans are extensive. I’m sure he looked at it similarly to a budget. Is there everything I want in this budget? No. But it comes pretty close,” said Tony Manolatos, Faulconer’s campaign spokesman, about the community plan.
Matt Awbrey, Faulconer’s spokesman for his City Council office, told me that the councilman’s experience with Solar Turbines is part of what motivates him to fight the Barrio Logan community plan update.
It’s a similar issue. Industrialists in Barrio Logan are afraid of what developments will occur in the long term along a strip of land north of Harbor Drive. Will they pose similar threats Solar Turbines faced in 2011?
“Jobs should be the No. 1 criteria for review when deciding whether a residential development should be approved. That’s why he’s working so hard now to make sure in the Barrio Logan community plan, these types of jobs are protected,” Awbrey said.
But he did not remember why Faulconer approved the downtown community plan over Solar Turbines’ objections in 2006.
“San Diego can’t afford to let thousands of jobs leave the City,” the mailer reads. “That’s why we need Kevin Faulconer for Mayor.”
Faulconer has apparently learned a golden lesson leaders of industrial facilities picked up the hard way. As Anderson from Solar Turbines told me in that 2011 interview, once residents move into a place, it’s hard for industrial facilities to fight them.
“Residents get into a conflict and typically the residents win,” he said.
Correction: The developer of the Fat City project I spoke with was Garth Erdossy, not Graham Downes, as the piece originally read. My apologies.