A City Council committee that seemed bent on adding government oversight to San Diego’s former redevelopment agency has made an about-face.

The Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee voted Wednesday to give Civic San Diego the benefit of the doubt – at least until March.

Speak City Heights

At issue is a lack of recourse for residents in the disenfranchised neighborhoods Civic San Diego plans to revitalize.

In 2012 the state ended its redevelopment program that helped cities fund improvements in neglected parts of town. So San Diego’s agencies that handled redevelopment merged and were reborn as Civic San Diego.

The state’s move also unwound the strings attached to community reinvestment work done by groups like Civic San Diego. As it stands now, if residents don’t like what Civic San Diego has planned for their community, they can only go to its board of directors.

Committee Chair Marti Emerald aimed to change that when she posted the agenda item – deviously, some alleged – last Wednesday. The timing of the meeting (just enough weeks before the Democrat-majority City Council could evaporate) and Emerald’s stern speech introducing the item at Wednesday’s meeting suggested Civic San Diego would soon have a new master.

“The (Civic San Diego) board, in essence, is not accountable to the city or the taxpayer, and that troubles me very deeply,” Emerald said in the meeting. “And I might say the reaction we’ve received from leadership of Civic San Diego has troubled me even more. There seems to be dramatic pushback to an effort toward greater transparency.”

But after about an hour of public comment, the committee’s bravado faded. It voted to sit on its hands while Civic San Diego moves forward on an existing plan to draft its own policy to protect the public interest as it develops in Encanto and City Heights.

The policy would set targets for its projects – things like paying a living wage and hiring locally if it’s a big-box store, or requiring green space and a certain number of affordable units if it’s a housing development. And the policy could lead to contracts, called community benefits agreements, that actually bind developers to meeting those goals.

Ken Grimes is the executive director of the City Heights Community Development Corporation and is already working with Civic San Diego to bring improvements to City Heights, starting with re-purposing an old, defunct gentlemen’s club on University Avenue. Grimes said such an agreement would ensure that the project and others maximize the benefit to residents by killing several birds – recreation, housing, jobs – with a single stone and infusing construction dollars directly into the community.

“We have a huge infrastructure deficit (in City Heights). We have a very large number of minimum wage earners. And these public resources should be targeted toward addressing some of those needs in our community,” Grimes said.

Neighborhood groups involved with the Community Budget Alliance, a consortium working to engage residents in city budget talks, the Center on Policy Initiatives, which advocates for poor and moderate-income families, and several others joined Grimes in supporting the move toward greater accountability for Civic San Diego.

But CPI research and policy analyst Kyra Greene said at the meeting that former redevelopment agency woes should tell the city it needs more oversight than that promised by a community benefits policy. She pointed to the Centre City Development Corporation, the redevelopment agency for downtown before the state ended redevelopment, saying it didn’t act on Council recommendations to develop living wage and community benefits agreements. She also cited studies showing CCDC’s projects missed the mark on creating advancement opportunities for low-wage workers.

“City Council oversight would stop us from repeating that history. Civic is a creation of the City Council, the elected voice of the people of San Diego,” Greene said. “The Council has a responsibility to ensure that this organization’s operations … (use) public dollars in ways that empower people and neighborhoods.”

But many southeastern San Diego residents and advocates called for the committee to give Civic San Diego Director Reese Jarrett a chance before adding a layer of oversight. Jarrett is from the community and has strong ties as a developer there, too. He’s been on the job for about a month.

“I’ve known him since he was a baby and so I’ve seen him grow up and I am so proud and thankful that you chose him. He knows the community,” said Ardell Matthews, who sits on the Encanto planning committee.

Developers also urged the committee to abandon the idea of adding oversight, saying it would stymie Civic San Diego’s ability to attract developers and deliver results to residents.

Without redevelopment dollars to stay afloat, Civic San Diego is planning to use loans and grants to buy and rehab commercial properties in the hopes that rent will cover administrative costs. It will also administer federal tax credits to attract investments in the community from banks and developers.

But because Civic San Diego is a city-owned nonprofit, the general fund could be tapped if it defaults on any of those debts. So, despite Wednesday’s decision, the committee hasn’t ruled out amending the agency’s bylaws so it has more say.

Correction: This post originally stated Civic San Diego is developing a community benefits agreement, which is binding. It is actually developing a policy on community benefits that could result in community benefits agreements on a project-by-project basis.

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her...

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