San Diego officials gather in support of Measure G in the run-up to the 2018 election. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

When San Diego State President Adela de la Torre presented the university’s offer to purchase Mission Valley land to the San Diego City Council earlier this month, three people got up to request that the City Council hold off a bit.

They represented labor groups – specifically the building trades, the electrical workers union and the hotel workers union. The unions recognized the power of the moment: This sale is not only about getting a fair and equitable deal for the city of San Diego. The transaction represents perhaps the city’s only chance to truly influence what happens on the land.

The moment the deal is done, the university will have only one true master: its own trustees.

So there was Gretchen Newsom, from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 569, explaining what they wanted.

“This parcel of land is one of the city’s most valuable public assets. As such, any development deal, whether with SDSU or their private development partners, should include a community benefit agreement and local job guarantees under a project labor agreement,” she said.

The university is already bound to pay prevailing wages, according to state law. But most of the land will not be built by the university and could be exempt from those requirements. Project labor agreements are deals where unions agree to guarantee there will be enough skilled labor for a big job like this, and that they won’t strike. In exchange, all the workers for the project must pass through union halls and contractors must pay associated fees or benefits.

Tom Lemmon, the leader of the Building Trades Council, confirmed that he and his allies want a deal like that for the whole site.

At the Council meeting, the hotel workers union representative, Rick Bates, referred back to last year’s Measure G.

“The Friends of SDSU, who submitted the citizens’ initiative, had previously made a commitment to working families,” Bates said. “As you work through the terms of this sale, of our public land, we ask that you work to ensure that the Friends of SDSU stay true to their commitment to working families and the public interest.”

Friends of SDSU was, as we were reminded 100,000 times, not the same as SDSU. What commitment did they make on the university’s behalf?

Jack McGrory, a member of the Friends of SDSU and also a member of the Board of Trustees of the California State University system, which includes SDSU, said no project labor agreement was promised. He said they met with labor during the campaign and agreed to include the local preference for hiring in the measure.

“We are continuing to meet with labor to discuss general principles for labor management cooperation through the life of the project,” he said.

This isn’t about labor, though. It could provide a bit of a hang-up to getting the development done but labor can manage that dilemma themselves.

What labor sees is what we should all see. Very rarely when we confront these big interesting projects do I hear such competing voices on the other end of my phone. On the one hand, real estate experts have called to point out what a smoking good deal the university is getting for this land – so central, so well connected and so rife with potential. The city, they say, is practically giving away an incalculably valuable asset. They’re probably not wrong. It was not that long ago that the mayor’s own task force on the stadium challenge itself valued the land in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

On the other hand, though, I’m also hearing from people about how the city should not play hardball with this land. You need only look at UC San Diego, they say. The city literally gave the University of California some of the most valuable land on Earth many decades ago, and it was an investment that paid off infinitely well.

The difference between now and then, though, is that San Diego State University is not planning to use all of the land for the university. It’s not even planning to use most of the land for the university.

According to the draft environmental impact report, the university is planning to use about 20 percent of the land for its academic needs. The rest will be the triple-p: public private partnership.

This is what the labor representatives recognized. A lot of people will want to make money by making that land into something new. It’s their chance to get what they want for the people they represent.

As we transition to a new stage of the negotiations between the city and the university, taxpayer representatives would be wise to take a similar approach.

This week, the university suddenly acquiesced on a major dispute about the price of a land. De la Torre went from accusing the city of wanting to charge the university double for construction of the promised 36-acre river park to agreeing to the city’s demand and more – upping the offer to the city by nearly $20 million along with a bevy of other concessions about the impacts the university is willing to mitigate.

The mayor was pleased.

“The main principles outlined in the updated offer you sent me this afternoon are ones I support,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer replied in a letter.

The offer is big, the concessions are real. The deal will be done. It’s kind of exciting, having watched so many negotiations about this land collapse over the last 16 years. Something really will happen.

But do not forget that this is the last chance the public has to wield real leverage over what gets built on that land. It was only five years ago that the California Supreme Court had to force the university to accept the basic principle that it should have to mitigate the impacts its construction has on the city of San Diego – on traffic and the environment.

That was land the university owned. University officials insist they will be responsive to the public, transparent about how they hand out contracts to private developers, etc. But who knows who will be in charge in 20 years. If we want something that isn’t dependent on any good faith, now’s the time to get it.

So long as the city owns the land, it has a say. Labor recognized how important this moment is. Everyone else should too.

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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