The Pure Water facility would curb the dumping of treated sewage into coastal waters off Point Loma. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

San Diego’s oft-delayed Pure Water project – a bid to create a third of the city’s water from recycled sewage – scored a victory in court Friday that could get the $5 billion project back on track.

Superior Court Judge Richard Strauss ruled there was no conflict between a state law that prohibits cities from banning union-friendly construction contracts if they want state funding, and a 2012 ballot measure that prohibited the city from requiring those very contracts on city projects.

At issue is so-called project labor agreements – deals that generally mean unions guarantee enough workers to finish the job without a strike, in exchange for all workers passing through union halls, with associated fees and benefits for those workers.

The state put conditions on its funding for the project, but didn’t require the city to use its funding to build the project, Strauss ruled, which meant it did not interfere with the California Constitution’s requirement not to interfere with a charter city’s independence, as the Associated General Contractors, a group that represents both union and non-union contractors, had argued.

The Associated General Contractors also argued the state law, AB 1290, illegally favored union over non-union contractors, but Strauss ruled against that argument, too.

“There are no facts alleged which support the contention that AB 1290, on its face, discriminates against non-union contractors,” Strauss wrote in a tentative ruling. “The plain language of the bill permits any contractor, whether union or non-union, to sign a PLA and submit a bid.”

The ruling is a setback for Associated General Contractors, which has for years fought against the state’s efforts to trump local project-labor agreement bans by making state funding contingent on cities waiving, or not having, those provisions. For the city, it could mean it gets back to work on a project as significant as any it has on the books, even if the regular delays have already increased its cost from $3 billion in 2015 to at least $4.8 billion, and maybe as much as $9 billion, as of last February.

Just last week, labor halted its effort to overturn or weaken the city’s 2012 project-labor agreement ban, up against a deadline to qualify a new measure for the November ballot. That decision itself turned on whether the city measure sufficiently weakened or reversed the old measure.

Prepare to – Finally – Feast Your Eyes on SANDAG’s New Transportation Plan

Jim Desmond (left) and Hasan Ikhrata / Photo by Megan Wood

It was April 2019 when SANDAG Director Hasan Ikhrata unveiled the broad strokes of his vision to remake San Diego’s transportation system, dubbed “5 BIG Moves.”

That kickstarted a feud between Ikhrata and SANDAG board members representing rural and suburban areas – especially County Supervisors Jim Desmond and Kristin Gaspar, and San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones – who were not on board with his plan to take highway expansions out of the region’s transportation goals.

A handful of contentious board meetings and a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic later, Ikhrata is ready to reveal a far more detailed version of the plan,.

On Aug. 7, Ikhrata and SANDAG staff will break down the data and public input it collected to help put the plan together, for the agency’s policy advisory committees. A week later, on Aug. 14, they’ll present the full vision to the board.

Ikhrata had said he was preparing to show the plan to the public in the spring, right when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He held out hope that there’d be a chance to present the plan in person as things improved, but it became clear that wasn’t happening. Now it’ll have its time in the spotlight.

One thing to remember: Ikhrata’s opponents have taken issue with the way he gets ahead of the board, telling the press what’s going to happen before the board votes on it, and for the substance of the plan that would realign the region’s transportation priorities, with a primary goal of making it as fast and easy to take transit around San Diego as it is to drive.

But none of that matters, unless they can disprove – or at least address – the central claim animating his whole approach. Ikhrata says San Diego simply cannot comply with state greenhouse gas emissions mandates with a transportation system resembling the one it has today. He said the ways the agency had demonstrated compliance with state law were straight up lies.

That – and whether his new ideas would really fix it – is all that matters.

Uhhh, That Sounds Bad

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Jason Hughes, president and CEO of Hughes Marino, a major commercial real estate player in San Diego that represents commercial tenants and buyers, sent out an email Friday that contained some concerning news, even if it wasn’t completely surprising.

Buildings downtown are emptying out, he wrote, and landlords are taking unprecedented steps as it happens.

“Office space availability has soared to new heights – currently hitting 34 percent,” he wrote. “Tenants defaulting on their leases have skyrocketed. Sublease space hitting the market is increasing every week. Generally, it’s a total sh*t show for downtown office space.” (Asterisk his.)

He said he could not remember a time since 1989 when so many downtown high-rises were a third empty.

“Many are 99 percent empty,” Hughes wrote. “What makes this so shocking is that it’s hard for landlords to break even when they have more than 25 percent vacancy – so to say that we have a lot of troubled office building owners is a huge understatement.”

In response, he said, landlords are trying to bar tenants from subleasing their space.

Hughes’ scoop: But Hughes wasn’t just letting us know about a brewing commercial real estate crisis. He also broke some news: an investment group bought Dough Manchester out of most of his Pacific Gatweay project near the San Diego Bay, and intends to reconfigure the controversial project as a life sciences hub. “Given the climate, I’m sure it was a steal,” Hughes wrote.

Council Considers More Renter Relief

San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In March, the San Diego City Council imposed a moratorium on residential evictions, in response to the crippling economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – they’ve since extended the moratorium through the end of September. Landlords can’t charge fees, penalties or interest on any unpaid rents accrued during the moratorium.

Last month, the Council created a $15 million relief fund for those same renters feeling the pandemic’s economic shocks. That money is small compared to the need, and will be awarded by lottery. Its expected that 3,400 households could collect the max of $4,000 in assistance.

Tuesday, the Council will consider a measure put up by Council President Georgette Gómez, extending the repayment period for tenants who fall behind on rent  due to the pandemic through the end of next March. Right now, the repayment period runs out on Sept. 25.

Thus far, the Council has dutifully supported efforts to protect residents from the impacts of the pandemic, and the economic crisis it’s caused. It’ll be worth watching whether that’s still the case – or how much longer it remains the case, as long as it needs to keep offering more help, or extending the help it’s already approved.

One Last Pitch

Hundreds of protesters march through University Avenue to demand justice for George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.⁣⁣ / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

This is your last chance to buy one of VOSD’s most popular photos of the year, and to support Black journalists while doing it.

Our photojournalist Adriana Heldiz captured the moment in North Park during a Black Lives Matter protest after the killing of George Floyd. A share of the proceeds from your purchase will go to the San Diego Association of Black Journalists.

Buy the print: HERE.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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