The news a couple weeks ago that the city would begin negotiations with just one firm to transform the troubled 101 Ash St. tower into nearly 400 apartments without a plan for the remaining five square blocks made me wonder: What happened to a grand vision for the Civic Center and new City Hall?

It’s still as alive as it ever was, though maybe that’s not very. The next few months are going to be critical for the land under and around City Hall in downtown San Diego. Interestingly, those worried about the aging Civic Theatre may have reason to hope. And the city may consider buying a completely separate building to house its new City Hall and it is about to hire a new firm to help it manage these decisions.

Refresher: Last year, when the city decided to settle ongoing litigation with the firm that had persuaded it to lease-to-own the troubled 101 Ash St. tower, I noted how city leaders were describing it. They didn’t just want to settle the litigation, they wanted to own the building.

They wanted to own both that building and the Civic Centre Plaza tower, to be clear. Jay Goldstone, the man the mayor had put in charge of this debacle, talked about the flexibility that controlling all the properties would have.

“Full control of the property is a goal of ours because it will aid the city in solving for multiple problems such as office space and housing needs,” said Council President Sean Elo-Rivera, at the time.

You could see it all coming together – a once-in-a-century opportunity to redesign the heart of the city. To me, this meant that the mayor and other city leaders wanted to get as many contiguous properties together as possible so the city could implement a grand vision for redevelopment in the civic core. A task force got together and put out an ambitious vision of what six square blocks the city now owned could become.

So I was a bit surprised when I learned bidders on the project could bid on any individual square block among the six the city was offering up. And then I was even more surprised when the only responsive bid the city got was for 101 Ash St. and it would be to turn the tower into nearly 400 apartments with a quarter of them set aside for lower-income residents.

The city announced it was going to negotiate with Reven Capital to pull off that one change and then work on a plan to offer up the rest of the parcels to bidders.

Graphic by Megan Wood

What’s happening now: Jay Goldstone, the mayor’s special designee for this project, told me that if you were interested in a grand re-design of the city’s civic core, you can still have hope.

He was glad that, if any parcel was going to be developed on its own, it is good that it be 101 Ash St.

“Not because it’s Ash Street and the history there, but because it’s set off from the other properties,” he said. “That leaves us more opportunity for a master developer on the other four blocks when we’re ready to move forward on those.”

By four blocks, he means the old City Hall, Golden Hall, the Civic Centre Plaza and the giant parking garage. The fifth block is the aging City Operations Building across First Avenue. That’s where the new City Hall is envisioned.

Civic Theatre hope: Goldstone has heard from many people concerned about the future of the Civic Theatre, home of the San Diego Opera and the only venue of its kind of that type of performing art. He and his team resisted requiring bidders to rebuild or rehab the theater. The City Council considered it and decided only to ask bidders to protect the jobs at the venue.

Goldstone told me, though, that after the first round, now that bidders do not have to restrict 25 percent of the housing units they create to residents with lower incomes, rebuilding or fixing up the Civic Theatre may be more feasible for a developer. Or, theater supporters can now propose something that has nothing to do with housing.

“Absolutely. We can have separate discussions and carve out a proposal for example and have discussions with the theater group and see what they may want to do,” he said.

New timing: Goldstone told me he aimed for the new invitation to developers for the remaining blocks to go out after the first of the year. And there are a few reasons for that, besides the holiday season.

  • The city will have 90 days now to negotiate with the firm proposing to retrofit 101 Ash St. into apartments. They have to decide if they want to lease it to the firm or sell the building outright or some other arrangement. By the end of the year, the city will have clarity on how that’s going.
  • The city is also hiring a consulting firm to help it decide how to go forward on a new City Hall. Goldstone said the city could consider buying a building. It could consider building one outright. Or it could consider a public-private partnership in which a builder constructs a new City Hall in exchange for something else, like how the Navy got a new headquarters in exchange for development rights on the Navy Broadway land.

Bill to Force Countywide Vote on Water Divorce Moves Forward, But Too Late to Stop Agencies

Dispatch from MacKenzie Elmer: Assemblymember Tasha Boerner’s bill roiling the San Diego water world lost a bit of steam in the Legislature on Friday. Her bill, which would make it harder for water districts to break up with the San Diego County Water Authority, got kicked to a sudden-death vote in the state Senate Appropriations Committee. The committee passed it on to the Senate floor for debate but stripped it of its urgency clause.

The urgency clause would have made the bill become law much more quickly, but it also means both the Assembly and Senate would have had to pass it with a two-thirds majority.

Timing is everything: Boerner’s bill seeks one key thing: To change the law so that, if a water district wants to leave the San Diego County Water Authority, voters throughout the county should have to approve.

As it stands now, the two divorcing agencies – Rainbow Municipal Water District and Fallbrook Public Utilities District – could finalize their departure by Nov. 7 with a special election just among voters in their districts. Had Boerner’s bill passed with an urgency clause attached, it could have become law by the time the session ends on Sept. 14.

Now it’s too late. The earliest AB 399 could take effect is when most newly passed bills do: on Jan. 1.

“We’re gratified the legislature did not pass it with an urgency clause because it won’t affect detachment,” said Tom Kennedy, general manager at Rainbow. Rainbow and Fallbrook would probably challenge whether an AB 399-spurred countywide vote legalized at the final hour would apply to the divorce proceedings they began in 2019 anyway.

So you’re saying there’s a chance: Opponents of the separation still hope that a lawsuit will reverse the decision by the Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, that set a fee for the agencies’ separation and determined votes only needed to take place in the two districts. They contend that LAFCO did not properly study the environmental impact of the separation. The two newly separated agencies would depend somewhat more on imported water.

It’s a bit of a long shot. Regardless, leaders of the city of San Diego, the bill’s sponsor, are still determined to see the bill become law.

“The massive loophole that exists under current law can unfairly burden the rest of the region’s ratepayers without a check and without a recourse – and that’s not right,” said Nick Serrano, Mayor Todd Gloria’s deputy chief of staff at the city of San Diego and vice chair of the Water Authority board.


Politifest is coming together: Get your tickets and feel free to send us emails about how it could be better. It’s all the rage!

Podcast: I have missed several weeks of the podcast. A vacation, my son’s birthday and now my third tussle with COVID. I survived but the familiar sore throat was unmistakable. Regardless, the crew has done a great job and this week they featured Will Huntsberry and his epic investigation into a phantom nonprofit operating out of Petco Park and providing staffing to Snapdragon Stadium through a program meant to help local charities.

If you have any feedback or ideas or tips about anything corrupt like that send them to Enjoy your long weekend!

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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