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Pete Wilson: San Diego’s first strong mayor? Part 2

Last week, we took a look at how Pete Wilson overcame the limitations of the council-manager system to become San Diego's first strong mayor. Now Pat Finn continues the story by showing us what he did with that strength - how he forced the city to plan and prioritize, and, in the process, become transformed.

As Mayor of San Diego in the 1970s, Pete Wilson was not a man to let a bad policy stand or a problem fester. If there was improvement to be made, he wanted it to be made. As he saw it, the area needing the most improvement was land use planning.

AW: "Before Pete Wilson took office, I don't think there was much emphasis on land use planning. Things rather ticked along smoothly. Maybe the city was just growing here and there in a helter-skelter manner, but that wasn't uppermost in the minds of the councils and mayors. When Pete Wilson came in, he was interested in a really vitally planned city, both downtown and in the suburbs."

Pete Wilson: "They had simply begun to let it grow like topsy, with the result that the Mira Mesa development, which was way, way to the north of existing services and existing infrastructure, suddenly sprung full blown upon the landscape."

Alm: "It had one access road in and out, it didn't have schools it didn't have parks no library. I don't believe it had any shopping to start with. Immediately when people started buying homes and living there, they started questioning the city, saying, I want a park, I want a school, I deserve to have that because I live in the city."

Wilson: "We developed a growth management plan, and essentially what it did was provide for the sequential development of the outlying areas and the whole purpose was to try as much as possible to encourage greater density and so-called "in-fill" in areas where we already had infrastructure and services. The people who feared it the most perhaps -- what I was talking about in terms of managing growth -- were the developers, many of whom thought that this meant no growth. And it didn't. It meant managing inevitable growth."

Wilson's managed growth plan stopped from leapfrogging over city services. His next step was to convince them to build where there were services already, and that was downtown.

Alm: "In 1971 when he was elected mayor, downtown was in very bad shape. It was not a kind of place where most people would want to live, most definitely. Very few people visited here, and those of us who worked here left at five o'clock and went home."

Wilson: "You could have fired a cannon down Broadway at five minutes past five o'clock and the old joke was you wouldn't hit anybody who wasn't staggering. But it was an undeveloped resource that had enormous potential. I would take people who were visitors to the city up to the top of what tall buildings there were then. They'd look down on grade level parking lots; they'd look down on the tattoo parlors; they'd look down on the saloons, and they'd say, 'well this is potentially some of the most valuable real estate in North America.'"

Downtown was primarily a haven for sailors, pensioners and bar owners because the center of the city was shifting north and east. The San Diego Union and the Evening Tribune moved to Mission Valley, and so did the big new chain stores. Most San Diegans didn't think downtown was dying. They thought it was already dead.

Wilson: "One of the reasons I decided to run for mayor was that I thought it would be enormous fun to preside over the redevelopment of the downtown. It was a little naive in my expectation that it would happen quickly or easily."

Alm: "But the number one thing was of course bringing retail back because in the 70s we lost our last department store, and that was sad because those of us who worked downtown literally had no place to shop."

Many thought no developer would build retail stores in the derelict downtown. But Wilson knew how to apply leverage to get what he wanted. Shopping center developer Ernie Hahn was looking for approval of a new project near La Jolla called University Towne Centre; a project Wilson knew would only accelerate downtown's decline."

Wilson: "And I said, look, the plan is a fine plan for where you intended to go. But I would like to talk to you about something that I think you could have an enormous bearing upon. And I said I'd be interested in trying to interest you in developing one of your centers downtown."

Sadler: "That was a long ordeal. It took 11 years for that project to move forward to fruition. So many negative entities saying what a lousy idea never happen. It'll be a terrible failure."

As the whimsically designed Horton Plaza shopping center rose, walled off from the tattoo parlors and single room occupancy hotels, the mayor and his team knew the center would fail if the only shoppers were downtown employees."

Wilson: "And in fact I remember going with the late George Pardee and I said, 'George, have you ever thought of building housing downtown?'"

Sadler: "And Pete went forward again and talked to the Pardees and to Great American and Home Fed, and said, you people will do this downtown because we need housing downtown to make it go. And none of them wanted to do that. But Pete was a guy whose steady insistence made it happen."

Horton Plaza and the promise of new housing were the first two steps to a new downtown. The third step was nothing less than the complete overhaul of the area between Broadway and Market, the Gaslamp quarter, 16 blocks of architecture from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Alm: "I don't believe that anybody wanted to tear down the buildings, but there was a great difficulty of bringing the property owners on line to what the vision was. They were very happy receiving rent checks from adult entertainment uses and keeping the district the way it was. But there were some very smart entrepreneurial types who owned buildings there as well and so they said we're going to turn this around."

Wilson: "So what we have today in the downtown is an entirely different environment. You've got residential development. You've got a considerable amount of commercial development. You've got retail, you've got recreation, you've got theater. You've essentially got a 24/7 environment."

Of course, there's more to San Diego than its downtown. At the same time he was twisting developers' arms, the mayor was looking into other problems, problems that have a familiar ring 35 years later. One thing he saw that he didn't like was an undermanned and underpaid police force.

Wilson: "We had, I thought, spread our guys a little thin -- that was part of the concern about growth management. And it was also true that we were suffering competition in terms of the compensation. If you are not paying people what they're worth, you're going to lose them and deserve to. So one of things we did is to put on one of the ballots a charter amendment that explicitly said that public safety will be the first priority and therefore the first charge upon the public treasury. It passed easily."

Another problem Wilson dealt with quickly was corruption. When he took over as mayor, San Diego was mired in a scandal involving some of the area's most prominent businessmen and politicians.

Stutz: "The power structure in San Diego in the late 60s was composed primarily of C. Arnholt Smith on the Republican side, John Alessio on the democratic side and they pretty much picked who was going to run for office and they literally ran the town.

The most famous and infamous, I guess, was C. Arnholt Smith. And it's amazing to really think about the hold he had on San Diego. And nobody else today equals that. He owned the Westgate California Corporation he established which owned the tuna fleet. He owned the San Diego Padres, he owned every yellow cab in San Francisco, LA and here."

Smith's Yellow Cab Company was at the center of a bribery investigation which had snared Mayor Frank Curran, most of the city council, two supervisors and an assemblyman. How was the young Mayor Wilson going to avoid getting entangled with powerful sharks like Smith and Alessio?

Stutz: "We discussed that at great length, and I said, I'm not going to have anything to do with you, Pete, if you take money from the old power structure. And he said that's why you're here, to make sure I don't. And I sent money back. Let's face it, money buys the elections, money controls the power structure, money controls the politicians. We sat down for over a period of a year and a half and looked at the way political money corrupted the town and tried to come up with a way to stop it and expose it. And that resulted in 1973 in passing what at that time was the strictest campaign ordinance in the United States and later became a model for the campaign ordinance disclosure laws of other cities."

Wilson's reform of campaign financing was a model for the time, but in another arena, he was spectacularly unsuccessful. Predictably, it was the airport. He and his staff thought the perfect place for a new airport was Otay Mesa.

Wilson: "Easily the most unpopular thing I ever did as mayor was try to move the airport. That was an opportunity as I saw it would have hugely added to our economic base with an airport there. In addition to which, a not-very-large airport, 600 acres, right in the heart of your downtown area, right on the waterfront could have been redeveloped and financed the new airport, financed its construction. The reason it didn't pass is very simple. For the 90% of the people who didn't live in the flight path, they thought it was wonderful, very convenient."

Thirty-five years later, the airport is still downtown, still convenient -- for now -- and still controversial. But that seems to be a minor blip in Wilson's legacy.

Alm: "Pete Wilson was a strong mayor without having the authority to be a strong mayor. He knew how to work with his city council; and he did. He was a great consensus builder."

Madigan: "Pete Wilson's legacy is all around us. This city that San Diego has become is that legacy of Pete Wilson, whether it was the active recruitment of high tech companies onto the Torrey Pines science part, or the revitalization of downtown, or the fixed Guideway Transit System, or the notion of a serious effort at recruiting the visitor industry with a large new convention center. For better or for worse, this is the town that Pete Wilson envisioned and brought to fruition."

Wilson: "My advice to Jerry or to anyone, chief executive, public sector or private sector, surround yourself with the very best people that you can find and persuade to join you. The best, the brightest, the most courageous. Always make decisions based on what you perceive to be in the public's best interest, then even when at first it may seem unpopular, if you give good reasons and are honest about the consequences, then I think you'll do just fine. It can be a wonderful job because it's a wonderful city. It's been blessed in ways that few have."




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