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Political Analysis: Building Downtown San Diego


Downtown San Diego has a number of big construction projects coming down the pipeline. KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner explores what political powers are fueling this need to build.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Downtown construction fever seems to have hit San Diego politics. We just talked about the new central library that will be built in downtown San Diego. In addition, there's a proposal for construction of a new city hall and a convention center expansion. There also seems to be support among city leaders for a new Chargers stadium downtown. And there are big plans for an Embarcadero overhaul. It seems that San Diego has been bitten by the building bug and KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner is here to tell us about the politics behind the plans. Good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Bitten by the bug. Well, I’m scratching even as you speak. There’s lots to talk about.

CAVANAUGH: There’s a move to get the city council more involved in approving big hotel projects downtown. And, Gloria, the politics behind this seems to be the essence of the construction battles in San Diego. Tell us what the measure would change about the approval process.

PENNER: Well, it would make it much tougher to get future downtown hotels built. The council’s Land Use and Housing Committee voted to approve a measure essentially making hotel project decisions with 200 or more rooms to be made by the council, to be approved by the council, before going forward. And what we’re talking about here is the idea that council approval probably would be predicated on how much union involvement there is in the hotel, both the hotel workers and the hotel construction. So we have the idea of paying better wages and bringing the unions in, and now when you consider that our council has six Democrats on it and they’re all affiliated with the labor movement, you can see why this is a political kind of tactic.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, do opponents of this idea of having those big hotel projects approved by the city council, do they say that it would actually hurt business, hurt construction?

PENNER: Absolutely. They say that the measure’s intended to push unionization of future hotels, that it’s going to add layers to the approval process, and that would actually sink projects by creating uncertainty and increasing operating and development costs. The proposed changes are also opposed by other business groups, the Downtown San Diego Partnership, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. And what the opponents are saying is that tougher conditions for approval of new hotels comes at a bad time for the hospitality industry because the hospitality industry is still reeling from this massive downturn in consumer spending.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s broaden this out to all major construction projects that are being talked about in San Diego. We just heard about a move to basically overturn San Diego’s living wage ordinance. I’m wondering, how does the living wage ordinance affect construction projects in San Diego?

PENNER: Well, it increases costs for construction projects. I mean, if you pay minimum wage to your workers on the projects, those projects will cost much, much less than if you pay the living wage. The living wage is a moveable number. It depends on what the particular craft or skill is. And then there is an actual indices that comes up and tells you what the living wage is. The – There have been moves now to at least negate the living wage, which we do have in San Diego, and one of them is a proposition, an initiative, that has been pushed by Councilman Carl DeMaio. Now the latest that we heard was that the signatures on this initiative—and the signatures were actually paid for by the building industry; they contributed, from all I’ve heard, $168,000 in order to get those signatures—but that they were not validated. A good portion of them were invalidated and at this point the deputy City Clerk and the Registrar of Voters is saying they’re not valid.

CAVANAUGH: That is still a situation that is in progress, as they say.

PENNER: It is in progress.


PENNER: And actually Carl DeMaio can ask for a recount on that. He has until Friday to do so. And so we have that, we also have the idea that the mayor can actually sort of stop this lengthy battle by reaching a compromise with the various contractors and the – rather, the unions that deal with city workers. And so it’s possible that these various competing measures that might go on the ballot could be stopped cold if there’s an agreement between the city council, the mayor and the local unions.

CAVANAUGH: When there’s a new construction project proposed and a contractor selected, who is bound by the provisions of the living wage? Is it also their subcontractors? Is it everybody involved in the project?

PENNER: Well, absolutely. I mean, the city, at this point, has an ordinance that says if it is a city project or it is under contract to the city, that the living wage ordinance has to be abided by. And so, yeah, that definitely is in order.

CAVANAUGH: Alex is calling us from Bonita. And good morning, Alex. Welcome to These Days.

ALEX (Caller, Bonita): Yeah, hello?

CAVANAUGH: Hi. Yes. Hello? You’re on the air.

ALEX: Yeah. I was wondering about in San Diego there’s so much construction going on and what is the process of electing the architect because among important cities in the United States there are open international competitions and we seem to be reactive mode instead of being in a projective mode and we’re not getting the quality of buildings that we should have.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that. Can you comment on that?

PENNER: Well, I mean, I’m not an expert architect and I can’t really comment on the quality of the building but I know that, theoretically, when the contracts are put out to bid, that various contractors and developers have to bid on a contract. For example, city hall now, it looks as though a developer from Portland has that bid, and there was – at least had it initially. Now that it looks like the city hall project is moving ahead, I don’t know whether they’re going to have to put out more bids for more developers or whether the developer that came in with the initial bid and came in with the design, which is now a smaller city hall than it was, will be the developer that gets this thing moving.

CAVANAUGH: And, of course, the same architect for the library has been reaffirmed. Rob Quigley is going to be staying with that project.

PENNER: That’s correct.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, when we talk about the downtown construction projects, who is pushing for them? We just met some people who work for the new downtown library and, of course, Mayor Jerry Sanders is very much behind that project, and Mayor Sanders also seems to be one of the engines behind the new city hall. Why is that?

PENNER: Well, I – Where do you begin with that? Well, Mayor Sanders won’t be around forever. His term is out in 2012, and he won’t be around for the library when it’s built and unless he takes a job for the city or he becomes a lobbyist. So he’s not going to reside in the new city hall. He sure can use the library, however, if he stays in San Diego or even if he doesn’t. But he’s actually posted his rationale on his website and it’s very interesting to read it because it’s very clear on why it is that he feels it’s important to have a new city hall. But when you – I mean, he feels that the project must have a positive impact on the city’s general fund. That means he believes a new city hall is going to save the city money, ultimately. He says that the developer has to agree with the city auditor on oversight of the project and with the citizen oversight committee, so he wants good checks and balances on this. When you take a look at mayors of the past, Pete Wilson will always be identified with Horton Plaza. Maureen O’Connor was mayor when the convention center first opened. But Susan Golding, Roger Hedgecock, Dick Murphy, they didn’t really leave behind a bricks and mortar type legacy. If Jerry Sanders can get the convention center expansion on the books, a new city hall, the new downtown library, and the Chargers stadium, that will be a legacy.

CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line who wants to talk about the living wage. Donald is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Donald, welcome to These Days.

DONALD (Caller, San Diego): Yeah, hi there. I just wanted to – This is Donald Cohen.


CAVANAUGH: Hi, yes. Yes.

DONALD: I actually wrote – you know, played a big part in passing the living wage ordinance. And I just wanted to clarify a couple of things…


DONALD: …that Gloria said about what the ordinance does apply to and doesn’t apply to.

PENNER: I appreciate that, Don.

DONALD: First off…

PENNER: You’re the expert with that question.

DONALD: Yeah, no, I appreciate that, Maureen. So, first off, it is – does not apply to construction projects that you’re talking about, that’s the first thing. What you were describing, Gloria, was referred to as a prevailing wage.

PENNER: Right.

DONALD: That’s a whole other story. The living wage is what is simply – what it does is it applies to subcontractors for services to the city, janitors, landscapers, security guards, people who clean the uniforms. And instead of them making $8.00 an hour, which is the minimum wage, they would make what the City has established as the living wage, which it has a code. It goes up every year a little bit so it’s about $10.50 an hour, and give healthcare, and if they don’t give healthcare, they give a couple of dollars more, $13.00 an hour.


DONALD: And that’s all it is. And basically what it means is that the people who serve us, clean our buildings, keep care of our parks, don’t have to live in poverty.


DONALD: That’s all the living wage is, and DeMaio’s initiative does repeal that and will force people into poverty.

CAVANAUGH: And we will have other programs about that, Don. Thank you so much for calling in and clarifying that.

PENNER: Don, that really does help. Of course, it is the prevailing wage that I was talking about in terms of the construction projects, not the living wage. Incidentally, I see that there’s going to be this reception for San Diego’s Living Wage on Thursday, July 8th at the La Jolla Country Club. And you talk about big hitters on the other side? You know, not the people who are saying we don’t want the unions to take over and set the wages, I mean we’re talking about, oh, people like, of course, Councilwoman Marti Emerald and Toni Atkins and Chris Kehoe but on the private side we have Murray Galinson and Deborah Szekely. They’re all co-hosting this, and Gracia Molina de Pick. I mean, significant names are saying we are going to be out there sort of supporting the idea of San Diego’s living wage.

CAVANAUGH: We seem to be mired in living wage and managed competition. Let us move on just to hit the major construction projects that are coming up. They’re coming down the pipeline for San Diego. What entity’s pushing for the convention center expansion? That has a lot of supporters, doesn’t it, Gloria?

PENNER: It does. Actually, major developers such as Doug Manchester, who’s working with the Navy on the Navy Broadway project, the Centre City Development Corporation—that’s their bread and butter, to build up downtown in order to increase their tax base which, in turn, funds the CCDC and keeps it in business, you know. Once they’ve spent all their money, there’s no reason to have redevelopment agencies. And so we are saying, for example, that we are finding that some of the really big hitters come from, once again, the business community because when you look at it, the more building there is downtown, more construction, if it’s hotels or an expansion of the convention center, there are other entities that will benefit from this. You’ll have the Convention & Visitors Bureau, the restaurants in the area, the businesses in the area, and all of them are hurting right now significantly. And so they’re looking to sort of boost their opportunities when, as your former guest said, the economy recovers.

CAVANAUGH: Now perhaps the most contentious plan is the one for the Chargers stadium downtown because that is going to involve, as they keep saying, taxpayer money. Who besides the Chargers is working to get the new football stadium downtown?

PENNER: Well, a couple of people. Actually there’s a couple of entities, I should say. Developers. The idea is that if the Chargers stadium goes downtown that the City will sell the Qualcomm site in Mission Valley for development. And the other idea is that the new stadium would have a roof, which would allow the city to use the new facility to replace events now held at the sports arena. So the city could then sell the sports arena site for development. And when you’ve got, you know, that kind of thinking going, you know that the development industry is in there as well. San Diego State also would play its football games at Qualcomm and would be presumably a new tenant of the new downtown stadium but the university, according to Mark Fabiani, who is the counsel for the Chargers, isn’t expected to contribute to the funding in the new stadium. He said that he’s hoping that the team, the Chargers, can count on support from the university’s alumni association when the time comes to lobby for the project.

CAVANAUGH: We are out of time, Gloria. Was – It’s such a big topic. I want to thank you so much for clarifying at least some of these projects that are going on downtown.

PENNER: Well, now we know the difference between prevailing wage and a living wage.

CAVANAUGH: I’ll never forget it.

PENNER: Thank you, Don Cohen.

CAVANAUGH: Gloria Penner is KPBS political correspondent and host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. If you’d like to comment on what you’ve heard here, go online, Stay with us for hour two of These Days. It’s coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.

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