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Turmoil Continues For SANDAG

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More shakeups at San Diego's regional planning agency, the disappearing Southern California coastline and the proposed tower near Seaport Village.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 A big shakeup at the San Diego County Association of governments. Top officials are removed as the new director of continuous push for public transit over private transportation. Beat your Rojan threatens our vast tourism industry. What's being done to save the sand and a proposed 500 foot bay front tower has critics howling, but proponents hail it as an internationally recognizable calling card. I'm mark sour. The KPBS round table starts now.

Speaker 2: 00:36 [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 00:40 welcome to our discussion to the week's top stories. I'm mark sour and joining me at the KPBS round table today, reporter Jennifer van grow for the San Diego Union Tribune reporter Andrew Keats, a voice of San Diego and reporter Alison St John of KPBS News. Well, a big shakeup this week at SANDAG, the San Diego Association of governments that might seem like inside baseball of interest only the lobbyists and the odd government watcher, but the housecleaning housecleaning that is indicates a critical struggle within the important regional planning agency. Sandy controls billions in public spending on transportation and other critical projects. Its decisions have profound effects on development, how we move around and ultimately the fight against climate change. And so let's start right there with the change. Andy, who's out in the apparent reasons a San Diego new director made for

Speaker 3: 01:31 sure replace those folks. So the, the first who's out is Kim quatre, she's the long time number two at SANDAG. Uh, she's basically in charge of internal operations, so staffing and everything like that. Um, she was, she was in place for over a decade now and, and was played a public role actually on this station. She had a, a, an interview as the scandal that eventually led to the previous directors, a departure as that was unfolding. She had an interview on this station that I think, uh, people revisited, hasn't aged particularly well as more and more information continued to come out about it. Um, so she is out, uh, mugs stole who was in charge of all transportation planning for the agency is also out. Uh, I had an interview with Hassana crowd of the new director a few months ago when he told me that the last two regional transportation plans at SANDAG, that's their plans for highways, trolley lines, buses throughout the county.

Speaker 3: 02:23 He told me that those last two plans were not worth the paper. They were printed on a mug. Stoll was the guy who wrote those plans. So maybe not a surprise that he didn't stick around much longer after that. And then David Hicks, who's the communications director and he was in that job, um, throughout the scandal and, you know, part of the scandal certainly involved the agencies a reaction to it, both publicly and privately. Uh, he was in the room for those decisions. And, uh, another story that, uh, that KPBS did, Claire triglyceride a few years ago showed how, um, how much David Hicks was a sort of lobbying and working the press to try to get favorable treatment for some of their different, uh, different policies like that regional transportation plan that, uh, the new director says was not worth the paper was printed on.

Speaker 1: 03:08 And Kudos to voice. And of course we've talked about it before on the show and briefly tell us, remind us of that scandal that the money was just not lining up at all in terms.

Speaker 3: 03:17 Yeah. So there's an old transportation though, an old tax measure transnet that we continue to pay a half cent sales tax on a that was not bringing anywhere near the amount of money that was initially projected. That money was continuing to come in short and the agency just simply did not tell the board or the public that it was not going to be able to meet those promises. It became clear for quite a while I was able to show that, uh, and they continued to insist that that was not the case. Uh, in recent months they've acknowledged that it is in fact the case and they were not the, will not be able to build all of the projects that were part of that measure. Uh, and at the same time they proposed a new tax measure that uh, we can now say definitively would have gone all of that new money would have gone to paying back those old promises. But because they were unclear about the fact that the old promises wouldn't be met, that allowed them to not have to acknowledge publicly that the new money was actually going to go to the old promises, not the new projects.

Speaker 1: 04:11 Right. That was quite the scandal of course, cost to the director's job and a lot of these top officials as we're saying Alison, yeah.

Speaker 3: 04:16 Congratulations. The deed to you for sort of bringing that out into the public eye. But one of my questions was whether, because you know, many of us were asking questions at that time, all of these three folks that have gone where they aware, do you think of the fact that the, the books didn't add up or do you think they were proceeding under the assumption that the story we were all being given was accurate while, so a mug still doesn't work on that specific end of things. And, uh, the, uh, what the independent investigation found, uh, confirming some of my reporting was that there was a very specific meeting a long before measure. The new tax was proposed where internal staffers had raised alarms and said there are serious problems with our tax revenue forecasts. We're not going to bring in this much money. We need to start making changes.

Speaker 3: 05:03 And those were ignored. Kim Quato was in that meeting. Um, now the agency's response to that has been, well some staffer said that other staff are set other things, what, who are we to believe? Um, so there is some level of, of doubt you could say about how certain they were sort of interesting. I mean it does make sense that if they were involved that they would leave. But it's also very difficult to make the transition from the plan that we had to the one that occurred at once. So it would be hard for anyone to make that transition I think. Yeah. And to your point, even if you were to completely set the scandal aside, it's not a crowded, it's hard to believe in some ways because he's become such a public figure during this time here. He's only been here for six months. And if you're a new leader over in an organization, you are are actually going to want to put your fingerprints on it in terms of personnel. And I think six months is a pretty reasonable time frame to think about a taking stock of what is in the figuring out who you work well with, figuring out who you can rely on and it is possible that that's all that's happened here.

Speaker 1: 06:04 Now explain to us with the, this changing of the, of the top leadership, the guard as it were, how that's going to put in place or further his vision, which is as I said at the outset, tending to favor public transcended the whole point is get people out of automobiles, help climate change, burn less fossil fuels.

Speaker 3: 06:22 Yeah. And he has had a one track mind in that direction since the day he took over. He has a give really given no quarter to the opponents of the plan who have said that they are not interested in some of these changes. And so all indications are he's going to continue moving forward with that vision. Uh, and it was either going to happen with these people or without these people. So I don't know that it necessarily depends specifically on these people's departure or their replacements specific dispositions. I think he is going to be the guy that pushes that engine forward and that was going to be the case regardless.

Speaker 1: 06:55 All right. And the crowd, his plan unveiled in April a dozen or more major projects don't have the money. We're not going to do this various things with, with road projects. Right.

Speaker 3: 07:05 Yeah. So he, you know, and I do think that uh, some of his vision so far has been very, very big picture by which I mean very, very vague and that vagueness has allowed both opponents and proponents to pick and choose what they like and what they don't like and to emphasize those things to their own benefit. Over the next few months, hopefully we'll start to get more specifics and actually be able to talk about what he is proposing. Right now, you really can't get much more specific than he wants to increase the emphasis on transit and he wants to decrease the emphasis on driving a single Aki, single occupancy vehicles on, uh, unregulated freeways. Um, but what that means, uh, underneath that in a more specific way. Uh, I, I don't think there's anyone at that agency in the media, in the lobby in class who could speak more specifically.

Speaker 4: 07:53 Alison, then Jennifer, go ahead. I just wondered if you think there are people already on the staff who really have that vision that he has, which is a very different vision and have the skills to, to pick up the kegels and go for it, or will he have to hire from outside from other places? Yes. Well, so he did, he did

Speaker 3: 08:08 create three new positions, three a, the Kim quatre position, the number two has been replaced with three people who will oversee different parts of the Department of the agency. Um, and it's possible that somebody could come in from the outside. Uh, Coleen Clementson who has been the, the name who's in charge of the so-called five big moves plan. That's the branding for his, his, his idea. She's been the point person on that. She's been the person briefing the board. She's been, uh, talking to the media a number of different times trying to explain it and she has, she's in the interim position taking mug Stolz place. So certainly he has found people in the agency who share his ideas and are willing to work on it.

Speaker 4: 08:46 You're the one short time left on this, Jennifer, really to do the list. I know. No where, where are we now with congestion pricing? I had talked to him about this idea early on when they were starting to look at the grand central station site at the spay war now Nav war facility. Have they kind of moved away from that?

Speaker 3: 09:03 I think that falls into the too vague to say specifically at this point. He talks about it a lot. He wants something along those lines and anytime he is pressed on somebody who doesn't like it, he says, well, the type that you're thinking of is what we're not going to do and I am not going to get into what

Speaker 4: 09:20 yeah, sounds like him.

Speaker 1: 09:24 We were out at the time when this sigma, but a lots of the watch going forward here and again, it's a, it's one of those agencies and you know, they offer Betanol but it is really important to all of us in a big impact. How important is tourism to San Diego? So third biggest industry behind the military and manufacturing direct revenue from visitors is nearly $11 billion a year. But what if our beaches disappeared? What would the impact be on tourism? The erosion of sand along our 70 plus miles of beaches as accelerated in recent years that spawn many ways of shoveling against the tides. And Alison, start with this overall problem. You've studied and written about this for a long time. Uh, what's causing our beaches to lose sand? Yeah,

Speaker 4: 10:04 well I may have been doing it for a long time, but when you Google it, you can see that for decades people have been writing about this. It's been going on for a very long time. Basically the source of sand, which is coming down, all the estuaries is often being blocked off or the cliffs that we don't want to crumble because there are multimillion dollar has this on the top a if you left them naturally they would crumble and create sand. And so we're cutting off the sources of sand and in the meantime it's being washed away by winter tides and not being replaced

Speaker 1: 10:33 is the, is the, of course we haven't seen dramatic rise in sea levels but worldwide and we keep hearing we're going to get that and are in certain places, not so much in the west coast. Now is that a factor going forward?

Speaker 4: 10:44 Absolutely. That is one of the, the the reasons why the private property owners anyway are so keen to get sand. It's not because they want tourists to come and enjoy the beach. It's because San protects the coast and will stop those cliffs from crumbling. Uh, so yeah, I mean there's predictions between six and 10 feet by the end of the year. So you've got to look at some of our beaches and realize that there will not be any beach left if the ocean rises to that level.

Speaker 1: 11:08 And it does sound crazy, as I said in the opening, literally shoveling against the tides. But what are some of the methods that they have used in the past, uh, to replenish sand at certain, at the end of winter time, right?

Speaker 4: 11:19 You can pour sand from the estuaries. In the case of Oceanside, they're pulling it from the mouth of Oceanside harbor where it's a double a win win situation because the sand migrate south. And so it gets stuck because Oceanside harbor has a bit growing that sticks out. And so the army corps of engineers comes and takes it out of the mouth of the harvest of the boats, can get in and out and puts it on the beach. But there's other places, you know, there's, there's places you can go and dredge it offshore. I've heard scientists say that it's a problem because it's killing the bottom of the food chain, the small snails and the sea fish out to sea. Uh, and bring it back and barges or you can, you know, Delmar's talking about taking it out of the estuary there where Sanders built up.

Speaker 1: 12:00 And your latest story here is something new in Oceanside. What's, what, what are they specifically doing? Oceanside

Speaker 4: 12:07 fortunate because it has this essentially free Army Corp of engineers replenishment every year as a result of their, the, the harbor. Um, but they have, they've got to do that. Yes. Illegal agreement, no less cause it's millions of dollars. We were talking about, uh, so the sand is brought down to the pier where a lot of the tourists are. And I should mention that there is now a multistory hotel just going up in Oceanside and the city is banking on tourism as being, you don't lose the big family vacation center. The beach is the main draw. Yeah. So, but it lasts them too, you know. Um, you can see it goes quite a ways beyond the pier, but then as it goes south, it comes closer and closer to where the houses are and the strand and the last mile, it's pretty much disappeared at low tide.

Speaker 1: 12:52 And now they're trying something new. Your story is about this idea stolen from Newport beach. Okay. In Orange County here or what's the groins? All about.

Speaker 4: 13:00 It's interesting cause I mean you don't have to go to Newport beach to see groins. You see groins in Carlsbad, there of grinds up and down the coast. But Newport beach has six very large groins that went in and the 1960s and I took a spin up there and looked and indeed the beaches, very generous and nice. They're these rocky, um, uh, piers that go under the sand underneath the beach and then stick out into the ocean. So this,

Speaker 1: 13:22 so they're not the jetties that we see in so many places along, um, entrance to the harbor. There's not a lot of difference between have growing in a jet, but it's underneath the say. Oh, okay.

Speaker 4: 13:30 But it does actually go back underneath the sand on the beach all the way to where the houses are and helps to stabilize that then. Yeah.

Speaker 1: 13:37 So you will see part of them then and that goes to the beach. Yeah. So, uh, but they're there. They have their drawbacks too, Brian.

Speaker 4: 13:44 Well, I thought when I went to Newport beach, this looks wonderful. And I asked the lifeguards and he said, well, not so. It's the, the jury is still out. They have problems. For example, people fall and get hurt there basically huge piles of rocks. All these kids running around with bare feet, they have a rip currents that they generate off the shore. But the biggest problem is the fact that like we mentioned, the sand was migrating south. Not all the time, but mostly. So if you put a grownup up, you get a nice beach and then the person size of you doesn't. And so there's always complaints, possibly even lawsuits. You know, people say you took our sand with your groin. And I mean, you could say, well then the solution is why don't you build a groin? And that's why I do wonder if there were the resources, whether we will see groins all the way down the San Diego coastline eventually.

Speaker 4: 14:31 Yeah. I mean, isn't there a school of thought though that suggests maybe that the beach isn't our beach to, to replenish with sand that this notion of managed retreat, I'm, I'm sure homeowners in that area don't want to hear about that. Yes. But you know, do we have a right to have sand on, on that beach? Do we have a right, well, the coastal commission course would weigh in, right? So they would rather see a managed retreat, although I believe they're beginning to soften on there and tell us what the term means. It means that rather than armoring the coastline, you manage your retreat, you actually plan ahead to retreat from the coastline. It's going to a road and you're going to really pull everything, not just the private houses, but the public roads and things that are going to eventually get effected by high tides and storms.

Speaker 4: 15:17 Right. So you think about it ahead. Yes. Del Mar for example. So you know, you think about it ahead of time and you do it in a managed way and all the studies suggest that it's much more cost effective to do it in a managed way ahead of time and not wait till the very last minute when you can't hold the ocean right anymore and then try and retreat, you know, you'll get more damage and it'll cost more money. So I mean, not even just for, for moral reasons and environmental reasons, but financial reasons, it would actually be better to do, manage to treat

Speaker 1: 15:46 the groins that we're talking about here. Are they terribly expensive to put in?

Speaker 4: 15:51 Uh, the ocean side, you would say percent. I think they last pretty, pretty well. The ones in Newport beach had been there since the 60s and they still look very solid. Um, they could cost, but in the tens of millions of dollars is what I'm told. So when you combine the cost of the groins, tens of millions of dollars and the sand, which is also millions of dollars, cause as we know, SANDAG had spent $30 million on sand replenishment in 2012. Uh, the whole thing is immensely expensive. So then you have to look at what is the value, what is the bang for the buck? And you know, we've talked about Oceanside having this new hotel. How can you weigh the value, the economic value, uh, not to mention the environmental value of our beach against the cost and who is going to get that money. I think this is the most interesting part of this story is everybody's going to be looking for these things.

Speaker 4: 16:40 The money is not going to be that. So some people will get it and some people won't. Oh, and how do we decide that there's battle looming of who's got the most expensive home at top of the bluff? I think you put your finger on it because there've been studies on east coast replenishment where it's been happening much more and they tend to look for where the bang for the buck is the most. In other words, where are you going to make the most money by investing in your beach? And that means that the places that have the more affluent tourism and the more affluent private properties, good news for del Mar, bad news for imperial beach. You got it. Hmm. That's possibly,

Speaker 1: 17:13 well, certainly something to watch going forward. And your talk about, it's a nice segue into our next topic, which we're going to go to, but the, you talk about the, uh, the symbol of San Diego and the, and the beaches and all of what could be more critical, although that's a low lying one. Now we're going to go do way up, a little bigger project here. Will Seattle has the space needle. Saint Louis has the gateway arch in New York, the Statue of Liberty, Paris, the Eiffel Tower, Sydney, the Opera House. Maybe it's time for San Diego to have it's own dramatic landmark. That's the vision developers have amid the multibillion dollar seaport, San Diego Redevelopment. So Jennifer, you described this proposal quote, internationally recognizable calling card, a jaw-dropping symbol of change. What are we talking about?

Speaker 5: 17:55 We're talking about a 500 foot tower, um, on, uh, on the coast. Um, obviously kind of right where seaport village is today and it, it looks like an Hourglass, I guess from afar. So it's wide at the bottom bar bell kinda turned down in. Yeah, you could grab the middle of it. It looks like from the, from the renderings I've seen. So why did the bottoms live in the waist and then wide again at the top, the way that the developer is thinking about it, they would do ground floor retail. So probably food and beverage, 385 hotel rooms above that. And then your upper fifth would be what they're calling a learning laboratory in the sky. And it would include, you know, various, various exhibits that the public could come and visit. So you could take an elevator ride all the way to the top.

Speaker 5: 18:42 Um, see a butterfly exhibit, walk through a wing garden, sit outside on these, you know, steps I guess overlooking way up. Yes. 500 feet over, um, above, uh, and, and then there's a bunch of other examples, but, but the idea would be, you know, you have this, this hotel that kind of finances the whole project and then you have this public amenity, though it wouldn't be free of Goonies in the 500 foot aquarium levels of the ocean or the aquarium. It's a very farfetched concept. Um, I don't think it's fully fleshed out yet, but the idea would be to have an aquarium that spans the length of the tower with, um, you know, uh, emulating kind of the ocean at, at various steps. And I don't know that that's been done before. They don't know that that's been done before. I don't know how I could do that.

Speaker 1: 19:30 And, uh, speaking have not been done before. This would be the tallest structure right. On the coast, up and down California. Right. Wow. West Coast.

Speaker 5: 19:39 Yes and no. So San Diego has, um, a, this, we're, we're in this downtown San Diego has a carve out of the, uh, coastal height restriction, which has been in place since 1976 through the coastal act. And that is what, 30 and 30 feet. Um, and, but downtown San Diego is exempt from that. The port of San Diego, they are in charge of height restrictions west of Pacific highway. Um, but we do have a situation now where we do have towers downtown that are 500 feet tall. No right on the water, not right on the water. You do have some hotels. I think Manchester is 480, the grand Hyatt. Um, and so it is an anomaly, so to speak. There is nothing else like this particular structure, especially in its design, but also when it's size and bulk. I mean, I think having covered the, the Manchester of vision, which is basically just bulky, high rises and nothing really special or spectacular to recommended at all.

Speaker 5: 20:35 I think we're all hoping that there might be something unique about that waterfront as a wonderful waterfront. And so everyone's kind of waiting to see somebody come up with something creative. So yes, for bold design, right? Yes. So this all started with the port of San Diego. So the port of San Diego, um, they hold these lands in public trust, which kind of means they belong to us and they, they put out a request for proposals back in 2016 and they wanted to see, you know, something world-class on this central Embarcadero site, which is the full site, the full project. It's 70 acres. Um, it's a split between land and water, but it's a huge project site. So they, they put out this, this RFP and they wanted some really big ideas and then got one. So who are the, who are the folks behind this are kind of known for giant ideas?

Speaker 5: 21:22 Well, so the developer is one highway one. And the way these things work as these entities are formed specifically for projects, but really the person to know is, um, Yahudi Gaffin who runs gafcon and they're a big construction management company. They're based here in San Diego, but it's their architect that's um, kind of the, the high flying, um, person here. And that is dark a angles group. Um, big for shorts. And they do skyscrapers. They're known around the world for their, a skyscrapers, uh, they designed to World Trade Center in Manhattan. They just, they have a number of projects everywhere and there depends what they do. This is what they do and they love like far fetched out there things you've never seen. They want you to be talking about it and they do try to um, reflect the area that they're in. But it's kind of in a, a monitor reflection like this, this tower that we're talking about doesn't really look San Diego, but they think it should feel San Diego, if that makes sense.

Speaker 5: 22:19 It's hard to know what does look San Diego, I mean this is it, right? I mean there's really nothing to define it other than perhaps the fountains down outside of the county building staff. Joe Terzi, who's, who's not retiring from our tourism authority. He, you know, when he's trying to market San Diego, they point to the Cornetto Bay Bridge and they, they point to the California tower and so there is maybe some, you know, classic like Spanish sort of vibes here on this house. Yeah, that's a good point. Right. This is not spam, but we don't have that single calling card. And I think that is fair to say.

Speaker 3: 22:55 Yeah. This isn't the first one we've, we've seen proposed this way. I remember, remember the, the wing wings, the wings were going to be dealt with about that. Yeah. Right. A conch shell that yes. Right. Yes. The drive that looked like a turtle. It's like a big arena or something. A Ferris wheel wasn't there. No Ferris wheel here. That was one of the proposals for it. Right. That, and so, um, so there definitely seems to be a desire or at least among a certain subset to see something that defines the city. I do wonder how important that is. I mean, Los Angeles doesn't have a definitive structure. Uh, Boston doesn't necessarily have, uh, a single definitive structure. There seem to be plenty of cities that do just fine without having a, some building that, that pops into people's minds. I, when they hear the city,

Speaker 5: 23:39 I wonder the same thing is a, especially because, you know, talking to Joe Terzi, I don't that we have the infrastructure to support an influx of international tourists. At least not until we get the, you know, the expansion of Terminal One over, over at the airport. Um, so there is, there is that, that sense that maybe, maybe we're okay without things designed really an excuse to get like a large hotel that blocks the view of the bay at the bottom and then it gets narrower further up. But essentially you've got this big right, done the design to be conscious of, you know, view quarters, but it is going to block some views and in fact the, the full development, um, which goes up and down, um, harbor drive there, there, there will be other impediments to views and you're going to have I think a hotel and in one area about, that's currently a park. Um, and then a, um, like a blue economy tech incubator learning center. There's gotta be a few more buzzwords. I know it's an and a separate aquarium over on Rococo Park now and so, so, but anytime you take away parks, um, and put a a building there, that's a problem. Even if you put park space on top of the building and apparently coastal commission doesn't like that.

Speaker 1: 24:56 Okay. I'm almost out of time here, but uh, what speculator, what are the chances? I mean the odds seem long. This thing is actually gonna be,

Speaker 5: 25:03 well, here's the thing, the port of San Diego, they want this project. They love this project. Every time I've sat in a board meeting, the commissioners, they love it. I, it'll clear the port of San Diego probably this year. Um, no question. No, no, no, no questions asked. But it'll get through. The question is after the environmental impact report, whether or not coastal commission, which has to look at things from the legal standpoint of the coastal act, whether they will agree with this vision

Speaker 1: 25:30 out of time, but we'll look forward to that one. A lot of things to follow on today's story as well. That does wrap up another week of stories at the KPBS round table. I like to thank my guests, Jennifer van Grove at the San Diego Union Tribune. Andrew Keats, a voice of San Diego and Ellison St John of KPBS News. And a reminder, all the stories we discussed today available on our website, KPBS dot. O r. G I'm Mark Sauer. Thanks for joining us today and join us again next Friday on the round table.

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KPBS Roundtable

Mark Sauer hosts KPBS Roundtable, a lively discussion of the week's top stories. Local journalists join Sauer to provide insight into how these stories affect residents of the San Diego region.