July 20, 2006 - From the July, 2006 issue

San Diego Emerges from ‘Unprecedented Turmoil;' Now Turns to Planning & Infrastructure

While the city of San Diego endured highly publicized scandal and upheaval, City Council President Scott Peters remained among those who stood above the fray and helped guide the city through rough times. Now, with a new mayor, significant reforms, and greater optimism, San Diego has turned its focus back to housing supply, transportation, budget balancing, and preserving its famous quality of life. TPR recently spoke with Mr. Peters, a two-term Council member, to gain insight into San Diego's upcoming challenges, including updating the city's general plan.


Scott Peters

San Diego has long been viewed as one of the model big cities in America; but last year it experienced a bit of a political meltdown. Has the city recovered from its political turmoil?

It is settling down a lot. Last year we had unprecedented turmoil starting with an election in 2004 where it wasn't clear who won. The controversy that followed led to the mayor's resignation, effective in July. In the first meeting after he resigned, two council members were convicted of federal crimes, and they had to resign. And during all this we had a city attorney who ran for office on the platform that the people who were already in office were worthy of criticism. So the city attorney was creating all this noise when there was no mayor and two missing council members.

We survived that year. In November we elected a new mayor, Jerry Sanders, who wanted to be mayor and wasn't rated by Time Magazine as one of the nation's three worst mayors as Murphy had been. Jerry's also came into a new form of government, which is a mayor-council form of government, effective January 1. It seems to be working well. He's put in place people who are managing the basic functions of the city, and I think it is a much more efficient operation.

The Council has an independent budget analyst. We have a professional capability to look at what the mayor's budget proposals are. We worked through our first budget in an amicable way; we shared priorities to get the city's fiscal house in order. I think in the next month the long-awaited audit report will come to the City Council and then we'll be off to finish our audits that we've been waiting on for the last two years. We should be in the public markets by January or February.

Some have suggested that the council-mayor form of government gives less power to a mayor than to a council. What are your thoughts about the role and responsibilities of the Council?

I think it is balanced. The mayor runs the entire city workforce and has some spending authority. He's elected city-wide so he carries a certain weight. The Council shares the budget authority with him and ultimately has the final approval. The way I look at it is that either the mayor or the Council could bring everything to a screeching halt, but so far we've been able to get along. Everyone likes Jerry personally, and we work together well.

In your 2006 vision statement, you mention that the City of San Diego will "pursue many initiatives to improve the quality of life." One of them is an update of the city's general plan. Give us a sense of what you hope will be in that general plan and how it will impact the built environment of the city.

One of the paradoxes of San Diego is that it is both a small town and a big city. We are now the eighth largest city in America, but because of the topography and the canyons that separate the various neighborhoods, everyone feels like they live in a smaller part of San Diego. You might live in La Jolla, North Park, or Rancho Peñasquitos, and it feels like a small town; yet, it's part of a big city.

The framework that we have adopted for our general plan is the "City of Villages," that appreciates the character of each of the city's components while recognizing that we are a world-class metropolis and center for research in science and technology. The mayor has hired terrific people to take this forward. Bill Anderson is now the head of the Planning Department; he was the chair of the Planning Commission.

We'll pick up on a lot of the work that Gail Goldberg left when she went to Los Angeles-it is award-winning planning work and I think it will finished by the end of the year. It's working its way through committee now and we're excited that it will not just be a good plan, but thinking about how it will be applied and implemented, it will be great for San Diego.

In 2002 you wrote in an op-ed that "simply building roads will not solve San Diego's transportation problems" and that "the city needs to radically re-engineer its transportation planning." You've been involved in transportation issues for years. Have you "radically re-engineered" the city's transportation grid?

Not yet, but there is some hope there too. I'll give you an update of what's happened since I wrote that. I was a member of the Metropolitan Transit Development Board (now the Metropolitan Transit System), and we embarked on a $1 billion one-train light rail project. As I said in that article, there might be other ways that are more cost effective to provide comprehensive transit service. My proposal to re-look at that train failed on a 12-3 vote; so I didn't get too far with that.

But we did pass a $14 billion sales tax extension in 2004. We needed a two-thirds vote; I think we got two-thirds plus 300 votes countywide. That will give us some opportunity to implement transit. Also, the mayor has started talking about cost effectiveness; the previous mayor was not interested in disembarking from the train, but I think this mayor is open to a more robust discussion. I'm hopeful that re-engineering can take place.

SANDAG has published an independent transit study-with the help of the Mission Group and Alan Hoffman-that criticized the lack of a user-friendly transportation plan for San Diego County. Do you have any thoughts on value of integrating multi-nodal transit systems into your strained highway system?

I have long agreed with Alan Hoffman's approach. They only criticism I've ever had of it is that Alan wants it done tomorrow and the nature of the political process is that it takes longer. I would say, to be honest, that the elected officials in the county have been slow to catch the vision. The interesting thing that happened last week in response to an independent review of our transit strategy that we commissioned from experts from around the country as part of the sales tax extension measure, is that it too suggested exactly the same kinds of inquiry that Alan Hoffman and I have been asking for and that now the mayor of San Diego seems open to considering. I think it would be worth checking back in six or nine months and seeing where we are then.

In last month's TPR, your Council colleague Jim Madaffer and Housing Agency head Betsy Morris spoke about the efforts of the city of San Diego to provide more affordable work-force housing by creating housing opportunity zones. What's the Council's interest in such housing?

It is tempting to say that the city can solve this problem through government policy. I think we have to recognize that, with respect to housing prices, we are victims of our own success. The economy has been very strong here. We've had comparatively low unemployment. There are just so many jobs here that it's going to continue putting upward pressure on housing prices.

I think we can do what we can, but I am not optimistic and I don't think we should expect that city government-even the biggest city government-is going to be able to take this on and solve it. I will say that it looks like the general plan will provide friendlier zoning and more certainty for investors who want to invest in housing.

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We've had great luck building affordable housing in the greenfields where we've imposed a 20 percent inclusionary requirement. But, in the area where we're doing redevelopment or in-fill we have a new 10 percent requirement and almost always builders are choosing to pay an in-lieu fee and not build the unit. So, we're getting a little bit of money but it is hard to get the units. We're going to see what we can do about improving the program but I think it is still a work in progress.

The inadequacy of San Diego's airport has been an issue for decades. Now there is an advisory measure on the ballot that will ask voters if they support a new airport at Miramar or wish to have Lindbergh continue to serve the region. What are your views on this issue?

In 1945, the city had the chance to buy Miramar for one dollar. We turned it down. Talk then was that no one would drive that far to get to an airport. Now it's in the center of our city. It looks so good on a map, but it just doesn't sense to me. The Airport Authority did its job; we have something to put on the ballot.

I don't think it will pass for a few reasons. One, I don't think people understand that Lindbergh is going to be backed up; I agree that it will be and I understand that, but I am not sure if that is the general understanding. It seems to me that we shouldn't be thinking like we did in 1945, that a more remote site that seems implausible today won't work in the future. I would look farther away; I just don't see that the airport use is compatible with this location.

What can leaders in L.A. learn from San Diego's planning? What can you teach us about how to bring to life a downtown in Southern California, and how to encourage city and region-wide planning when you no longer have a city manager and rely instead on the individual council offices to integrate transportation and land use planning?

Downtown San Diego has been a spectacular success. Much of the work preceded me, but Pete Wilson required developers that wanted to build in then-lucrative parts of town that they had to build downtown too. In 1985 he decided that downtown would come back. Twenty-one years later, you see that that has worked out. One lesson is that it takes time, the second is that it takes commitment. One of the things that we've done well is to preserve some of the older character of the historical San Diego.

The Gas Lamp was a natural thing to preserve and has worked out really well. The Convention Center has been a good draw; it's generated a lot of the hotel activity. The thing that I cut my teeth on politics on was the 1998 approval of the ballpark. That has really accelerated the housing market down here. Downtown is such a great opportunity to build intensive development in a way that makes sense. And in a city where neighborhoods feel threatened by that, this is really great alternative.

Regionally, I think that the elected officials in this county work well together. I don't think that the city manager had a lot sway with the rest of the region, whereas the mayor does. Now we have a mayor that has not only symbolic importance to the county, but also has the bureaucracy of the city working for him.

The mayor now brings more to the table than the city manager might have. This is a good mayor: he understands the appropriate principles for growth and transportation. I am pretty optimistic that this will be an improvement in terms of region wide planning for transportation and housing.

Who carries that load in terms of political and bureaucratic responsibility-the Planning Department or the Transportation Department? How do you integrate the two and give accountability and leadership to one?

It's really the Planning Department here because transportation is handled through SANDAG. So the Planning Department really makes the planning and transportation calls within the city. We have a good relationship with SANDAG because they are amenable to working with the cities and the county.

You represent the more affluent parts of San Diego, La Jolla, Torrey Pines, and Carmel Valley. City Heights is one of the stellar planning successes within the city for the last decade. What lessons might be learned from the redevelopment of that blighted area for the rest of the city?

City Heights had two great champions. One was Sol Price-he lives in my district but decided that he would make his philanthropic contributions outside the district. He combined with Christine Kehoe, who is now senator. She provided the initial leadership to transform that area, which has been picked up by her successor, Toni Atkins. I think the lesson is that when you combine the resources with political will you can get a lot done.

Is the success of City Heights replicable in San Diego?

Yes. Jim Madaffer is doing that in places around the city where he's championing redevelopment. The California redevelopment laws provide some advantages for this. Because of the demographics of my district, I don't have a redevelopment area, but Jim is providing political leadership. He's willing to speak up about moving forward even though it inevitably ticks people off.

We do have other redevelopment areas that are represented by people that don't seems as interested in actually redeveloping and that don't offer like political leadership. Jim's brought leadership to his redevelopment areas, and I think you'll see the same kind of things in his district's redevelopment areas as you've seen in City Heights.

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