- Photo illustration by John R. Lamb
If you’ve been in San Diego long enough—say, 15 minutes—you’ve likely heard that the eighth-largest city in the country has a bit of an identity crisis. Our civic leaders boldly pronounce this little corner of the world “America’s Finest City,” cleverly using an adjective that can mean anything to anybody. Oh sure, San Diego’s tried on a few other slogans—“City in Motion” and “Silicon Beach” come to mind—to no avail.
But if we’re believing what an assistant U.S. Attorney said in federal court last week, a certain Coronado resident with big dreams and an even bigger bank account seemed to pull back the curtain again on San Diego’s Achilles heel: Who the hell are we?
As San Diego’s latest political scandal continues to unfurl like a deep-fried onion blossom, it seems clear that the city’s insecurities about itself were viewed as the means to an end, that San Diego can be something else, maybe a celebrity playground with waterfronts walled off by egregiously expensive condominium towers and glitzy hotels bathed in neon colors.
How else to describe the alleged vision of Mexican business tycoon José Susumo Azano Matsura? From his swinging bayfront pad in the Coronado Cays, perhaps he felt his distant view of the San Diego skyline was a little too dated, a bit too boring for his well-appointed tastes.
Whatever his motivation— power, ego, money laundering, maybe the ladies—it’s clear that the gentleman at the center of our latest campaign-finance drama has his head planted far up his ass.
“What it does say is, he doesn’t really understand the city, that he was probably just looking at the water and not the land,” said Mike Stepner, the former city architect (yes, kids, we used to have one) who now teaches at the NewSchool of Architecture + Design in East Village. “It just isn’t the same kind of waterfront as Miami. And I think lining it with huge high-rises is probably not the best solution for us.”
In fact, we can thank the recession for at least one thing, Stepner told Spin Cycle. “It’s held up a lot of these overblown proposals that would have changed the character of San Diego,” he said. “We keep talking about trying to connect the waterfront to the uplands, and that becomes less likely every time we cut off a view corridor or a street to build walls.”
When the twin-towered Harbor Club condo project rose up across the street from the San Diego Convention Center in the early 1990s, its developer envisioned San Diego becoming a Honolulu or Waikiki Beach East. Of course, those condos sat unsold for years, and San Diegans’ palate for poi has not risen significantly.
Even the notion—as best that Spin can figure from the scandal stories to date—that former Mayor Bob Filner would buy into this gentleman’s vision of San Diego as “Miami West” seems far-fetched, unless the only vision Filner had was screwing his arch-nemesis, developer and publisher Doug Manchester, out of his leasehold for the Navy Broadway Complex.
The problem with that, as Stepner pointed out, is that Manchester’s agreement is with the U.S. Navy, so it’s uncertain how Filner allegedly planned to scuttle that deal. And let’s not forget that Manchester is a notorious litigant, which, in part, might explain why the Navy hooked up with him in the first place.
Azano, according to court filings, seemed interested in landing a mayor who’d do his bidding for this dream. District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, whose 2012 quest for the mayor’s seat failed miserably, is feverishly trying to distance herself from the perception of influence peddling in which she seems ensnared, although she’d prefer that you view her—the county’s top prosecutor, no less—as a victim of dastardly money-givers.
Where San Diego might be rivaling Miami is in the political-skullduggery department. But even that might be a tall order, if you’re familiar with Miami politics.
“We certainly run into issues of powerful developers having essentially unchecked power,” said Matt Lambert, a Miami-based urban planner. Miami, known in the past for its hodgepodge zoning laws, became the first U.S. city to adopt so-called “form-based” zoning codes, intended to improve the relationship between developments and their surroundings.
In 2011, the American Planning Association awarded Miami its National Planning Excellence Award for Best Practice. “At the heart of this ambitious, innovative and comprehensive overhaul of Miami’s zoning code is a desire to improve the long-term quality of life and city livability for Miami today and tomorrow,” the association said in a statement.
That, perhaps, gets to the heart of the matter. Most developers don’t like form-based zoning because it requires them to look beyond their own property lines. “That’s what we’re all supposed to be doing,” Stepner said, adding that he constantly preaches that to his students.
But the comparisons with Miami should stop, he argued.
“It’s a different climate,” he said. “We’re not going to get that kind of density here. The market isn’t the same. The culture isn’t the same. We even attract a different kind of tourist. The ’Zonies come here in the summer, and they want to live near the beach— Mission Beach or Pacific Beach. People who go to Miami Beach from further north during the winter like to stay in luxury condos or hotels.”
Finally, if the moneyed types in San Diego really want us to become Miami West, consider what Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry had to say about his adopted home of Miami in a PBS interview last year.
“… I mean, first of all, the people are weird,” he said. “People come from everywhere. People— just weird people are attracted to Miami. And they come there not for serious reasons, usually. They come there to be criminals. That would be our elected officials, for the most part. They come there to party. And then the wildlife is weird. The weather is weird. It’s just this festering stew of weirdness.”
So, other than a lack of humidity, alligators and giant invasive snakes, what’s there to complain about, San Diego? As this scandal shows, we can do “weird” with the best of ’em!