Is San Diego's Downtown redevelopment strategy a good fit for the city's most underserved neighborhoods? Absolutely, says Jeff Graham, outgoing president of Civic San Diego, the agency tasked with phasing out redevelopment under state law.
Despite pushback from a municipal-employees union, Graham maintains that the city-owned nonprofit corporation will continue to pursue sweeping planning authority under a proposal aimed at luring private development to low-income communities.
“This organization was created to be nimble, and it’s very critical that this corporation continue to be allowed to be nimble,” he said. “If there’s too many layers of restrictions or approval processes put on the corporation, it’s going to lose its effectiveness.”
The announcement of Graham’s departure came after he vigorously lobbied the city and community groups for months to turn over planning and permitting authority in areas of City Heights and Encanto. While elected officials have expressed support, some community members have been skeptical.
The most resistance has come from the Municipal Employees Association, which represents the city's white-collar workers, including city planners. The union has balked at the idea of letting Civic San Diego do the job of its members. Union officials declined to comment on the ongoing negotiations.
Under the proposal, Graham has requested authority to create “specific plans,” which would allow developers to deviate from height and density requirements in exchange for pedestrian- and public-transit-oriented development. The projects would be paid for with a mixture of tax credits and bank loans.
In theory, the city's Planning Department could create the specific plans while Civic focused on fundraising, but that would significantly discourage private investment, Graham said.
“It all comes back to our lenders having confidence in lending to us. They want to make sure that when they lend that money to us that we—that Civic has the ability to control when that project is going to get approved.”
On March 7, Graham will leave Civic San Diego to become senior vice president for public institutions for real-estate company Jones Lang LaSalle in its western division, located in San Diego. As Mayor-elect Kevin Faulconer chooses Graham’s replacement, Civic San Diego Chief Financial Officer Andrew Phillips will head up the agency.
City labor negotiators are continuing to review Graham’s proposal, which the City Council will ultimately vote on. If approved, the proposal would likely keep the roughly 30-person corporation alive in the wake of redevelopment’s dissolution.
(In a recent interview with CityBeat, Graham discussed why he felt the lending and development community trusted Civic with the permitting and planning process more so than the city Planning Department. An edited excerpt of that conversation is available above.)