Downtown Developers Should Be Held Accountable Too

By | Published in VoiceofSanDiego.org | May 19, 2010 |

The approval of large projects in downtown needs checks-and-balances to ascertain accountability of approvals by Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC) President and Board of Directors.

The City Council review of downtown hotel projects will ensure adequate public input and further citywide economic development goals.

There are four reasons for supporting greater accountability of large hotel projects in downtown.

First, land-use power vests with the council for the entire city. It is important to recognize that zoning and land-use authority are vested with the legislative body (the City Council) through the police power of the state. CCDC does not have any inherent authority except that which is explicitly granted through the Land Development Code and the CCDC Operating Agreement. Currently, the City Council does not have the same powers over development projects in downtown as it does over projects of a similar scale in other neighborhoods of the city. This is a significant anomaly in the Land Development Code.

The second benefit is increased accountability of large project approvals. For example, the San Diego Downtown Community Plan approved under the leadership of CCDC President Nancy Graham in 2006 did not incorporate adequate checks-and-balances on the authority of CCDC in development decisions. This plan significantly increased the downtown floor area ratio (FAR), empowering CCDC with greater leeway in development decisions.

In November 2005, the Center on Policy Initiatives highlighted the increased land-use authority of CCDC. We sounded the alarm that the role of the City Council would be seriously curtailed by the approval of the revised Centre City Planned District Ordinance as part of the Community Plan in 2006. However, our recommendations on instituting procedural safeguards were ignored by the then CCDC President, Nancy Graham.

Third, increased accountability does not introduce any new subjectivity. The current design review process for large projects over 100,000 square feet in downtown is discretionary. The plans and ordinances are ambiguous on a number of issues (e.g., materials, colors), and the CCDC Board of Directors frequently uses subjective criteria in its decisions on the Centre City Development Permit. Therefore, the transfer of this subjective authority to the City Council only supersedes the decision of one body over another and does not introduce new criteria.

There have been several misconstrued claims that the proposal being considered by the Land Use and Housing Committee requires labor agreements. The question today is about fairness of process, not of outcomes. Decisions regarding large hotel projects are not new to the council. As a legislative body, the council approves or denies large projects continually, considering economic impacts such as Transient Occupancy Tax and employment, and balancing the merits of the project with the needs of diverse city-wide interests.

Finally, hotels are a special land-use category separately regulated. Land-use decisions directly affect the kinds of jobs we create, but the decisions on hotels are especially pertinent for review on city-wide impact.

There have been over 10,000 hotel rooms approved in the city of San Diego since 2000, most of them in downtown. Leisure and hospitality is one of the fastest growing industries in San Diego, with employment over 150,000, and that industry has the lowest annual wage ($21,632) and the lowest rate of employer-provided health insurance (20%). For every 100 jobs in hotels, almost 80 will not pay a living wage.

The San Diego General Plan specifically calls out (page EP-27) the Visitor Industries for lowering the average wages for all San Diegans. These workers impact city-wide services, especially housing and transportation. City Council review will help ensure that large hotel projects will benefit from higher accountability. This does not introduce new subjective criteria, but transfers responsibility of addressing city-wide impacts of large hotels to a city-wide elected body.