San Diego needs to stop saying ‘Now is not the time’

San Diego needs to stop saying ‘Now is not the time’

By: Mary Lydon and Tony Pauker

San Diego seems always faced with a number of major civic and civic related development plans. The Civic Center, the Embarcadero, Federal Courthouse, an expanded Convention Center, an airport, a main library, Lane Field, Navy Broadway and a Chargers stadium. Unfortunately, historically, we are our own worst enemy.

We appear uniquely qualified at expending copious amounts of energy fighting for what we believe is the cheapest near-term solution.

For example, the fight to charge a fee for trash service is upheld as a right San Diegans based upon a near century old practice of selling garbage to hog farmers. In 1919 it was discovered that the company that was charging to pick up trash was also being paid by hog farmers in Los Angeles who used the trash for feed. We still don’t charge trash pick up fees and it costs the city of San Diego over $50 million a year to provide this service. That would feed a lot of hogs.

In the past few months San Francisco has enacted one of the strictest recycling efforts in the nation with a goal of zero waste by 2020. They currently recover 72 percent of materials they discard but to reach their goal of zero waste, other measures will need to be put into place. This includes passing legislation to increase producer and consumer responsibility. Manufacturers, businesses and individuals will need to be accountable for the environmental impact of the products they produce and use. Some would argue this is what a bunch of NorCal do-gooders feel is important to mother earth (which it is), where others would argue that landfills are an expensive way to utilize precious land resources and base their argument on strictly economics.

The point is San Francisco has a waste vision for its future and they are willing to pay for it whereas San Diego never seems willing to invest in its future for anything.

Unfortunately, the same ostrich mentality seems to pervade current discussions of civic and public projects here in San Diego. A well-designed civic building should have a useful life of 100 years yet our planning horizons tend to be a four-year elected term or a five-year lease. Short-term planning makes long-term visions and decisions impossible.

While it is true that the current economic climate may make any development planning seem economically disadvantageous, it is extremely shortsighted.

Given public scrutiny and large-scale development projects — public or private — realistically what is proposed today would be lucky to be complete in 2015.

But what is the role of a civic place? One role is to office required governmental functions — such as a courthouse, book storage or municipal workers. Another role is to provide places for public gatherings and to create civic pride. Every great city is defined by their civic buildings and public spaces — both available and not available to the public. From the Sydney Opera house, Las Ramblas in Barcelona, the Spanish Steps in Rome, Rockefeller Center in New York, the Ferry Building in San Francisco to the scores of places in small towns in between; all bring great identity and civic pride to their cities. San Diego has one — Balboa Park.

Putting the park aside we really have nothing our region can look to for civic pride. Our downtown is defined by a few office towers and a plethora of condo towers but even collectively they do not define the heart of our region.

In and around downtown we have many new proposed civic candidates. Unfortunately our city and state’s dismal financial crisis makes it tempting to say “now is not the time” as if that makes life better. It will not — it only prolongs our status as a third tier city related to civic buildings. Facilities for required civic uses will still continue to be inadequate and it will not get any easier to address these same issues when our financial house is in order.

This is not to say that we can do everything. Some projects should be pursued as in the long run they make fiscal sense and could be iconic images of our region. Some can provide much needed civic space, and others are simply inappropriate now or in the future due to a changing world. The issue is that cheaper is not always better. Massive amounts of time and effort have been devoted to each proposed civic project listed above. The current downturn should not be the impetus to throw out planning and start anew when our conservative economic vision seems brighter — there will always be another boom and another downturn. But rather, we should support the ongoing process and act — to build or not build — now.

[space]Community is a place “to build trusting relationships, to achieve consensus around values, to collaborate toward the realization of collective goals” says Michael Gurstein. Gurstein is a PhD in Social Science from Cambridge University. Gurstein works to enable and empower communities through the use of information and communications technology. A foundational role of cities is facilitating human contact: to meet, to imagine, to present, to ponder, to govern, to decide, to help, to build. Community equals identity, trust, justice, and civic pride. Civic buildings and public places have the opportunity to create community, trust and pride. San Diego seems abhorrent to look to our future civic buildings and public places. What does that say about how San Diegans value community, trust and civic pride?