COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN C. KRATZER

Solar Turbines ignores property rights in its fight against Fat City

San Diego is America’s Finest City, unless you want to do business there.

That’s the bad reputation San Diego may gain if property rights are taken away from a landowner because of the whim of a politically connected corporation.

Together, GLJ Partners, Jonathan Segal and the heirs of the late restaurant owner Tom Fat are redeveloping the Fat City/China Camp restaurant site to create Fat City Lofts, a 232-residence apartment building with 5,000 square feet of retail. The project at Hawthorn Street and Pacific Highway incorporates and preserves the historic landmark Top’s Night Club built in 1941 and will be a true gateway to Little Italy.

The Fat City property has been zoned for mixed use, including residences, for more than 20 years. The zoning was the result of a comprehensive public process, including a Community Plan Update and development of the Downtown Planned District Ordinance. The project does not require any variances or exemptions.

This zoning is a result of an open and participatory public process among stakeholders (including Solar) and elected officials, and did not come about haphazardly. The Centre City Development Corporation spent more than $5 million to update the 2006 Community Plan during a strenuous two-year process. A committee of more than 60 people spearheaded the effort that included more than 70 public workshops. Every single agency participated, including the Port, FAA, the Navy, Coastal Commission, CEQA, city of San Diego, Downtown Partnership, Little Italy Association, and individual stakeholders.

But Solar Turbines, a tenant on waterfront property across Pacific Highway, has now decided that it does not want residential neighbors and has decided to fight to keep the Fat family from developing their own land.

Solar Turbines is using its political clout to line up political support and get politicians to flip-flop on their previous votes. The 2006 Community Plan was adopted on Feb. 28, 2006. According to the San Diego City Council minutes, council President Scott Peters convened the council meeting and voted to adopt the new Downtown Community Plan. Kevin Faulconer made the motion to adopt the Community Plan. Greg Cox represented the County Board of Supervisors on the Steering Committee for the San Diego Downtown Community Plan. Now, they are all lined up with Solar to disregard the Community Plan and oppose Fat City Lofts.

No matter that studies done for the developer show that none of Solar’s operating permits will be affected by the Fat City Lofts and that there will be no air emission effects on apartment dwellers. No matter that the developers, and all future apartment renters, will sign an agreement not to challenge any of Solar Turbine’s permit renewals.

Some are trying to create fear that Solar will leave town, taking all its jobs with it, if apartments are built. With Solar having a favorable lease that can run until 2043, that seems unlikely.

But this issue is not about Solar. For Tom Fat’s heirs and their partners, this is about property rights and the rule of law. For San Diegans, this is about what kind of downtown they want in the future.

Construction bust cycles do not last forever, and the good news is that Fat City Lofts is a first-wave project leading the coming rebound. Other projects planned on the edge of Little Italy will secure the neighborhood’s success as a place to live, dine and shop.

Fat City Lofts will offer an impressive list of amenities. But what makes it truly distinctive and affordable is its status as rental apartments. No need to hand over tens of thousands of dollars to live downtown, close to the bay, museums, offices and Balboa Park.

San Diego has a chance to keep its industrial job base and add more economic vitality. Consider that this 232-apartment project, the first of several, will support 283 jobs during construction and 74 jobs when occupied. Or that, according to the National Association of Home Builders, it will mean as much as $40 million in incomes and taxes during construction and $10 million a year on an ongoing basis.

A weekly publication, with business as part of its name, did the business community and all San Diegans a disservice when it editorialized for Solar without so much as making a phone call to the landowners to ask for their side. Worse, the publication suggested, “We have enough housing for the next 10 years, particularly downtown.”

That’s absurd. In a county with a vacancy rate of just 3.4 percent, we shouldn’t care about potential renters? Do we want to stop all construction? We don’t need construction jobs? Do we just let downtown stagnate to appease Solar?

What kind of message would America’s Finest City be sending if officials wink as a family is stripped of its property rights on the whim of a powerful neighbor? This, even though it met every zoning requirement, every regulation and did not ask for a single break.

Whether we own a business, are an unemployed construction worker looking for a job, want to rent instead of own downtown, or we simply care about the heart of our city, we all have a stake in this.

The key decision in this matter will come in January when the Centre City Development Corporation board meets. Let’s root for fair play and the sanctity of property rights, not mega-corporation bullying and backroom politics.

Kratzer is president and CEO of JMI Realty, the master developer of the San Diego Ballpark District. Erdossy is the president of GLJ Partners, the developer working with the Fat family and architect Jonathan Segal to develop Fat City Lofts.

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