Navigating San Diego’s future without a destination

I would like to live in an idealized community where all parties come together to evaluate important public issues against a commonly accepted set of overarching goals and priorities. Instead, I live in San Diego. I would not trade living here for anywhere else in the world, but there is a price to pay for the privilege.

The recent Carmel Valley community-level debate over the scope and size of Kilroy’s One Paseo project was heartening in that both sides “gave in” to create a win-win resolution of the development project.

It was not an issue the San Diego City Council really wanted to have on its agenda, at least not until the community planning groups and Kilroy had their meeting of the minds. The One Paseo projects of this world are ill-suited for the citywide referendum toward which this one was heading, or to a decision by the City Council, which was being dragged into a neighborhood-level argument almost by default.

Imagine if either the City Council or San Diego city voters at large had to vote on One Paseo. Would voters living 15 to 40 or more miles away from El Camino Real and Del Mar Heights Road have any real interest in One Paseo, such that they became educated voters?

Other than the “he said-she said” over traffic, there was little in the way of a substantive strategic context within which the issue could be resolved. What citywide goals would have guided the City Council in devising a solution?

Ultimately, the City Council sits in judgment on development issues such as One Paseo, but there are challenges of greater import that deserve greater attention from councilmembers.

These issues are the Chargers stadium, Convention Center expansion, aging infrastructure (deteriorating water mains and sewer pipes, in particular), desalination or other means of assuring drinkable water, preserving the city’s quality of life for future generations, and formation of a San Diego-Baja California regional economy where goods, labor and traffic flow freely to harness an economic engine of enormous potential.

The difficulty of addressing these issues effectively is no excuse for not trying. The temptation for city councilmembers past and present has been to give up on big picture items and instead argue less important issues parochially. It is easier and the results are visible more immediately, before the next election occurs.

As voters, however, we expect the officials we elect to be leaders, capable of making tough choices and developing a vision, goals, strategies and priorities for the good of the community at large. Instead, what we get are local policy debates that frequently boil down to little more than assertions not backed up by credible research or made by “experts” whose views are predictable. Two examples illustrate my point.

First, in a recent Voice of San Diego article former City Councilmember Carl DeMaio was quoted as saying, “One could easily argue that we might have our priorities mixed up if we are too busy with the Chargers to monitor what’s happening with the Convention Center.”

His assertion makes it sound as if there are just two public priorities, the Chargers and the Convention Center. I respectfully disagree.

Second, an example of an “expert” of sorts proclaiming a position he asserts as a given, when it is not, arises from city’s use of 50.4 million gallons of drinking water to fill Chollas Lake.

It is a questionable practice in the best of times. During a severe drought, it defies logic. Chollas Lake is a fishing hole for kids, not even a reservoir.

Yet in a recent San Diego Union-Tribune story, the spokesman for parks and recreation framed the city’s position as follows: “While turning off the water to Chollas Lake would seem to be a simple way to respond to the drought, the irreparable damage that would be done to the ecosystem surrounding the lake, in addition to the loss of an important public space, balances the equation.”

The spokesman, Tim Graham, can assert all day long that using 50.4 million gallons of drinking water to fill a fishing hole “balances the equation.” But asserting it to be true does not make it so.

Speaking of the Union-Tribune, where were our elected officials when it was being shopped near and far? Their silence was deafening. My guess is if it had been put to a vote, more people would have favored keeping the Union-Tribune than the Chargers. San Diego has now become a national media cul-de-sac, a media appendage to Los Angeles.

There are great reasons why highly successful organizations have vision and mission statements, goals and objectives, priorities and a strategic plan to coordinate and guide organizational behavior. This city should run itself like a successful business, as challenging as that might be.

Without guideposts, it is all too easy for important issues to get lost. San Diego is lost when it comes to following best practices and taking control of its destiny.

Riedy is former executive director of the Burnham-Moores Center for Real Estate at the University of San Diego.

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