Mayoral Candidate Barbara Bry on San Diego City’s Path to Economic Recovery
After 18 months of negotiations, this week, the City of San Diego finalized the sale of the Mission Valley Stadium to San Diego State University West for mixed-use redevelopment. TPR caught up with San Diego City Councilmember and candidate for mayor, Barbara Bry, to discuss her Roadmap to Recovery plan, as well as her priorities for housing, density, and economic development post-COVID. As a seasoned entrepreneur with experience in the local innovation industries, Bry highlights her strategy to diversify the city’s economy and reduce reliance on tourism by investing in expanding San Diego’s world-renowned tech and life science sectors.
TPR has interviewed a number of mayors and civic leaders including with your city council president about the challenges in the midst of a pandemic of meeting the economic and survival needs of the public. What should the City of San Diego’s recovery include?
As I continue to talk virtually to residents all over the city, the number one issue on everyone's mind is how we are going to rebuild our economy for the long term. As a roadmap to recovery for the region, one of my priorities is to expand universal internet access citywide. We've seen that it's essential for everyone, no matter how young or old, to have internet access whether it’s for healthcare, learning, shopping, or social interaction.
We earmarked $500,000 of our federal stimulus money to get a pilot program up and running, and separately, my council office will be releasing a plan for how to do this. The city parks foundation, funded by private philanthropy, is installing WiFi at many of our parks and recreation centers starting south of 8, where a larger part of the community doesn't have access to the internet.
My second priority is to develop a long-term strategy for a remote workforce. During the pandemic, we've seen that many people are working effectively remotely and want to continue doing so, which reduces congestion on the freeways and improves air quality.
How can the city be a model going forward as one of the largest employers? Also, what kinds of jobs should we be focusing on creating?
During the pandemic, industries that continued working and hiring included tech and biotech. I'm very proud that many San Diego biotech companies are involved in developing vaccines, therapeutics, test kits, and other products related to COVID. We need to foster the continued development of these industries.
A lot of pharmaceutical manufacturing is going to come back to the US, and I'd like to see some of that come back to San Diego, particularly in the Otay Mesa area (in the southern part of the city), where we have industrial land available. Almost every pharmaceutical company has a presence in San Diego; they've either bought or invested in San Diego biotech or have a research facility here. We do have some biotech manufacturing in the northern part of San Diego county, so our community colleges have developed programs to train people for these jobs which pay well and don’t require a college degree.
Tourism will still continue to be an important part of the San Diego economy, but it's devastated right now, particularly the convention business. In many of our beach communities, the hotels are occupied as tourists come from San Diego, Orange County, LA, and Arizona, but our downtown hotels, which depend on the convention business, are devastated.
I've spent over 30 years in the innovation economy, starting with working at what used to be called UCSD Connect, which was then at UC San Diego. Connect San Diego was started in 1985 to help launch high-tech and biotech companies, and I joined as the associate director in the early days. I was there for 10 years and was responsible for developing a lot of what Connect still does today. I left in the 1990s to become an entrepreneur in my own right.
These industries fuel the San Diego economy. They create high paying jobs and good service sector jobs around them. In the early days of Connect, you could've named all of San Diego’s biotech companies on two hands; today, there are hundreds. This is a growing industry for our region and an industry that, as mayor, I will focus on selling to the world— including why every major pharmaceutical company needs a presence here, to invest here, so that the industry will have the capital to continue to prosper.
City Council President Georgette Gómez in a May TPR interview highlighted the challenges her constituents face connecting to government services for emergency relief. Indeed, she emphasized how COVID-19 has exposed where there has been under-investment for decades. How does San Diego rebuild its economy so all are benefited equally?
In San Diego, we have a divide between 'north of 8' and 'south of 8'. The innovation economy is mostly north of 8 and that's where many of the good jobs are, but many people live south of 8.
There is an inequity, and part of it is that the young people growing up south of 8 don't have access to the jobs in the innovation economy; they don't even know what jobs exist. As mayor, I'm going to have a school engagement coordinator in my office who will develop linkages between employers and schools. The idea is that as children grow up they'll understand all of the opportunities that are available to them. This is about developing the workforce of the future, particularly for our STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) companies.
Most of our population growth is going to come from our children and grandchildren, not from new people coming here. We need to make sure that they're going to have the skills for the jobs of today and tomorrow. These jobs are where I worked for 30 years, so I think my background makes me uniquely qualified to understand the needs and bring the world of work together with the world of school.
I’m particularly excited that the biotech industry is going to become a major employer downtown. It has been reported that IQHQ, a new real estate investment trust, is purchasing a large property that is already under construction and has plans to turn it into a biotech center. In addition, the new owner of Horton Plaza plans to have some biotech, and so are other property owners. This is a transformational moment for downtown.
For the last few years, you have, as a councilmember, prioritized the thoughtful sale (and future development) of the Mission Valley Stadium to San Diego State University's West Campus. Elaborate on the history of that development project and its potential to meet the park and affordable housing needs of San Diegans?
In January 2017, the San Diego Chargers announced they were leaving San Diego. Then, we found out that city officials had been meeting behind closed doors for over a year with a group of private investors, SoccerCity, who launched a citizens' ballot measure to essentially take over the Mission Valley site—over 138 acres. I was a new councilmember, and when their plan was first introduced it was very popular. Soccer City investors were spending a lot of money to sway public opinion and easily collected the signatures that were required.
The San Diego City Council then had two choices: give them the land without putting it to the voters or put it on a future ballot during the next scheduled general election so the voters could decide. In June 2017, I stood up and was the first elected official to oppose Soccer City, and I wrote a commentary called "Soccer City is Not the Only Option for Mission Valley." I was out there by myself with a lot of darts being thrown at me, but I never waivered. I was very pleased that another group of San Diegans stepped up with a competing ballot measure called SDSU West.
Both of these initiatives were on the November 2018 ballot. and I'm very proud to have played a leadership role. Soccer City went down in flames even though they spent $28 million from beginning to end, while the other side spent about $6.5 million. SDSU West was approved by voters in November 2018. I assumed it would take about 6 months to negotiate a deal with the city based on the terms of the ballot measure, but it took 18 months because of a lot of backroom dealing going on again. Finally, the council did approve a purchase and sale agreement in June.
The CSU system is paying the City of San Diego about $88 million to buy the land and then will start construction in mid-August on a new stadium, which is the first part of the development on the site. That will be followed by the development of a beautiful river park that all San Diegans will be able to enjoy. San Diego State is also planning to build about 4,600 housing units over a period of years, and 10 percent of them would be affordable.
Address for our readers what ‘smart growth’ means in today’s city planning environment, which, pre-pandemic, rarely prioritized affordable and workforce housing.
As a councilmember, I have supported increasing density along transit corridors and have voted to update community plans in communities like Mission Valley, the Morena Boulevard corridor, and the Balboa corridor to add density where there is public transit either today or coming soon. Mission Valley already has good transit and a new trolley line will be opening at the end of 2021, connecting downtown to the UTC (University Towne Center) area. In the Morena area, 15 percent of the housing must be available to families up to 100 percent of median income, so it'll be available to nurses, firefighters, or school teachers. It'll be a great community, right on transit.
San Diego’s current Mayor and city planning department reportedly are proposing a change in housing and city landuse planning—Complete Communities. Do you have a position on this proposal?
Complete Communities, written by the city planning department under the direction, would dramatically change how we do land use and planning in the city of San Diego, particularly regarding housing, and I am opposed to its current form.
A former assemblymember, Howard Wayne, has said, "the plan has an innocuous name with radical consequences.” It would allow developers to increase density by right, and that could result in increased gentrification. With a process of automated approvals, neighbors won't know about a new development in their community until construction begins; that's another recipe for displacement. This proposal was hatched without a lot of community consideration and without consulting our neighborhoods. Now that it's out there, they're trying to get the community input.
We have a group called the Community Planners Committee—which is comprised of the head of every community planning group in San Diego—and they have asked that this process be slowed down and I support that.
Coincidently, San Diego’s city council recently voted to place a $900 million tax increase on the November ballot to raise funds for affordable housing. Will voters, challenged by unemployment and the pandemic, likely support this measure?
Many other cities passed similar bond measures in 2016, including Los Angeles, but San Diego did not. I voted to put it on the ballot because I believe the voters deserve the option to decide. I was very clear that my vote did not mean that I supported it.
Polling has shown that the measure has about two-thirds support, and who knows what will happen if there's any kind of an organized opposition. Opponents to increasing our hotel tax on the primary ballot spent a few hundred thousand dollars and defeated our March measure on increasing the transient occupancy tax.
San Diego’s planning department is presently reconsidering both how to collect and re-allocate fees and extractions. Traditionally in San Diego, such fees have been allocated in the communities and neighborhoods in which they are collected; but currently there's a proposal to—for equity purposes—use funds collected locally to be reallocated and spent by the council anywhere in the city. Your thoughts?
I understand the need for equity and investment in many of our underserved communities. At the same time, we're updating community plans to allow for increased density—as we did in Mission Valley, Morena Boulevard, the Balboa corridor, and will be doing in Kearny Mesa. We're promising the residents of these neighborhoods certain community benefits because of this increased density. So, as we collect these new developer fees, it will be my priority to make sure that those communities get what they were promised.
We're living in a time of very low-interest rates, and the state has a role to play in issuing infrastructure bonds that can address some of the development needs of communities where there will not be substantial new construction.
TPR has extensively covered over the years, since Gail Goldberg was City Planning Director, San Diego’s 'city of villages' approach to city planning. Goldberg and the City prioritized extensive public outreach and repeatedly assured residents that appropriate infrastructure would accompany greater density. Do the housing plans coming forward in San Diego today promise that appropriate investment in infrastructure will accompany greater neighborhood density?
That's been very important as we've updated community plans: what is the appropriate infrastructure to go along with the density? The importance of the community of villages approach is becoming clear as more of us are spending more time at home and in our neighborhoods—but we must implement it better. All of our neighborhoods are different, and our planning needs to take that into account. It’s what makes San Diego so unique.
Everybody knows what a granny flat or accessory dwelling unit (ADU) is, and it's easier to build them statewide with the regulations passed a few years ago. A regular ADU is just a smaller house that's on your property. In contrast, a tiny home is moveable, but it's not a mobile home or trailer. It's a little house that sits on your property, but it can be easily moved and costs much less than building something with a foundation—you can buy a tiny home for between $40,000 and $80,000.
The goal in passing this ordinance was to give property owners another option in being able to provide more types of housing affordably. You can do it in a residential neighborhood, but in the long term, it could be expanded to allow this type of housing in commercial or office areas where there's available space.
With climate change likely to be the next world crisis, San Diego is presently renegotiating its franchise agreement with its utility—San Diego Gas & Electric. Elaborate on the city's priorities in this negotiation with SDG&E.
My priority is to get the best deal for San Diego residents and small businesses who pay the pill. I'm concerned that this is another rushed backroom deal. We're looking at a document right now called the Invitation to Bid—like an RFP—drafted by the mayor's office with the help of a consultant, a former executive of Pacific Gas & Electric. It came to the Environment Committee recently, and I was the only no-vote. When the council was moving forward with Community Choice Energy, it took a few years. We had two peer-reviewed reports and our independent budget analyst was involved. In contrast, we have no other reviews of this invitation to bid.
The current franchise agreement with SDG&E ends in January, but there's no rush. They'll continue providing power since they're not allowed to walk away, so I want the city to take the time and do it correctly. When the Invitation to Bid is formally released, any company with utility experience can bid. And actually, at the Environment Committee, an executive from Berkshire Hathaway Energy called in to say that they're planning to bid as well.
Barbara, in November, San Diego is electing its next mayor. What will decide the contest for leadership of the state’s second-largest city?
My business experience is particularly important at this moment in time, and my priority as Mayor is to lead an economic recovery for our city, a recovery that builds on our strengths—our diverse population, great universities, thriving technology industries, proximity to the border, a vibrant cultural sector, a beautiful natural environment, and our unique neighborhoods. If we don't do that, we won't have the financial resources to deliver neighborhood services. My life has been focused on doing things in new ways, and the city has to think about how it's going to operate differently.
I think there are very clear differences between my opponent, Todd Gloria, and myself. He has spent his entire career in government, either working for or serving as an elected official. In contrast, I've spent most of my career in the private sector in the technology world, I've signed the front of the paycheck, and I've created hundreds of local jobs.
This story originally appeared on planningreport.com.