San Diego City Hall. Photo by Chris Stone

By Elizabeth Hansen

Is it possible for San Diego to elect an honest mayor? Based on our history, I’m beginning to wonder.

I mean, think about it — Curran, Hedgecock, Murphy, O’Connor, Filner — each with their own legal challenges in and outside of office.

I grew up in the shadow of Chicago where Mayor Richard J. Daley played fast and loose with the truth and happily tolerated corruption. Given that, when I moved to San Diego I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t commonplace for Californians to keep a folded $20 bill behind their drivers’ licenses. “How refreshing,” I thought. Then Curran’s Yellow Cab scandal broke.

So here we are in 2020 about to pick a new mayor. Whoever wins will have to clean up Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s unfinished business, including the 101 Ash Street fiasco where lies about the actual sellers and the condition of the building could end up costing San Diego taxpayers more than $100 million.

Enter mayoral candidate Todd Gloria who, as a city council member in 2016, made the motion to purchase the building and assured San Diegans that it was in great shape. As we now know, the building was contaminated with asbestos and couldn’t be occupied.

The fate of the 101 Ash Street building has yet to be determined, but Gloria and Faulconer now have their eyes on new real estate adventures in the Midway District.

Enter Measure E.

In 1972, San Diego voters, fearing Miami-like high-rises lining their bays and oceanfront, voted in a 30-foot height limit for the coastal areas. Quality of life, they concluded, meant ocean views, walking on public beaches, and human-scale buildings.

Measure E asks voters to give up the height limit in the Midway District, an area that stretches from the San Diego River on the north to San Diego Bay on the south and includes the Pechanga Sports Arena and MCRD.

Why would voters give up a limit that guarantees no buildings over three stories? The chief proponents – Gloria, Faulconer and city council member Jennifer Campbell – seem convinced that luxury high-rise condos in this area are the solution to San Diego’s need for housing density and are the only way to save the Midway District.

No one who’s driven through the area recently would deny that the district and the aging sports area are sorely in need of rehabilitation. But high-rise condos? Somehow it isn’t surprising that the Yes On E campaign promoted by Gloria is being funded by a real estate developer vying for the job.

In contrast, mayoral candidate Barbara Bry supports the No On Measure E position that calls for keeping the height limit, and building affordable low-rise housing and the proposed River Trail Park. This walking and biking green belt would run from San Diego River to San Diego Bay and be accessible to all San Diegans.

No On E fans also acknowledge the elephant in the room. If the height limit is removed from the Midway District, other coastal communities including La Jolla, Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, Ocean Beach, and Point Loma could be next.

Does Todd Gloria honestly believe that high-rise towers in the Midway District are the only way to create housing density? He opposed regulation of short-term vacation rentals when he was on the city council and while serving in the state assembly in Sacramento. It’s also worth noting that the STVR industry has contributed $120,000 to his mayoral campaign.

Short-term vacation rentals are illegal in San Diego and candidate Bry wants to enforce the existing laws. That would make 16,000 housing units available to people who want to live and work here. As it is now, the lack of affordable housing makes it difficult to recruit teachers, police, fire fighters, and the other essential employees that San Diego needs.

Enforcing the existing regulations against STVRs would also be an economic benefit for local hotels and restaurants, and it would have a positive impact on our growing homeless population.

Gloria’s questionable relationships with special interests and his tendency to tell everyone want they want to hear is reminiscent of Mayor Daley. Bry, on the other hand, is known for listening carefully and giving a candid reply — popular or not.

So maybe this will be the year that San Diego elects an honest mayor.

Elizabeth Hansen lives in La Jolla and doesn’t miss Chicago.

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