Something Happened to Michael

— 'At the beginning of his term, [San Diego District 2 councilmember] Michael Zucchet stopped Sports Arena redevelopment, which already had requests for proposals out," says John McNab. "I'll give him credit for that. But later he comes up with his own committee, and who does he put on it? Groups that nominate people who own property around the Sports Arena. Something happened to Michael," McNab concludes without suggesting what that something might be.

McNab calls the city-owned land the Sports Arena sits on "the next Naval Training Center." He is a member of the citizens' group Save Our NTC, which views transforming the Naval Training Center into Liberty Station as a city giveaway to developer Corky McMillin. According to McNab, at the start of that transformation process, former mayor Susan Golding claimed the training center was filled with "shacks and obsolete buildings." Now redevelopment proponents in the Midway area are screaming that the city makes less than half a million dollars on the lease of the run-down Sports Arena.

In June of last year, Michael Zucchet created the Sports Arena Ad Hoc Committee, consisting of three representatives from the Midway Community Planning and Advisory Committee, two representatives each from the North Bay Association and the North Bay Project Area Committee, and one representative each from the Peninsula Planning Board, Point Loma Association, Ocean Beach Planning Board, and Ocean Beach Town Council. For four months, starting last June 25, the committee has met weekly at 7:30 a.m. in the Peninsula Community Service Center on Sports Arena Boulevard.

According to the ad hoc committee's report, completed on January 5, Zucchet charged it with "the task of evaluating various land use and other issues relative to 95 acres of public land anchored by the 38-acre Sports Arena property."

Ad hoc members chose former local business owner Joe Mannino, one of the North Bay Project Area Committee's two representatives, to be its chair. (The city requires the formation of project-area committees to advise all redevelopment efforts.) Mannino is also executive director of the North Bay Association, an affiliate of the city's Business Improvement District Council.

In its first action on July 30, the committee recommended "that the Sports Arena be moved." Reasons cited for the recommendation include the facility's age (38 years) and low annual generation of revenue for the city ($460,000), competition from newer facilities such as Coors Amphitheatre and Cox Arena, poor area infrastructure, bad access by both pedestrians and vehicles, and the desire for suitable National Basketball Association and National Hockey League facilities in other parts of town.

The Peninsula Planning Board's Jarvis Ross voiced the lone vote against the Sports Arena being moved. Since the reasons for his vote and the reasons for all subsequent votes against the majority received less attention in the ad hoc committee's final report, Jarvis and Vance Spurrier of the Ocean Beach Planning Board wrote a Sports Arena Ad Hoc Committee Minority Report. It appeared online (www.obpb.org), with councilmember Zucchet's blessing, shortly after the majority report came out in early January.

The minority report states, "There are many reasons why the [current Sports Arena] should be retained. (1) Among those are a versatile entertainment venue with close and convenient access by large numbers of San Diego residents. (2) Aside from serving the Sports Arena building events the large parking lot serves a multitude of uses from a swap meet, a training area for city bus drivers, used auto sales, and visual relief from nearby commercial buildings. Yes, it can be enhanced by planting some islands with trees or shrubs as is done in other commercial parking lots. (3) The current usage is low-impact at critical traffic hours. (4) Its useful life can be extended through creative reuse and proper maintenance. (5) Perhaps the most important use is...[its] being a cell-phone tower for multiple installations. These might otherwise have to be dispersed into residential neighborhoods where they are unwanted."

The minority report goes on to make several additional points: "(1) If the leaseholder has and does perform proper ongoing maintenance, the structure has many years of useful life left. (2) Competition has and will alter events but will not necessarily [reduce] revenue and profitability. Not everyone wants to travel to Coors Amphitheatre and Cox Arena for entertainment...."

The minority report blames all the excesses of the ad hoc committee on "multiple layers of city-sanctioned entities that exert influence over the subject study area.... The overlapping jurisdictions of the Midway Community Planning Board, the North Bay Association, and the North Bay Project Area Committee [with its total of] seven representatives...outnumbered the remaining four."

But if the Sports Arena does move, new housing construction is likely to replace it. The minutes for the August 6 ad hoc committee meeting report chairman Mannino saying, "The Committee might want to review and use as a guide the section in the Ad Hoc [instruction] book which lays out the [city] Redevelopment Agency's recommendations. [Mannino] notes that one of [those] recommendations...is North Bay five-year goal, which suggests 987 housing units including 148 affordable units. Chairman Mannino...notes that... additional residents...would provide for a softening of the current hard-edged commercial community and would generate a need for schools, churches, and parks, all of which would help to limit adult entertainment in this community. The Chair states...his belief...that if this neighborhood is to improve, housing is a necessary component."

Eventually, in two separate motions on two dates, the committee recommended both reducing adult entertainment in the North Bay (September 10) and including affordable housing in any residential development on the 95-acre city property (October 22).

The minority report supports both of these recommendations. But it criticizes a September 10 committee recommendation to support large-scale, profitable residential development. The motion "gives the lessee the ability to terminate Kobey's Swap Meet," the report states, "remove the Sports Arena, and eliminate several active community-serving businesses. The blighted conditions, referred to in support of the motion, have...been artificially created by rent manipulation and short-term subleases. This has resulted in sub-lessees being unwilling to invest in the upkeep of their locations. The act of the principle [sic] lessee voting in support of this motion which directly benefits his interests is the basest form of conflict of interest."

The "principle lessee" is a reference to Ernie Hahn. Hahn's father Ron Hahn heads a business group that owns the arena and the San Diego Gulls hockey team, which plays there. If a decision to develop residential units on current Sports Arena property is made before the group's lease with the city runs out in 2017, the Hahns stand to profit handsomely.

Minutes of the August 6 Sports Arena Ad Hoc Committee state: "Mr. Hahn notes that...[the city] determined that the best thing would be approximately 40 to 60 units per acre. He notes that with the current 30-foot height limit [in the coastal zone], we would be limited to approximately 23 to 24 units per acre." Several paragraphs later, the minutes continue, "[Mr. Hahn] notes that by leaving the height limitation as is, we are condemning this community to remain the same."

On October 8, the ad hoc committee voted seven to three, with one abstention, "that the City Council support placing an initiative on the ballot to allow a variance to the 30-foot building height limitation" in the Sports Arena area up to 85 feet. Committee members stipulated that revenue generation from this recommendation must result in various benefits to the surrounding community.

But the minority report calls the recommendation "the worst motion made and approved. It was made solely to enhance the value of the lands owned or controlled by a majority of the supporters. It would result in further degrading of the coastal area."

In the past, Michael Zucchet consistently rejected any change of the 30-foot building-height limitation in the coastal zone. According to a January 31 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune by Angela Lau, Zucchet recently supported the height limit again, saying that "exceptions should be few and far between." This time, however, "He said the committee's reasoning was 'absolutely valid and cogent,'" writes Lau. "It may be only a matter of time before Zucchet no longer protects the 30-foot height limit." Lau goes on to note that Zucchet supports many of the committee's other recommendations, including "the development of residential and commercial projects."

But that means he favors the Sports Arena moving. "It's very clear that Zucchet's got this thing up for a giveaway," says Save Our NTC's McNab. "And now he's playing these games, saying, 'I'll save you from going over 30 feet.' Well, how about our public property? We own it. The Sports Arena is not only public property, but it's some of the most valuable because it's in the coastal zone. Everybody in the county wants to come to the coastal zone."

In McNab's estimation, Ernie Hahn makes lots of money on the Sports Arena site through subleases, Kobey's Swap Meet, the cell-phone tower, and other ventures. "At the same time," says McNab, "Hahn is not reinvesting in the site. He's making it look blighted, and he's doing what they did at the Naval Training Center: making the Sports Arena look like an obsolete shack. Yes, it may not be the prettiest sports arena ever built, but it's functional and it's paid for. And Zucchet is saying that public lands are supposed to make money. They're not supposed to make money; they're supposed to allow the public to do things at a very low cost. Protection of public lands for public purposes should be the goal. That's the philosophy of public service."

But Joe Mannino wants to revitalize the Sports Arena neighborhood. "The city is not likely to do it," he says. "Only the profit motive can make it happen."

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