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New Centre City Chief Plays Ball

— 'I'm not going to get into a pissing contest with Nancy Graham," barks Joel Daves, who followed her as mayor of West Palm Beach, Florida. Good advice. Graham, who was the first chief executive after the city went to the "strong mayor" concept, proved to be a bulldog -- sometimes perhaps a pit bull -- in her 1991-1999 incumbency, spearheading aggressive downtown redevelopment.

Then "she raised eyebrows when she left office by taking a job leading the Palm Beach County division" of a major real estate developer, according to George Bennett of the Palm Beach Post. Later, she formed a development-consulting firm with her husband. During the same period, she headed the Downtown Development Authority.

In October of this year, the current mayor, Lois Frankel, charged that Graham was too cozy with the Related Group, a developer, and had a "conflict or an appearance of conflict." Graham and Frankel split as political allies, and before long Graham was named president of San Diego's Centre City Development Corporation, the downtown redevelopment organization. She takes over December 1.

On the surface, it appears Graham belongs in San Diego: she understands the strong-mayor concept; she is a visionary who pushes hard to get what she wants; she thinks her snug relationship with developers is an asset; she used the power of eminent domain forcibly in West Palm Beach; she believes in subsidizing businesses to relocate downtown; and she rammed through a measure to tear down an auditorium that was used extensively by lower-income people.

In short, she should fit comfortably into San Diego's old-boy network. The redevelopment corporation expects her to push ahead with more projects, such as Ballpark Village and the Navy Broadway Complex.

There is one problem: money. The city doesn't have any. The Centre City Development Corporation owes $100 million to the city. Councilmember Donna Frye wants that money to be paid back.

It's true that Frye lost the mayoralty to Jerry Sanders, who is in the pockets of the real-estate-development industry, which poured money into his campaign. But even Sanders seems to understand the city's penury. Graham says she has been told that San Diego may have to go bankrupt.

Nonetheless, she talks as if the downtown library is a done deal. It depends what's meant by the word "done." There are many people who think it is insane to place a library in the ballpark district just to fatten the pocketbook of Padres majority owner John Moores. He has already reneged on promises to build hotels that would throw off sufficient transient occupancy taxes to service the ballpark bonds. The ballpark is costing the city $15 million to $20 million a year; voters were told it would be revenue neutral because of the hotel taxes. But the city got condos, which gobble up as much in infrastructure and service costs as they throw off in revenue.

Does Graham, the aggressive redeveloper, have the equanimity to handle San Diego's financial strife? San Diegans will find out. She presided over West Palm Beach, the poor cousin of super-upscale Palm Beach, during the boom of the 1990s, when the city had an obvious need for central development and capital was plentiful. Her self-assertive style meshed with community needs.

"She is very aggressive," says William Fountain, who was executive director of the Downtown Development Authority while she was mayor and is now a developer in the Florida Keys. "When her mind is made up on wanting to accomplish something, she will do everything in her power to make it happen."

"She is very, very effective and very, very aggressive, very strong-willed," says Al Zucaro, who was one of the five city commissioners during her reign and is now chairman of the town's world trade center. She is a formidable opponent, he says. He countered her when she wanted to rip down the auditorium used by low-income people. "It was a divisive issue that led to a special election that drew almost as many voters as the previous mayoral election." She won, and now the inner-city folk have no venue for such things as the Ice Capades, which they once enjoyed, says Zucaro.

Her best-known achievement was CityPlace, a large shopping center. "When she became mayor, that part of the city was nothing more than boarded-up and abandoned buildings, crack houses -- a general blighted area," says Richard Giorgio, a political consultant in the city of 95,000. In the 1980s, two developers had corralled 77 acres of the scrofulous downtown slum with the idea of developing the area. But they ran into money troubles when the real estate market slumped in the early 1990s.

"We put ourselves into the real-estate-development industry," says Zucaro. The city, using eminent domain, seized the land and found a developer.

"CityPlace has been a tremendous success," says Giorgio. However, Graham had earlier persuaded retailers to locate on the run-down Clematis Street; CityPlace drew them away, and Clematis became a haven for nightclubs, some on the seedy side. She blames her successor, Daves, for permitting the saloons to flourish, although he did try to rein them in. (A consulting firm suggested that closing time be made 2:00 a.m. instead of 4:00 a.m.) Some say that Graham is not to blame; others contend that several mayors are responsible for the boozing problem.

Graham is devoted to the concept of "new urbanism," embracing mixed use and diversity, most things within walking distance, increased density, so-called smart transportation -- "little if any setback, buildings close to the roadside, relatively low building heights," says Giorgio.

She traveled Italy on the city's tab to pick up ideas for the shopping center -- fountains, wide thoroughfares, and the like. But some say CityPlace is just an ordinary shopping mall: "authoritarian Disneyfication," sniffs Gail Shepherd, former editor of an alternative publication and now food critic for another paper. The shopping center is "a gussied-up mall, teen hangout, nothing original. CityPlace drained business from other places downtown; there was no planning on how to integrate it into the existing organic downtown."

Some say Graham's use of eminent domain didn't displace many people; land was basically taken from lenders. "We did file eminent domain against over 300 parties, but we aggressively pursued negotiations and settled. It became win-win," she claims. She says it's up to the Centre City board whether eminent domain will be a major component of future San Diego development.

West Palm Beach residents were told that an office building and hotel would be part of the CityPlace mix. Originally, it didn't happen, but Graham asserts that both should be under way fairly soon.

She had championed a "librando" -- a combination of library and condos. "It never got going in West Palm Beach," she says.

She does not believe that she had a conflict of interest with the Related Group, which developed CityPlace and is working on other projects. Zucaro agrees it's unfair to pin the conflict tag on her.

"She and I butted heads on a number of issues, but overall she did wonders for West Palm Beach," says Giorgio. "She had tremendous vision and took it forward. The downside is that every condo being built starts at $400,000 and goes up. Housing is becoming rapidly unaffordable for people who live here."

Says Joe Minicozzi, former urban planner in West Palm Beach, now practicing his craft in Asheville, North Carolina, "She threw out the zoning code; it was phenomenal. But we weren't allowed to bring up questions. So CityPlace didn't have affordable housing. It's a 900-pound gorilla, and the city is stuck with it."

That's another reason why she should fit in well in San Diego.

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