The Astroturfing of Carmel Valley

Our roots are grass.

Developers seek an exception in current zoning to build a nearly two-million-square-foot mixed-use complex.
  • Developers seek an exception in current zoning to build a nearly two-million-square-foot mixed-use complex.
  • Image by Alan Decker

What better way to defeat a grassroots movement than to create an astroturf campaign? That’s what residents of Carmel Valley believe Kilroy Realty is doing to gain approval for its massive mixed-use project, One Paseo.

Residents say that in order to pass what will be the largest development project ever in Carmel Valley the developer has hired a Santa Barbara–based public relations firm that specializes in creating fake grassroots campaigns to make “NIMBYs and naysayers irrelevant.”

One Paseo is a 1,857,440- square-foot development on 23.6 acres planned for the corner of El Camino Real and Del Mar Heights Road. If the project is approved in its current form, its ten multistory buildings will house a movie theater, a 150-room hotel, 608 multifamily units, and 806,000 square feet of retail and office space.

However, to proceed, the developer needs to persuade Carmel Valley residents and San Diego city councilmembers to change the zoning from commercial, which allows a maximum of 500,000 square feet of office space on the site, to a designation that permits residential and commercial buildings almost four times that size.

So far, persuading the community has been difficult.

After the plan was announced, concerned community members quickly launched a grassroots effort in opposition to One Paseo. The group’s website, What Price Main Street?, is a platform for local residents to express objections. They say the projected 26,000 daily trips generated by the new homes and offices will create gridlock on city streets and at the intersection with I-5. They say the project is incompatible with community character.

Those residents believe that executives at Kilroy Realty have taken steps to quell the opposition by hiring a former director of development services for the City of San Diego, Marcela Escobar-Eck, to serve as a project consultant. Kilroy has also hired Davies, a public relations firm in Santa Barbara. O’Dwyer’s public-relations news organization ranks Davies as the third top PR firm in the country dealing with environmental projects. 

Davies creates, according to O’Dwyer’s, “grassroots programs to gain (or divert) the attention necessary to favorably shape public opinion and build genuine support for their clients’ projects. Davies uses authentic programs to win approvals for any controversial project — from natural resources extraction and mining, real estate developments facing tough NIMBY opposition, to permitting energy facilities (from wind to coal plants) in sensitive environments.”

Last summer, Carmel Valley residents believe they saw Davies’s strategy unfold.

“We got this elaborate brochure in the mail, and we wondered why they were sending it to us. Something just felt weird about it,” says Carmel Valley resident Carolyn Keen.

“And then we started seeing these letters printed in the Carmel Valley News in support of the project. I knew this wasn’t grassroots, it just pretended to be.”

Dennis Ridz says developers are fabricating community support for the project.

Dennis Ridz says developers are fabricating community support for the project.

Dennis Ridz, chair of the Torrey Pines Community Planning Board and last-minute candidate for the District 1 city council seat, noticed something strange at a project review committee meeting.

“I started seeing people coming in with sunflower-shaped signs and buttons saying something like ‘We love One Paseo.’ One woman sitting next to me had a bag full of fans with ‘One Paseo’ printed on them. I was waiting for somebody to pop out of a birthday cake.”

Another Carmel Valley resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, has an idea why so many supporters were at that meeting. Two hours before the meeting, she received a phone call.

“An older lady called me earlier that day. She asked me to attend the meeting because they needed support, and then she invited me to a little get-together at Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza after the meeting.”

The resident said more phone calls came asking for a different kind of support.

“It sounded like the same lady. She asked if I’d be willing to write a letter to city council, and if I was unsure how to do that, they have people who can write the letter for me. She said they would write it, send it back for me to sign, and I would send it back to them. It’s sleazy and dishonest. They are trying to dupe us.”

Phone calls, mailers, and rewarding residents for attending community meetings was not all.

Top executives at Kilroy and Davies have given the maximum contribution allowed to District 1 city councilmember Sherri Lightner’s reelection campaign. In all, Lightner has received $4999.22 in donations from the developer and the public relations firm.

According to campaign finance reports, the president of Kilroy Realty, John Kilroy Jr., personally contributed $500, as did chief operating officer Jeffrey Hawken, vice president Elizabeth Smagala, and senior vice president Justin Smart. Vice president of development and project manager Robert Little made two donations to Lightner totaling $499.22.

Executives at Davies Public Affairs matched those contributions. John Davies and his wife gave a total of $1000, as did executive vice president Patrick Canfield and his wife Angela; Rosa Estraellas, wife of another Davies executive, gave $500.

Bob Little, vice president of development for Kilroy, denies the residents’ allegations of astroturfing. “We hired Davies to make the brochures, but they are not in charge of recruiting people to go to meetings,” he says. “And we never hired them to start an artificial grassroots campaign.”

As for the claim that Davies or Kilroy had people phone residents to solicit letters in support of the project, Little doesn’t know who would be making those calls. “That call didn’t come from me, I can tell you that,” he says.

Little says the owners of the neighboring shopping plaza, Del Mar Highlands Town Center, are behind the campaign against One Paseo. “The opposition is not grassroots. That website is funded by the owner of the shopping center across the street. The owners, Donahue Schriber, had their names on the What Price Main Street? website. They are the ones trying to pose as grassroots for their own economic interests.”

Bob Fuchs, who started the website in September 2009, admits that Donahue Schriber hosted the site for about a year but only because Fuchs didn’t have the know-how to do it himself. “Somehow Donahue Schriber heard about what I was doing, and I brought over my materials. They said they have a common interest because of the traffic impacts. They offered to get the message out to the community. I maintained editorial and content control and managed everything that went on the website. There is nothing on that website from anyone but community members.”

Ken Farinsky, a former planning group member, has taken over hosting the site. “There is absolutely no connection to Donahue Schriber,” he says. “This is absolutely a grassroots campaign, a real grassroots campaign.” ■

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If you are against the astroturfing of Carmel Valley, you can sign this petition that will be submitted to City Councilmember Sherri Lightner: https://www.change.org/petitions/san-diego-stop-one-paseo-it-s-too-big-for-carmel-valley

How quickly the reporter seems to dismiss that opposition may "fabricated." It took me less than 10 minutes on the City's website to find that Donahue Schriber has spent more than $75,000 lobbying City Hall against the project. Not willing to hedge their bets, they also gave Sherri Lightner $1,200 for her campaign. Seems that this "grassroots" opposition isn't so grassroots at all.


If you knew the many residents here who've spent considerable amounts of their own time and money fighting One Paseo you might have stated otherwise. As a 12 year Carmel Valley resident, this is the first time i've seen so many neighbors stop being so apathetic towards local politics. The threat of a monstrosity clogging our roads with traffic has rallied us to speak up! Donahue Schriber can lobby as they please as a local business but What Price Main Street is separate from them. Who knows who else is lobbying against One Paseo? We do know that Kilroy is certainly lobbying the city hard! They've even set up "project green light" to help get more voices whispering in the ears down at city hall: http://www.biasandiego.org/projectgreenlight.php

Also, a link to the City websites documents showing DS's lobbying efforts would be helpful. I wasn't able to find anything at all.

Ahem, just because a grassroots community takes money from a local mall owner doesn't mean that it's not grassroots; What Price Main Street doesn't take direction from Donahue Schriber; it's a "bottom up" community organized group, which makes all the difference.
Too bad the Reader comments still allows anonymity; with respect, whom do you work for EOgirl?

"Top executives at Kilroy and Davies have given the maximum contribution allowed to District 1 city councilmember Sherri Lightner’s reelection campaign."

Business as usual in San Diego and for Lightner. On April 19, 2011, the San Diego City Council voted to approve a project to expand the Flower Hill Shopping center located one exit up I-5 from the Kilroy site, and also within Lightner's fiefdom.

On June 30th, 2011 Jeffrey Essakow, who controls ownership of Flower Hill, hosted a "Fundraising Cocktail Reception" at his La Jolla home to "support Sherri Lightner and her re-election campaign". Suggested minimum contribution was $250, with $500 bestowing "host" status.

The train for One Paseo's approval is steaming down the tracks right now. Unless the residents who will impacted by what is proposed organize and demand accountability and real answers, the charade of the City's approval process will play out, traffic in that area will become more of a mess, and people will be wondering how it could have ever happened. For starters,

  • Demand an accurate 3-D model of what is proposed so that a casual observer can see the bulk, scale, and mass of the project.
  • Question the assumptions of the traffic analysis. How might pedestrian activity influence the timing and supposed synchronization of traffic signals which is held out as essential for the mitigation of increased traffic?
  • The "creates jobs" card is being touted as one of the benefits. What happens when construction is complete? Could someone be an employee of a business at the proposed center and actually make enough money to rent in the area, let alone buy a house? I doubt it. If I'm wrong, show me the numbers.
  • Where will the sales dollars of all of the new businesses come from? That's right, mostly from other businesses in the area. Optimists would say the competition might lower prices overall. My guess is that the rents that Kilroy will demand will mop up any potential benefit that would go to consumers.

Wake up, Carmel Valley. If you care about the kind of environment you live in, this is the time to get involved and make your feelings known to The Carmel Valley Community Planning Board, The San Diego Planning Commission, the City Council, and Sherri Lightner. Once it's built, it's too late. Kilroy is here whether or not they stay and if or how the project is built is up to you.

With Sherri Lightner's primary opponent self financing his campaign, it's hard to fault her campaign for taking whatever it is given. It's the role of the community to be certain that we understand the project and let Lightner know how we feel. I hope that she will vote with the community, and have no reason to believe that she won't. Yes, we all need to wake up to this and get involved. Great list above; I hope that you are submitting these in response to the DEIR.

It is with great interest that I read the account of One Paseo's "astroturf" support. I'm curious, has the article's author attended any of the hearings, meetings, etc. regarding the project? My question is prompted because I have and I observed it quite differently. Granted the opposition is quite vocal, but seems to consist of two gentlemen, Bob Fuchs and Ken Farinsky. By contrast One Paseo's proponents are far more numerous in numbers and very respectful in their message -- presenting the very appearance of a grassroots campaign.

In all due respect, I wonder who you are anonymous poster? I am Kerry Key, UCSD research scientist and Carmel Valley resident of the past 12 years. I've only been to one local planning board meeting so far, but it was by far dominated by those of us in opposition of One Paseo.

Here are some concrete numbers for you about the scale of the opposition. The online petition is now up to nearly 300 signers (scroll down to see the names of real residents who aren't tied to PR firms or local development consulting firms): https://www.change.org/petitions/san-diego-stop-one-paseo-it-s-too-big-for-carmel-valley

We will also continue to collect signatures in person at our local shopping centers until this project is either killed or reduced back to the current entitlement of 500,000 sq feet. I've spent the past three weekends involved in collecting signatures, along with a few dozen other volunteers from the community. We will have over 1000 signatures very soon. Its revealing to talk to our friends, neighbors and fellow residents when we're out at the shopping centers. Simply put, most of them are ardently opposed to the project (or had no idea about its massive scale and negative traffic impacts and then become opposed). In three weekends i've only met 3 people who ardently support the project, and two of them admitted they were developers.

The online presence of the One Paseo "supporters" is very suspect. Their website looks like it cost a fortune to create: http://mainstreetambassadors.com/

Many of the vocal supports of One Paseo have questionable professional conflicts of interest: Janette Littler states on her own consulting website that she "is a leading grassroots communications strategist who builds productive and diverse coalitions among community members and leaders. " Cynthia Dial, another supporter who's name is all over the local newspapers and pro-One Paseo websites, is well know travel writer and ghostwriter. The website TheCarmelValleyLife.com has the appearance of a front for the One Paseo propaganda machine since they continue to only post pro-One Paseo stories. Its interesting that TheCarmelValleyLife.com appeared around the same time as One Paseo did last year...its also interesting that on their facebook page they have photos of a lavish launch party at the PAC that coincidentally has a full table and poster boards with One Paseo advertisements.

Janette Littler has been a paid consultant for many years. All one has to do is to google: 'Janette Littler One Paseo' to see that she has had numerous letters to the editors to many local newspapers published, posted on social websites such as Facebook, etc., extolling the benefits of One Paseo to the surrounding community. She was even interviewed by a television news crew after attending the last Torrey Pines Community Planning Board meeting regarding One Paseo. She was introduced by the San Diego television news reporter as a concerned Carmel Valley resident as Janette went on to praise the benefits of One Paseo to the surrounding community.

I find it very disturbing that a paid consultant can write letters to the editor of numerous newspapers, post on social media, get interviewed by television news crews, and who knows what other media and never once disclose that she is a paid consultant regarding the topic she is supposedly giving her opinion on as a 'concerned resident'.

Correction: My sincerest apologies.

It was not a television news crew that interviewed Janette Littler - it was the Del Mar Times reporter. The rest of the information regarding Janette's interview after the Planning Board meeting remains the same. She was referred to as a Carmel Valley resident with no further clarification in the article.

LoveSD, I have not attended any community meetings but reviewed hundreds of emails, as part of a public records request, between Kilroy execs, Escobar-Eck, and City staff. In addition to that, I have read some of the Draft EIR, and spoke to 8 residents and Bob Little. I would say, and others would agree, that it is sufficient.

Also, I never wrote that the proponents are not genuine in their support for the project. Some residents (some being the important word here) claim this "astroturfing" is happening with this project. So, the article was about their claims and the PR firm hired by Kilroy, which happens to be known nationally for it's "astroturf" lobbying.

Thanks for your comment!


Thanks for the article. From a short stint collecting signatures I believe that most residents in the CV area are not really aware of the plan for One Paseo. When folks become aware they are not in favor. I urge all readers to discuss this project with their friends and neighbors and to voice their inclination either way. links to the con and pro web pages are provided in one of the posts above.

The traffic in that area is already disgraceful. In the morning with all the Moms and Dads delivering the rug rats to school, the streets are packed and move at a crawl. Tried to get up close to Carmel Valley Middle in the half hour before school starts? Traffic in London is better than that! And all that area needs, or any other area needs, is more retail space that will end up half-filled at best, or just plain unused. No, this is another developer's wet dream, and should be scaled down, 'way down, to something consistent with existing density as best.

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