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The Army of Homes Marching on the Waterfront

Residential interests battle an industrial legacy for the city’s economic future


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In late September, the San Diego Chargers decided to try to sabotage a little deal that was being put together by hotel owners.

The hoteliers want to raise hotel room taxes, on their own, and direct the money to a major expansion of the Convention Center. 

Don’t build a bigger Convention Center, the team said, build a stadium with a retractable roof. Score two civic dreams with one football stadium. The Chargers’ ambassador, Mark Fabiani, argued the hoteliers’ tax scheme likely violated state law. It was a shocking broadside.

Fabiani told me it came because the team regretted acquiescing, in the past, on stadium ideas when big shots supported competing projects for the same plots of land.

In particular, the Chargers had backed off a push to redevelop the site of the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal. Fabiani said this was a mistake. “The Tenth Avenue Terminal seems increasingly out of place in an increasingly residential downtown.”

Yes it does. The pristine property imports just enough things and employs just enough longshoremen to make it a sacred cow. 

Yet, homes are threatening its future, just like many other spots along the waterfront. At major stops along the bay, people who manufacture and move things are trying to survive political fights with those who want to build homes. 

Right next to Tenth Avenue, in Barrio Logan, the fight is on. The neighborhood is getting spruced up. New developments like the Mercado Del Barrio project are arising. 

But businesses in the port that build ships and import things still depend on Barrio Logan’s welding, plating, and auto shops peppered among the neighborhood’s homes.

It’s quite stunning, actually: machine shops right next to little houses. The current community plan allows this interplay of land uses. But the city is updating that plan and strict separation of industrial and residential zones is coming. 

Residents want a better quality of life, access to the waterfront, and things that smell better than engine exhaust. 

At the same time, industry and the port support good jobs. Do we want to squeeze more of them out? This is a city decision. When you talk about what a city can do to create jobs, the main thing it can do is deftly decide how to use land. 

Congressman Bob Filner, for example, is the only major Democrat running for mayor. He has basically one plan for the local economy: make the port huge and competitive. That’d be a big deal to Barrio Logan residents and homebuilders.

Look to the north. At the site of the famous Fat City on Pacific Highway, a former nightclub and restaurant, the late Tom Fat’s family wants to make a deal with developers to build apartments. That idea conforms to the community plan, which unlike Barrio Logan’s, has recently been updated to come in line with what the neighborhood and city want today.

Unfortunately, across the street from Fat City sits Solar Turbines, a manufacturer of what are basically jet engines that can power a major facility or pump water.

Solar Turbines is even hiring. It pays healthy salaries for its machinists and its engineers. Its executives fear that the environmental permits they need to try new techniques won’t be easy to get if people move in across the street. 

Put anything else there you want, just don’t put homes, they say. City Councilman Kevin Faulconer came to the company’s defense in September saying the new development could force Solar Turbines to relocate.

The apartment builders say they’re all being paranoid. 

Maybe. But the fact is residential doesn’t mix with industrial. 

If you view industry along the waterfront as vital to the city of San Diego’s economic future, beware.  

The city seems to be siding with those who want to build homes over those who want to build things.

Did you know?

Right now, 4,000 residents call Barrio Logan home. That population is set to triple by 2030. 

Solar Turbines employs 3,800 people in San Diego. 

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