San Diego — With the June 5, 2012 primary election less than two months away, candidates in the city’s mayoral race are competing for the top two spots advancing them towards the general election in the fall. One of those candidates, Assembly Person Nathan Fletcher, has emerged as a top contender.
Last month he was featured in an article written by David Brooks of The New York Times—an op-ed piece entitled “A Moderate Conservative Dilemma.” In it, Brooks draws an assumptive parallel between the assembly person’s exemplary problem solving skills honed while serving in the US Marine Corps., to his recent decision to leave the Republican Party to run as an independent.
Eager to bring both economic and environment success to San Diego, Mr. Fletcher harbors visions of an innovative city of the future, and is fueled by forward thinking dialogue with collaborators. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview him by phone and discuss some of his plans and solutions as they relate to our region’s future. The following was our conversation.
Elizabeth Gildred: Recently I reported that the proposal to restore the heart of Balboa Park to a pedestrian-only environment is moving ahead as planned. Where do you stand on the issue, and what would you say to those who might be in opposition of the Plaza de Panama project?
Nathan Fletcher: I support the effort that’s under way. You can work with community groups; you can work with historical groups and try to figure out how to do it right. But I’ve got to believe that [if we can] actually figure out how to put a man on the moon 40 years ago, [we] can also take someone who’s willing to invest millions of dollars to make the park a better place, and figure out how to do it.
Gildred: Creating a jobs-friendly climate in San Diego is a stated goal of yours in your messaging around innovation, and the proposed sports and I.D.E.A. district is clearly a part of that. How else do you see San Diego’s downtown region figuring into this concept?
Fletcher: What I’d like to see is not just a “sports and entertainment” district, but a creative district, or an innovative district. Richard Florida has a great book, The Creative Class, and [in it] he analyzes the cities that actually derive the highest number of patents [noting that they] also have the highest number of artists. And so there’s a direct statistical tie between patents and artists.
If we’ll do a creative or innovative district surrounding some type of stadium facility, I think we’ll [be able] to do something like what they’ve done in San Francisco where they have all those high tech jobs that area next to Pac Bell Park. I’ve heard from a number of CEO’s that they’re having a hard time recruiting talented workers to come to San Diego because the younger generation—the really entrepreneurial types who are typically creative, are picking their place to live first, then finding a job.
They want to live and work and play in the same community—they want to have mixed use; they want to have walkable communities, have transit, and have culture. A guy told me anecdotally that he’s trying to get people to [come to San Diego from] Chicago and they won’t leave. It doesn’t matter what he pays them, they love the lifestyle there.
So, I think we have an opportunity here to do a creative district. I’d put a roof on the stadium and make it a multi-purpose facility and use it hundreds of days a year. But even more than that, create an area around there—the I.D.E.A. district, [encompassing] The New School of Architecture and Design and really try to make it a creative district. That would be my vision for it.
Gildred: How do you feel about Doug Manchester’s recent proposal for a waterfront stadium and arena plan at the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal? What merits and/or problems do you see?
Fletcher: What I think is good is that they’re taking a bigger, broader view than just building a box that you play football in ten times a year. I have concerns as it relates to the Port. I think the Port is of strategic importance to San Diego. When I left to [deploy] to Iraq, I actually drove my Humvee down to that port. We put it on board a ship and sent it to Iraq, and then we flew over and met our gear. So, I don’t want to do anything that impedes the progress of the Navy or the Marines or their commitment to San Diego.
I also think that we need to focus more on being an export-oriented economy. I’d like to see us increase commerce and activity at the Port. So, I have some concerns over that part of it, but I feel they’ve raised some good issues.
Gildred: If I can go backwards a little bit and talk about the Chargers stadium that’s been proposed, and that Mayor Sanders has been working on—do you see any changes needed in order to make it fit with the vision that you have?
Fletcher: It’s fundamentally different. Instead of building a box that you would use 8 to12 or15 times a year, I would like to see us build a multi-use, multi-purpose facility that we use 300 to 350 days a year. I would consolidate the operations of the Sports Arena into it. I would make a real effort to go out and get Final Four, boxing and MMA.
Even the current convention center expansion will not allow us to accommodate the really large conventions [such as] Rotary, Kiwanis and religious events, even political conferences. I would use it for that and make it part of a bigger, broader vision for San Diego. I would bring in a conversation about what we would do with the [existing] Sports Arena site, a conversation about what we do with the current Qualcomm site, and figure out how all that fits in.
And then the deal has to return money to the citizens of San Diego. The citizens shouldn’t have to pay. I think we can design and structure something where we can actually make money to invest in our neighborhoods.
Gildred: Are you talking about initial financing in order to get that built, or are you talking about long-term?
Fletcher: There’s different ways of looking at it. There’s the traditional conversation—which is the only way we’ve ever done it—or we can look at new ideas. My buddy, Kevin Johnson, who is Mayor of Sacramento, said, “Nathan, you guys are doing EB-5[i] financing, right?” We’re a federally designated EB-5 zone. In the type of idea I’ve laid out, if a foreign citizen invested a million dollars in our project, they get a visa to come to America. I believe as Mayor, I could go sell that project to 500 people around the world, and there’s 500 million in financing we could get.
I think there’s different ways to do it, but at the end of the day, I’m not going to let the taxpayers be on the hook for doing it. There has to be an actual benefit to the taxpayers and to the general fund to make it work.
Gildred: Compared to your competitors, do you consider “smart growth” and urban planning an area of particular emphasis for you?
Fletcher: Yes. I’ve called for more mixed use where you have commercial, retail and residential in our neighborhoods. I do think our land use planning has to change. I think in a lot of ways we’re still designed for an era when people wanted to be living in single-family homes in the suburbs with big yards. I think the younger workers want something different, I also think there’s a lot of empty nesters—we have an aging population that are looking for something else.
SANDAG says we have a million people coming to our region in the next 20 years. We’ve got to start talking about how we accommodate that growth and where they go, and we are going to protect and preserve what open space we have left. In order to accommodate that growth, we’re going to have a real conversation about density.
The densities are never going to be accepted by the communities unless we drive a real commitment to infrastructure so that we can accommodate those [newcomers] and maintain our quality of life. That means we’ve got to start talking about things like transit and about walkable communities. We’ve put out a bike path plan for being a more bike-friendly town. I think we’ve got to start driving some of these bigger, broader conversations about how we accommodate the next 20 years in a really sustainable way.
I feel I’m the candidate that’s driving the forward-looking conversation about building the city of the future. I’m not running for mayor to re-litigate the problems and enemies of the last decade. We’re going to solve the pension problem, but we’re going to move on. We face more problems than just the pension system. We’re going to start talking about building the economic base, the education system, the infrastructure and the city services that we need moving forward.
I also think I’m the only candidate running that has a demonstrated ability to build broad coalitions behind actually getting things done. We need a mayor that not only has a vision for our city, but [one who] has specific plans and ideas and has a demonstrated ability to actually get those done.
[I’m] also the only one that’s talking about things like clean water, about being a more cycling-friendly community and a host of other issues.
Gildred: Now that redevelopment funds are a thing of the past, what tools or measures will you use as mayor to address urban renewal in general and affordable housing specifically?
Fletcher: At some point in our history “redevelopment” didn’t exist. A group of really smart people got together and said, “here’s an innovative way we can build infrastructure.” Then they put it in place and it added tremendous positive benefit for San Diego. Some other areas had some abuses and some problems, but all of that’s behind us now because it’s gone.
What I’ve said is “We need to get a group of really smart people together to figure out how we’re going to build infrastructure in the future.” There are other cities, there’s other states, there’s other countries that manage to invest in their infrastructure without redevelopment, so let’s figure out what those things are.
I mentioned EB5 financing earlier, maybe that’s one of the things we can do. Maybe we do more bids (T-bids?) and streamline the process to set those up. Maybe entities get together voluntarily—maybe get a group of cities together, or a city and a county and you talk about TIF financing[ii]. Entities are still going to get that Tax Increment Financing; maybe they set aside a portion of it for infrastructure. I think there’s a lot of ways we can do this.
I think [what is necessary is a] mayor that has the ability to work with people, that has the energy to look for new ideas and go out and sell them to the public and really has a vision for where we go moving forward.
Gildred: Do you support the expansion of light rail in San Diego, and if so, what would you do in that regard?
Fletcher: Great cities have great transit. They have viable alternatives, they have a multitude of ways to move around and right now we don’t have that option. I think there are a lot of great ideas out there, there are light rail ideas, and movesd.org[iii] has a rapid transit bus system that I think has a lot of value. I’m not wedded to one particular idea or the other, but I do believe we have to make a real commitment to build infrastructure of the future.
Gildred: Are you familiar with Duncan McFetridge’s 50-10 plan calling for “transit before highways”? If so, will you please comment on its strengths and weaknesses?
Fletcher: I’m familiar with the concept, and I’ve been critical of the SANDAG plan for not having enough transit up front. I’m not embracing their plan verbatim, but I think the general concept that there’s not enough transit funding at the beginning is one that I agree with and I’ve called on them to try to invest in that more.
Gildred: What about the future of Lindbergh Field? How do you feel about pursuing an alternate airport location?
Fletcher: You know, one of the knocks on Lindbergh has always been that you can’t do an international flight because a 747 can’t take off and land there. Technology [has now] removed that problem. The new 777’s can take off and land fully loaded. We’re doing Lindbergh to London. We’re doing Lindbergh to Tokyo, so that problem is gone.
The next problem is that at some point in the future we could potentially reach capacity at Lindbergh. Here again, we have to look at it in different ways. We have a major commercial airport with multiple runways and an almost unlimited capacity to expand just 15 minutes from downtown. It’s Rodriguez Field.
If we’ll view ourselves as a region, and say “We don’t have to find all the solutions inside the City of San Diego, we just need to work with our regional partners.” I’d like to see us expand our partnership with Rodriguez Field. Maybe we could build a secure shuttle line where you could check in at Lindbergh and you have a rapid transit shot down there, walk across a footbridge and get on a plane. I think we have to start looking at it in a different way.
We’re not going to move the commercial airport—it’s convenient and it’s there. We’ll support the “green build” and the other things they’re doing to expand the terminals, then we’ll look for other regional partners whom we can work together with.
Gildred: You may have already addressed this, however, thinking about downtown in general, what is your particular “big vision” for specifically the downtown area?
Fletcher: It’s more than just downtown. That, I think, is part of the frustration of a lot of San Diegans feel. Having a good core is important and it’s vital, but we’ve got to start driving the conversation about the whole city.
For example, instead of just talking about a stadium downtown, let’s talk about a stadium combined with a re-use of the sports arena site compared with a major urban park along the banks of the [San Diego] river at Qualcomm. Let’s talk about how that will provide an increase of funding to the city so we can invest in our communities.
You know, we have communities in San Diego that—the community of Stockton does not have streetlights—there’s no streetlights! So, I think the next mayor has to make a real commitment to saying “We’re going to rebuild all of neighborhoods.” You don’t attack one neighborhood at the expense of others, but I think we have to have a whole list to approach in rebuilding our city.
Gildred: Do you think historic preservation has an important role in San Diego’s future, and if so how would you facilitate that?
Fletcher: I believe we must protect our historical buildings that are a critical part of San Diego’s history and heritage. However, as I’ve been out in the community, I’ve heard that permitting and the process at City Hall can make the process difficult. That is why I rolled out a permitting plan to streamline the process for permits at the city. When I am mayor everyone who works in San Diego will have a “customer first” attitude– the public will come first. Additionally, I will look for ways to engage the philanthropic community so we can work together to solve the problems facing our city.
Gildred: Do you personally have an occasion to use bicycle or public transportation for your commutes?
Fletcher: I try. I try to take the train when I go to Los Angeles, other than that; it’s not really viable for getting around San Diego. And with my schedule, I can’t really bike because I’m in about 12 different places a day.
Gildred: In a suit.
Fletcher: Right, in a suit. But, let’s just look at it. Let’s just say hypothetically I was the mayor, and I lived in University City and I want to get from University City to downtown on a bike. I suppose you can, but I wouldn’t even begin to know how. It’s not an easy option. So, one of the things we’ve talked about is really expanding and integrating the bike paths that are out there so that we’d have that option. You know, if I were the mayor, I’d bike to City Hall. Sure.
Gildred: Is there anything else that you would want to share with our readers?
Fletcher: I think there’s a great opportunity for San Diego to begin talking about building the city of the future. I’ve said we want to re-brand San Diego as the world’s most innovative city and start having some of these bigger, broader conversations. We’ve had an awful decade, it’s been one dominated by scandal and problem, and I think this election gives us the opportunity to turn the page and start anew. My candidacy represents that new energy, and new vision and new voice, and I’m really excited about the things we can accomplish.
[i] EB-5 refers to a specialized immigrant visa program whereby foreign investors may purchase real estate in the U.S. in exchange for a “green card.” Generally, a $1,000,000 investment is required into “Targeted Employment Areas” or “Regional Centers” promoting economic growth. As part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administer the program. www.uscis.gov
[ii] Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, is a public financing method that is used for subsidizing redevelopment, infrastructure and other community improvement projects. TIF uses projected future gains in taxes to subsidize current improvements. When a site’s value increases through improvements and private investment, additional tax revenues are generated, and an incremental tax increase is created. Wikipedia – Tax Increment
“A Moderate Conservative Dilemma,” David Brooks; March 29, 2012; The New York Times;