(Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a two-part interview with Councilmember-elect Chris Ward. His landslide victory in the June primary against two opponents means there will be no runoff on Election Day and Ward will be sworn into office on Dec. 12. District 3 includes Downtown and most of the Uptown communities.)
By Ken Williams | Editor
In part one, Councilmember-elect Chris Ward talked in depth about what he considers San Diego’s top issues: homelessness and the lack of affordable housing. In part two, Ward examines the problems plaguing Balboa Park, San Diego’s crown jewel, and other key issues in District 3.
During his door-to-door canvassing as Ward was introducing himself to District 3 voters, he heard over and over again of residents’ concern about the neglect of Balboa Park.
Millions of visitors from around the world come to Balboa Park each year and on the surface, everything appears to be splendid. But look closely and you can see long-neglected historic buildings that need repairing and updating, estimated to cost $300 million or more. The necessary money is not in the city budget and officials don’t have a solution to fix the problems.
“It’s an infrastructure problem,” Ward said. “It’s been neglected for over 30 years.”
Measure J, which is on the November ballot, proposes to direct money from Mission Bay Park’s commercial leases to regional parks, including Balboa Park. It would also allow the city to seek a $125 million bond for regional parks.
The measure, Ward said, won’t come close to solving Balboa Park’s financial woes. “Measure J will be a drop in the bucket for Balboa Park’s needs,” he said.
Ward vowed to pour his heart and soul into saving Balboa Park.
“We can’t solve the problem overnight. My goal is that a generation from now, everything will be whole in Balboa Park,” he added.
Also, Ward said he isn’t completely sold on the plan to build a parking garage in Balboa Park. Proposed by Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, the plan recommends building an 800-space parking garage behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion and constructing a bypass bridge from the historic Cabrillo Bridge in order to close off traffic on Plaza de Panama. Community stakeholders, including the Save Our Heritage Organisation, sued the city over the plan, but in September 2015 the California Supreme Court ruled that the project could go forward.
“The plans went awry,” Ward said. “What we have now is an approved project that has stood the test of legal challenge.”
Ward said many voters in District 3 oppose the garage project. The $45 million proposal probably costs even more money now, due to the delays.
Initially, supporters estimated that parking fees would be affordable, perhaps $1 per hour or $5 per day. But Ward thinks that parking fees will need to rise significantly if the city would require the garage to pay for itself through parking revenue.
The San Diego Zoo built a 600-space parking garage northeast of Old Globe Theatre, meaning that it now can offer more parking on its vast lots along Park Boulevard. Ward said the zoo retains its right to charge for parking and that a fee-driven Balboa Park parking garage could drive the zoo to do the same. Residents, though, have long opposed paid parking in Balboa Park, he said. “It would take a lot to convince me to support this,” Ward added.
Another area of concern for many Uptown residents is the perceived decline of Hillcrest.
“There’s been a lack of change in Hillcrest since the early 2000s,” Ward said. “How did we go from being a destination place in 2007 to today, when it is hard for businesses to stay open?”
Hillcrest is falling behind North Park, Little Italy, East Village, the Gaslamp, even Kearny Mesa and Mission Valley, Ward observed.
“We’ve been left behind with high prices and empty businesses,” he said. “The energy is now elsewhere.”
The proposed Community Plan Update (CPU) for Uptown encourages more density along transit areas, including Park Boulevard, Washington Street and Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and University avenues. City planners have recommended the City Council approve Uptown’s proposed CPU with the Interim Height Ordinance removed.
After meeting with Uptown News, Ward sat down with two officials with the Uptown Gateway project to learn more about the conceptual proposal to transform the business core of Hillcrest. Ward first became familiar with the project when he served on Uptown Planners.
The Gateway project comprises about 11 acres roughly bounded by Washington Street to the north, Pennsylvania Avenue to the south, Fourth Avenue to the west and Seventh Avenue to the east. Various property owners who have signed on to the project have said at public meetings that they want to build a high-density project that would include a boutique hotel and a Rodeo Drive-like shopping area between Fifth and Sixth, and between University and Robinson.
Gateway representatives gave several presentations on Oct. 6 when the city’s Planning Commission reviewed the proposed Uptown CPU. Commissioners seemed to like the idea, although several members criticized the design of the initial concept.
The Gateway project could force out local businesses in the core, possibly including three LGBT establishments along Fifth Avenue: #1 Fifth Avenue, the Rail and Babycakes.
That led Uptown Planners chair Leo Wilson to warn the Planning Commission of the potential for “cultural desecration” to the LGBT community.
“Hillcrest,” Wilson said, “is our Castro.”
Ward said he hopes Hillcrest will never lose its title as the “heart of the LGBT community.”
“We have the flagpole [at University and Normal Street], the LGBT Center, and social services already here,” he said. “We must work on preserving our LGBT history.
“But,” Ward continued, “we don’t have to live in the gay ghetto anymore. We can live in places like Rolando and raise our families. We are not necessarily tied to Hillcrest anymore.”
Ward pointed out that Hillcrest has already lost part of its LGBT history with the closing of The Flame, the Euphoria coffee shop and other gay-owned boutiques.
“Private property owners have the right to do what they want with their properties,” he said.
Among the property owners and Gateway Council members is Chris Shaw, the gay entrepreneur who owns Urban MO’s Bar & Grill, Baja Betty’s, Hillcrest Brewing Company and Gossip Grill. Shaw owns a property at 3915 Third Ave. that apparently could be part of the Uptown Gateway project.
Ward said he hopes LGBT sites could somehow be incorporated into the Gateway project.
As far as the issue over building height and density, Ward said he would judge each project individually.
“Is 200-feet height appropriate for the neighborhood?” he asked. “It certainly raises a tremendous issue about transition. Is there open public space? Is it near public transportation?”
Ward reminded residents that any proposed building over 65 feet in height must go through a strenuous, heightened review, starting with the local community groups such as Uptown Planners.
“I will be open and accessible to all stakeholders,” he said in describing how he would arrive at a decision. “I take an even hand; that’s how I approach the job.”
Although many of his constituents know his work as chief of staff for state Sen. Marty Block, some are unfamiliar with his background. Previously, Ward was an environmental planner at the EDAW firm, working with local governments to develop land-use plans and conduct environmental reviews. Before that, he was a researcher at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at UC San Diego, working on the front lines of San Diego’s world-class biotech sector.
Ward earned his bachelor of arts degree at Johns Hopkins University and a master’s in public policy and urban planning at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Since moving to San Diego, Ward has been active with the San Diego Human Dignity Foundation, The San Diego LGBT Community Center’s board of directors, the San Diego GLBT Historic Task Force and other community organizations.
“I feel ready and excited to represent District 3,” Ward said. “I know I have the chops for it.”
One of the things Ward loves about San Diego is residents’ pride in their neighborhoods.
“We’re really a collection of small communities,” he said. “That keeps people caring about their neighborhoods.”
Still, Ward embraces the push to turn San Diego into a “world-class city for all,” as Mayor Kevin Faulconer urged at his 2016 State of the City Address. That means improving city parks, enlarging the convention center, building a regional bicycling system, adding affordable housing, expanding public transit, and so much more.
Ward also supports efforts underway to turn the San Diego-Tijuana region into a bi-national powerhouse and capitalize on the area’s reputation as a center for startups and the biotech industry.
What Ward fears, however, is that the high cost of living and the lack of affordable housing is driving away the millennials.
“We must stop the talent from leaving this city,” he said.
The vacancy rate in the rental market is extremely low, which means landlords can keep raising rents. And the dearth of houses and condos for sale shows that people are holding onto their homes.
Ward blames the absence of real leadership for the lack of affordable housing. He hopes that the CPUs now under review will provide developers the incentive to build again.
“I’m going to have a lot of hard decisions ahead,” Ward admitted, ticking off a list: What to do about the San Diego Chargers, should the team’s stadium proposal fail at the ballot box. How to ensure historical preservation in District 3. How to keep Comic-Con from leaving town. How to deal with short-term vacation rentals. How to make sure the Climate Action Plan meets its goals. How to make San Diego a world-class city.
“I will always listen to the people and try to make sure that I do the right thing,” Ward said. “It may require me telling friends something they don’t want to hear.”
As Ward is poised to become the fourth consecutive LGBT politician to hold the District 3 seat, he said he has found inspiration from Todd Gloria, Toni G. Atkins and Christine Kehoe.
“They’ve all gone on to have amazing careers in the state legislature,” he said. But when asked to name his role model, Ward paused and thought intently about who that person was.
“Donna Frye is a special friend of mine,” Ward said. “She was always honest and wasn’t afraid to go against the grain. She would always do the right thing, no matter if it cost her politically. I am sure she slept well at night.”
Ward, too, plans on sleeping well at night.
—Ken Williams is editor of San Diego Uptown News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.