In the June 25 edition of San Diego Uptown News, Uptown Partnership’s executive director and two board members shared their thoughts about the May grand jury report that alleged the organization’s leadership mismanaged city funds and lost their vision for the future of the parking district. For this issue, Senior Editor Christy Scannell talked with community leaders about their ideas for the parking district, which includes Mission Hills, Hillcrest, Bankers Hill/Park West and Five Points.
When Benjamin Nicholls was named executive director of the Hillcrest Business Improvement Association early last year, one of the first items on his agenda was a report on Hillcrest’s parking situation. In a memo to Uptown Partnership, he suggested how reserve funds should be spent and outlined several projects his members wanted the Partnership to prioritize, including a parking validation program.
At the next Uptown Partnership meeting, he watched as his proposals were all classified as “below the funding priority.”
“We were upset when it became apparent that Uptown Partnership wasn’t going to give us any traction,” he said about the failed objectives.
Now, after more than a year of feeling as though the Partnership wasn’t responding to his business association’s concerns, Nicholls said he was stunned when he read that the Partnership was touting plans for validated parking.
“This validation program they are raving about is the same one I suggested last year that they shot down,” he said. “Maybe that’s evidence that Uptown Partnership is working but to me it’s more about their contract being in trouble.”
Nicholls isn’t the only one suspicious about the Partnership’s motives since the Grand Jury report was issued.
“This is an organization that is doing the best they can to find justification to keep themselves alive,” said Leo Wilson, chairman of the Bankers Hill/Park West Community Association. “They may have merit to what they’re doing but the process they’re using as inside players at Uptown Partnership isn’t right.”
Wilson cited the Partnership’s Hillcrest Mobility Plan, which includes methods for diverting traffic away from Sixth Avenue in Bankers Hill, as an example of the board’s self-interest.
“About 15 percent of the mobility plan would have been expended on little projects benefiting their (west Bankers Hill) group. A current board member, a past board member and the former executive director (of Uptown Partnership) all live in that three-block area,” he said, adding that he also lives there. “But 75 percent of the people (in Bankers Hill) live on the west side. They would receive this traffic. It left a bad taste in our mouths in Bankers Hill.”
Uptown Partnership’s executive director Carol Schultz has said the organization has 31 projects slated for 2011 and that the board is now more diversified than when the mobility plan and other controversial projects were proposed, which should better address individual neighborhood concerns.
District 3 Councilmember Todd Gloria said those changes are the result of directives he and District 2 Councilmember Kevin Faulconer—the Uptown parking district encompasses portions of both council districts—issued to the Partnership last year. (Faulconer’s office declined comment for this story.)
“There were reasonable reforms that were needed and that was why Councilmember Faulconer and I made a list of requests of Uptown Partnership, which they’ve complied with largely,” he said. “I think that they’re trying to set up a process … by creating neighborhood working groups so that that information can bubble up in a way that I don’t think was happening before.”
Nicholls said the Partnership has had 10 years to prove itself and should be held accountable now.
“You don’t get judged by what you try to do but by what you do,” he said about the organization’s spending on projects vs. administration, which the grand jury reported as $1.1 million and $3.2 million respectively. “They have this idea that they are part of the bureaucracy rather than an activist organization that gets results.”
While the City Council meets in subcommittee this month to discuss Uptown Partnership’s future, three of the four sub-districts—frustrated over what they identify as a lack of positive outcome from the Partnership—are exploring administering their own parking districts.
Wilson is heading up the Bankers Hill/Park West movement.
“We’re (in Bankers Hill/Park West) like colonies to [Uptown Partnership],” Wilson said. “Their claim is 30 percent of district money comes from Bankers Hill and yet they’ve done nothing for us in Bankers Hill.”
Wilson said residents are bolstered by their recent success with new stop signs on Fourth and Fifth avenues at Nutmeg and Quince streets, an action Uptown Partnership opposed because it wasn’t in the mobility plan. The signs were requested in December and installed in April.
“This corridor used to have the most accidents in Bankers Hill,” Wilson said. “In May and June of 2009 there were 6. This year there has only been one.”
The Hillcrest Business Association formed its own parking committee to work within the Uptown Partnership framework 15 months ago. It has yet to achieve any new parking, but Nicholls said he believes the committee could successfully administer Hillcrest’s portion of the meter fees, which is more than half of all monies collected in Uptown.
“We would cap administrative costs at 15 percent and get multi-funding sources,” he said. “We could still have a partnership but it would be the neighborhoods coming together to agree on projects that benefit the whole and putting in money for that.”
Richard Stegner, executive director of the Mission Hills Business Improvement District, disagrees with breaking up the Partnership in favor of smaller parking districts that manage their own meter receipts.
“If they split off they have to create staff,” he said. “Are people going to volunteer their time to do all this? I think they need to give it time to work the bugs out and to start working. Things take time to do. Some people think it’s not moving fast enough; some understand the process and what it takes.”
One model cited by those looking to divide Uptown Partnership is the Mid-City Parking District, which includes sub-areas for University Heights and Golden Hill, who administer their own funds. Ernie Bonn, treasurer for the University Heights Community Parking District, said residents pushed for the sub-area when the original community parking districts were created in 1997 because they foresaw the issues Uptown-area leaders are facing now.
“We requested that the city do something so we could have control of our own funding so we could try and do an immediate mitigation of our parking issues,” she said.
University Heights receives 22 percent of the Mid-City revenues, which in recent years has amounted to $15,000-$17,000. Bonn admitted the group has yet to create new parking, however.
“We have to put out $5000 for audit and insurance and bookkeeping and that doesn’t leave a lot of money,” she said. “I have $129 in our account right now.”
Bonn said the committee has completed its own mobility study and has worked diligently to increase parking on North Avenue. City regulations and time lags get in the way of any achievements, she said.
“One of the problems is you go to the city and a lot of the innovative things we’d like to do we can’t get implemented,” she said. “It’s a very frustrating situation but it’s as though our hands are tied.”
Gloria said the University Heights situation is exactly why he wants to see Uptown Partnership improve and succeed.
“When you talk about breaking up the Partnership and keeping the parking meter revenue generated in a particular neighborhood in that neighborhood, you really work at cross purposes because you’ll have less funds and you’ll be less likely to achieve projects of any substance,” he said. “And, additionally, you’ll have that parking meter revenue spread out over five different organizations conceivably, which would only serve to increase the overhead costs. So I think we have to be very, very cautious about pursuing some of the suggested remedies because I don’t think that they’ll actually accomplish what people are asking for.”
Meredith Dibden-Brown of the city’s Office of Small Business, which oversees the parking districts, agreed that a divided version of Uptown Partnership would have a fiscal impact.
“When this issue has come up, I’ve encouraged groups to work within the Uptown Partnership framework because it’s more efficient to work within one agreement than to have multiple agreements,” she said. “It would certainly increase our administration costs.”
One of the grand jury report’s recommendations was to dissolve Uptown Partnership completely and return meter collections to the city’s general fund. None of the neighborhood leaders contacted for this story is supportive of that plan—“a travesty,” Nicholls called it—but Wilson said he would back a city-run program.
“It would probably make sense to have someone at the city administer it,” he said. “But the local communities need to control how money is spent and there needs to be accountability—creation of voluntary boards that are accountable and represent the entire community.”
That can be accomplished with the current Uptown Partnership structure, Gloria said.
“If a majority of Council members were to raise concerns, if we wanted to let out an RFP (request for proposals) to bring someone else forward, at some point that could be entertained. I don’t know that we’re there,” he said. “It’s going to be a situation that we continue to monitor and I have been clear with [Uptown Partnership] that I expect them to be aggressive in creating new parking opportunities in the Uptown communities and to do everything they can to manage the cost of their overhead.
“We have to be very judicious about it and not jump to any particular action without knowing full well what will come with that,” he said. “The goal is always going to be providing more parking for these neighborhoods at the least amount of cost to the people who are paying for it, which are the folks who use the parking meters.”