By Ben Baltic and Jim Frost
The San Diego City Council approved the annual Uptown Community Parking District (UCPD) budget at its Sept. 12 meeting. Few are aware of the events that took place before the vote. Critically, those events focus on Benjamin Nichols and his blatant conflict of interest.
Nichols serves as the unpaid chairman of the UCPD while he is employed full time as executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association (HBA).
Historically, the HBA has vehemently objected to any project that results in the loss of parking in Hillcrest. After some questionable maneuvering at the parking district, Nichols persuaded the board to adopt a motion mirroring the HBA position.
The motion was presented to the board simply as a set of talking points to use while interacting with the public. Now, Nichols is portraying the motion to say that the parking district is prevented from funding or supporting any current or future project anywhere in Uptown if a single parking space is removed.
Previously, the Bankers Hill Neighborhood Parking Committee, a subcommittee of the UCPD, supported — and continues to support —the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) bike project on Fourth and Fifth avenues between Downtown and Hillcrest. Bankers Hill included significant funds in this year’s budget for upgrades in the Bankers Hill portion of the project. This project causes a small parking loss in Hillcrest but overall the project provides parking gains for Uptown.
This created an untenable situation for Nichols. On one hand as the HBA’s executive director, he has been actively lobbying against the SANDAG bike project. On the other hand, as chairman of the parking district, he had to get the city to approve the UCPD budget.
Representing the HBA, Nichols continued to lobby the city. Nichols contended that because of the UCPD motion, the city could not allow Bankers Hill funding for the SANDAG bike project in the current budget. Given that the proposed parking district budget had been unanimously approved by the UCPD board, including Nichols, Nichols was in effect arguing against the interests of the parking district he chairs, his own vote, and for the interests of the HBA that employs him. Was this not a clear and obvious conflict of interest?
Had Nichols succeeded, the money Bankers Hill allocated for landscaping, lighting and other improvements would have been stripped from the UCPD budget. This would not have changed the parking loss in Hillcrest in any way. What it would have done is block funding for many long overdue improvements associated with the bike project to the Bankers Hill business core, which directly competes with Hillcrest. Whose agenda was Nichols really interested in? The Uptown community and parking district? Or the Hillcrest Business Association? Because of these actions by Nichols, the city has asked the UCPD to clarify its position.
Despite Nichols’ lobbying efforts, the City Council approved the budget including the Bankers Hill funds — but not without sharp questions from Councilmember Chris Ward directed at city staff charged with oversight of parking districts. Ward said his only concern was the Uptown Community Parking District; other districts were not a problem.
It is time for the entire board to recognize and support the long-held desires of the Bankers Hill neighborhood. Parking revenue is specifically allocated to the neighborhood in which it is generated. Neighborhood parking subcommittees have always had the autonomy to determine the use of funds in the best interest of their respective neighborhoods
Working closely with neighborhood businesses, residents, SANDAG and the city, Bankers Hill has chosen to use some of its money to upgrade and provide enhancements to the bike project. Should Hillcrest not wish to allocate money to the bike project in that neighborhood, it is not obliged to do so. The long-standing policy of neighborhood autonomy should be respected.
The UCPD board must act immediately to issue the clarification requested by the city. It must reaffirm its commitment to the budget unanimously passed by both the parking district and the City Council. The board should express its support for the Bankers Hill funding of the SANDAG bike project at its Oct. 9 meeting. The Uptown Community Parking District must clarify beyond any shadow of doubt that funds allocated by Bankers Hill have not been compromised as a result of these shenanigans.
—Ben Baltic and Jim Frost are Bankers Hill residents and local activists.