City could dissolve organization if rapid reforms not made
By Pat Sherman/SDUN Assistant Editor
In the wake of a stinging grand jury report the San Diego City Council has sent Uptown Partnership a strong message—voting to approve only three months of funding for the agency instead of its usual one-year contract.
The nonprofit Uptown Partnership has been barraged with criticism from community members who question the way the group has managed parking meter revenues in Hillcrest, Mission Hills, Park West, Bankers Hill and Five Points, where Washington and India streets meet.
Since incorporating in 1999 Uptown Partnership has received 45 percent of the $1.9 million in annual meter revenues the city collects in those communities. The county grand jury report found that, during that time, the partnership spent about three times more on operating expenses than on tangible projects, creating less than 50 new parking spaces.
In voting to accept the short-term funding, the group’s board of directors issued three-month notices to its staff members.
“I don’t want to see anyone lose their jobs,” said City Councilmember Todd Gloria, who proposed the three-month funding.
However, noting his constituents’ much-publicized dissatisfaction with the “size of Uptown Partnership’s overhead relative to the projects that have been completed” Gloria said a reduction in staff or pay cuts may be imminent.
“Part of the mayor’s response to the grand jury report—and this is for all parking districts, not just Uptown—is to see a reduction in the overhead,” Gloria said. “If that’s going to be a policy that’s going to have to be implemented in the not-too-distant future, it really behooves Uptown Partnership [to act] sooner than later.”
Leo Wilson, chair of the Bankers Hill/Park West Community Association, has for years criticized the partnership’s handling of meter revenues, advocating for Bankers Hill and Park West to seek autonomy from Uptown Partnership and manage its own meter revenues.
“I personally would have felt better if they had just terminated [Uptown Partnership’s] contract and started over again,” Wilson said, “but I think there’s a now a realization that they need some reform.”
The partnership was originally formed with the goal of building a parking structure in Hillcrest, similar to what has been built in North Park. However, the partnership’s executive director, Carol Schultz, said that for a variety of reasons funding for that project was ultimately deemed unfeasible.
Wilson criticized the partnership for shifting its focus from securing more parking to working on projects such as the Hillcrest Corridor Bus Rapid Transit plan, in concert with the San Diego Area Association of Governments (SANDAG).
“Suddenly those guys thought they were the planning department of Uptown,” Wilson said. “They were pushing mobility, they were pushing other issues. They were claiming they were entitled to be compensated to the degree that a planner was … (but) their purpose wasn’t to do planning. It’s just to do parking.”
Despite the notice of potential layoffs, Schultz said her staff remains “very committed to the organization” and to “making progress on some significant projects.”
“I think it’s very important for [community members] to know that, whatever people have heard to the contrary, the board has in fact been very tuned in and listening very intently to the community and has made huge strides in the last year to restructure itself, to bring more people onto the board who would not have had an opportunity in the past and to continue to do that.”
One of several reforms city council members Todd Gloria and Kevin Faulconer requested of the partnership last year was that the agency take steps to increase community representation on its board of directors, which currently includes a mix of architects, planners, finance experts and real estate professionals.
“It will take a couple of years to completely turn over the board because they decided not to just totally wipe out everyone … but they brought in term limits so that there would be a regular rotation,” Schultz said. “I think people [should know] that the board has been very attentive to making itself a more accessible and open entity. We also want to focus on what could happen going forward and less about what may or may not have happened in the past.”
Ben Nicholls, executive director of the Hillcrest Business Improvement Association, said he believes that though Uptown Partnership may not be able to accomplish much in three months, the agency has time to come up with “a game plan for fixing itself.”
“If you stopped working on pretty much everything else and started working with the community groups and neighbors to figure out what this organization is going to be and how it can be managed, I think that you can do it,” Nicholls said. “I don’t think they can make very much progress on actual parking projects at all… . Most of the progress has been out of volunteer groups related to that organization.”
In an e-mail sent to members of the Five Points Advisory Committee, John Hargreaves, Uptown Partnership’s research and planning analyst, said the new contract requires that the partnership limit the scope of the organization’s work during the next three months.
Uptown Partnership’s board of directors voted to limit its focus to three projects, Hargreaves said, including: funding for a streetcar that would operate between downtown and Hillcrest, a parking validation program in Hillcrest, and the gathering of “broad-based community input” on the partnership’s future structure and focus.
“Unfortunately,” Hargreaves wrote, “the proposed contract is limited in scope and does not include any projects that fall within the Five Points Neighborhood. Therefore, I will be organizing and closing all the project files for the Five Points Neighborhood in the coming months and preparing a final status report for the neighborhood.”
Earlier this year, a group of dissatisfied business owners in the Five Points area organized to explore breaking away from Uptown Partnership.
Su-Mei Yu, owner of Saffron restaurant in Five Points, said she recognizes the need for an agency such as Uptown Partnership to help residents and business owners manage parking meter revenue. However, Yu said she feels Uptown Partnership has accomplished little in the way of tangible projects in Five Points.
“I think they’ve had many years to prove themselves … (and) done only mediocre work,” She said. “Next to Gelato Vero (on India Street) there used to be a sign that said two-hour parking only. Somebody ripped out that sign and it’s never been replaced. It’s simple things like (this) that have been explained to them. We’re not talking about rocket science.”
Though projects in Five Points have been suspended, Schultz said one of its four staff members will continue to work on two ongoing projects in the Mission Hills area.
“Because we have a three-month contract with the city [we’re] trying to focus on those areas where we think we can have the best response and the most impact,” Schultz said.
An Uptown Partnership staff member will be working to get curbs built in front of driveways that are no longer being used in the business area near Washington and Goldfinch streets in Mission Hills, and to establish locations for new multi-space parking meter kiosks there, she said.
“It’s a fairly low-level effort,” Schultz said. “They’re relatively easy for us to achieve.”
Wilson and some Five Points business owners have criticized Uptown Partnership and its board for spending what they view as a disproportionate amount of time and money on projects in the Mission Hills area.
“That board of directors has a majority of people from Mission Hills; that’s the most affluent community in Uptown,” Wilson said. “The problem is Mission Hills only generates five percent of the parking meter revenue. This is sort of a reverse Robin Hood.”
Though there was some talk about the Hillcrest Business Improvement Association taking control of Uptown Partnership’s duties, Nicholls said he no longer views that as a viable option should the partnership be dissolved.
“The business association has voted and taken a position that we want to see a different management structure” for Uptown Partnership, Nicholls said. “We could certainly do it, but I don’t think it’s the best thing. The best thing would be a board of directors that represents the community that they claim to represent, and that proportionately represent their community … not handpicked people every time.”
Gloria said he believes that there is an overall need for Uptown Partnership to continue, whether it is run by paid staff or volunteers.
“I believe there is a great deal of value in what Uptown Partnership does,” Gloria said. “I don’t believe it’s in the community’s interest to eliminate Uptown Partnership or to break it into smaller piece such that it’s not capable financially of doing anything.”
Hillcrest gets close to 200 new parking spaces
While Uptown Partnership works to restructure itself in the hope of securing additional funding, 187 new parking spaces have been freed up for use on nights and weekends in the Department of Motor Vehicles parking lot on Normal Street.
A $1-per-hour fee will be collected and used for ongoing maintenance to the site.
Use of the space was secured by Councilmember Gloria and state Sen. Christine Kehoe. Gloria recently helped secure 32 new parking spaces in the lot adjacent to the long-shuttered Pernicano’s restaurant on Sixth Avenue.
“As it became clear that a parking structure is not financially viable for Hillcrest, my approach to this has been looking at our existing inventory,” Gloria said. “We have a series of parking lots that are not utilized or underutilized. The DMV, Pernicano’s, the AT&T parking lot, the post office and the future library site all have surface parking lots with a number of spaces that, in each of those cases, were not available to the general public. In each of those cases we’ve systematically gone though working with individual property owners to open them up to the community.”
Gloria said the DMV still intends to redevelop the property in the future, which could mean an eventual reduction or elimination of those spaces.
“All the more reason to take advantage of this [parking] now,” he said.
Wilson said he feels Councilmember Gloria has been doing the job which Uptown Partnership was tasked with.
“Todd Gloria, in less than a year, negotiated a deal with the DMV, with Pernicano’s … because he focused on it—and they didn’t have to give him $10 million,” he said.