101 Ash St. in downtown San Diego has been a source of controversy for San Diego city leaders and candidates. Photo by Chris Stone
Those of us in the media always appreciate a good scandal. In today’s online news world they drive page views and build audiences.
Ambitious politicians also appreciate a scandal. They can leverage voters’ anger to success at the polls.
But some scandals are really sideshows to more important issues facing a community. Such may now be the case with 101 Ash Street.
Leasing to own a building that was later found to be full of asbestos surely looks like a bad decision. And investigators may well uncover criminal liability in the transaction and its aftermath.
But with a settlement in the works, the 101 Ash scandal looks increasingly like a sideshow to a more important issue about the future of the city’s real estate holdings in downtown San Diego.
Under a settlement agreement proposed by Mayor Todd Gloria and backed by Council President Sean Elo-Rivera, the city would pay $132 million to purchase both 101 Ash Street and the nearby Civic Center Plaza building.
That’s a lot of money, but it’s also a lot of real estate in a booming downtown market. In a briefing for reporters this week, Elo-Rivera was asked about his view of the next steps.
He said he is “rightfully very angry” about the original deal, but sees a way for the city to come out ahead by settling with its landlords.
“There’s a lot to gain for the city from gaining ownership rather than paying rent,” he said. “Our job in leadership is to make difficult decisions to ultimately move the city in a better direction.”
He didn’t say so, but it’s a difficult decision for San Diego leadership because it’s so easy for opponents to focus on the scandal.
San Diego’s colorful former city attorney Mike Aguirre stepped up to do this last week, calling a news conference and threatening a court injunction if the city goes ahead with the settlement.
Both Aguirre and current City Attorney Mara Elliott think the city can win some money back in court. But, of course, court cases take a long time. And the city might lose.
Gloria admits the 101 Ash deal was a “civic debacle” but argues there is no possibility of an ideal outcome so moving ahead with a settlement limits the uncertainty.
Elo-Rivera called Aguirre’s threat a “media stunt” and stressed the long term value of assembling nearly six blocks under city ownership. He envisions replacing a crumbling City Hall with facilities that can efficiently provide “essential city services” while redeveloping the civic core.
“We could convert what is now empty buildings, ugly buildings, and poorly used space into a world-class facility for residents to receive world-class services,” he said. “There’s a world of opportunity.”
How the 101 Ash sideshow ends is ultimately up the voters. But I can tell you this: fewer and fewer people are reading articles about the scandal.
Chris Jennewein is editor and publisher of Times of San Diego.