About Me

My photo
After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Carlsbad Report on Caruso's Lagoon Mall: Close Enough for Government Work?

On February 23 the people of Carlsbad will vote on Measure A, an L.A. developer's attempt to bypass normal city and state reviews, allowing him to build a thirteen-acre shopping center overlooking the Agua Hedionda lagoon.

The City council's staff report claims to be an "impartial planning, policy, economic, and environmental analysis" of Rick Caruso's lagoon mall plan. But I was reminded of a summer job I once had with the Washington State Highway Department, working to keep contractors honest by testing their highway asphalt samples.

I learned how politics trumped highway safety when my supervisor kept telling me to re-test failed samples until they passed. I guessed he didn't want to bring bad news to his boss's desk. So I stopped bringing it to his, following the advice of my fellow workers, the lab's old timers, "Close enough for government work."

I heard echoes of that in the section of the 9212 Report minimizing the project's traffic problems. Smacking of developer hype, it serves as a reminder of Caruso's initiative campaign to "Save the Strawberry Fields," a shell game that hid his plan for a mega mall next to the already protected farmland.   

Here's what former Carlsbad city planner, Michael Holzmiller, had to say about the project's traffic problems in a November 17 letter to the city council:

"The traffic analysis for the project indicates it will generate more traffic than originally projected (for the area). More importantly is the limited access available to the project site and proposed accesses to it do not meet the city's standards for intersection spacing. The westerly exit-only driveway is located in very close proximity to the northbound on I-5 on-ramp. I don't believe this impact and other traffic impacts have been adequately addressed."

How credible is the retired city planner? Holzmiller was the lead author for the city's voter-approved 1986 Growth Management Plan. Upon his retirement in 2005, the city's Community Development Director, Sandy Holder, told UT San Diego (Feb.10, 2005), "One of the reasons Carlsbad is such a quality community is due in part because of his vision and strategic planning ability."

A developer, whose project was stalled by Holzmiller in 1986, thought about suing the city before he conceded, "The Growth Management Plan is tremendous because it looks at the big picture for developers and the city alike, anticipating problems before building begins. Holzmiller got everybody through the rough times with high integrity." (UT San Diego)

The 9212 Report claims Caruso's Environmental Protection Features (EPFs) planned for the mall's nearby intersections will improve driving conditions that would be worse without his project.

How can that be? According to SANDAG estimates, population growth from 2019 to 2035 will bring enough traffic to cause eight intersections to fail city standards without the shopping center. Caruso promises his EPFs will make it easier on drivers to cope with the additional traffic.

At the same time he says his project will draw new shoppers from throughout the region, creating an estimated 24,100 additional daily car trips on I-5. To support that claim he likes to brag about his 18 million yearly visitors to The Grove, his L.A. mega mall. 

How reliable are the population projections? A May 21, 2015 Voice of San Diego report reveals, SANDAG Isn't Very Good at Predicting Population Growth. "Through the 1980s, projections undershot actual growth by almost 3 percent on average. The projections it has released since 1990 routinely missed the other way. Where SANDAG’s forecasts strongly diverged from the actual population, it points to major political or economic events."

If traffic projections are too low and Carusoland becomes the huge visitor attraction the developer hopes for, traffic will be an eternal nightmare for Carlsbadians, especially if he fails to deliver on the EPFs.

If, on the other hand, traffic projections are too high because retail customers continue their turn to online shopping, away from large onsite department stores like Nordstrom, or if there's another recession, what happens to Caruso's "retail promenade," built for its attractiveness to visitors? The failed project will be the legacy of city leaders who thought they could get something for nothing.
At the November 17 City Council meeting setting the date for the special election, Mayor Matt Hall tried to reassure anti-mall speakers who were concerned about what the developer might do in the future with the 200 acres of predominantly open space under his plan's control. "What you see is what you're going to get," Hall promised.

But it's what they don't see that worries them.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Rise of the Little People

A Carlsbad Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, in the land of pink-tiled roofs, the clueless King Hallmat of the Village-by-the-Sea was troubled as he sat on his throne. The Little People were at the castle gates, carrying torches and pitchforks, chanting, "Down with the king! Down with the king!" His subjects were angry because he brought to the village the slippery Sir Caresnot, the black knight of Tinsel Gridloc, the largest kingdom in the land, 1,000 furlongs to the north.

A stonemason by trade, the black knight was known for despoiling one-of-a-kind villages with identical temple squares honoring Plutus, the god of wealth. His grandest, The Grovel at Tinsel Gridloc, brought streams of carriage traffic from beyond what the eye could see.

Sir Caresnot's growing homage to Plutus rewarded him handsomely. His fortune of one billion gold coins was built atop a generous inheritance from his father, Sir Ornery of Gridloc, once sent to the dungeon for a year as punishment for lying to buyers of the carriages he sold them. The black knight had evidently inherited more than gold from his father.

Sir Caresnot rubbed his hands together and smiled at the thought of visiting the sleepy little Village By The Sea. He knew its Little People were ruled by King Hallmat the Clueless and his Dim Knights of the Rectangle, known as the happiest rulers in the land because they always agreed with one another on the answer to every question brought before them.

Sadly, as if by habit, upon every opportunity the Little People pledged their loyalty to their self-satisfied superiors.

Sir Caresnot wanted to build his temple to Plutus on land the Little People set aside for its scenic splendor. To do so he would have to woo the King and his Dim Knights, while hiding the truth from the Little People that his temple square would destroy forever the beauty of the land they loved.

The black knight knew it would be easy to gain the friendship of the village rulers. He'd simply show them how his temple would bring great wealth to the village without costing them a single gold coin.

But he also knew it would take more cunning to win over the Little People. He would have to dress wolves in sheep's clothing and send them from cottage to cottage to ask the villagers to "help save the ground on which their precious berries made of straw were grown." He'd promise they could find out more about his plan and speak up about it before he would go near their protected land.

Sir Caresnot's falsehood went unchallenged by King Hallmat and his Dim Knights. They were so smitten with his promises they didn't bother to find out how he planned to keep them.

But what everyone failed to foresee was the rising up of the Little People who, after discovering they'd been tricked, demanded that the King and his beknighted underlings allow all villagers to speak their minds for or against Sir Caresnot's devious plan.

And speak they did. The black knight was banished from the Village-by-the-Sea. He returned to Tinsel Gridloc, where he was welcomed home with open arms.  

And so it came to pass that the happiest rulers in the land of pink-tiled roofs found themselves out of work. The Little People found less jolly, but much wiser, rulers who helped them keep the beauty of their protected land the truly right way...so they could live happily ever after.
At its meeting on Tuesday, November 17, the Carlsbad City Council will be bound by a successful citizen's referendum to repeal their August 25 approval of a developer's plan to build a mega-mall on the shore of one of the city's three lagoons, or

#1. Put the plan before city voters in a Special Election in not less than 88 days, or
#2. Place it on the ballot of the 2016 General Election.    

Friday, November 6, 2015

Public Prayer Challenges Council's Credibility

Carlsbad Leaders Hear from Referendum Winners

"Okay, ladies and gentlemen, we're off to a good start," said Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall, after Councilmember Mark Packard's opening prayer spurred murmurs from the audience, one member declaring, "Separation of church and state, Dr. Packard!" That led to Dr. Packard's stern reproach from the dais, "Do not take offense when none is intended."

The closing words of Packard's prayer, "We pray for these things in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," were what stoked up the crowd. Mayor Hall, realizing his rosy greeting was premature, wisely called for a ten-minute break.

Twenty Carlsbad residents lined up to speak about the city council's receipt of the report by the San Diego County Registrar of Voters of a sufficient number of signatures on the referendum to overturn the Carlsbad city council's August 25 approval of the 85/15 Agua Hedionda South Shore Specific Plan for 85% Open Space and 15% Retail Initiative.

Only two speakers were supportive of the council's rubber stamp of the shopping center on the lagoon. Here's an edited sample of comments from Carlsbad residents who supported, and the two who opposed, the referendum for a vote by the people as promised by the initiative.

Roseanne Bentley
Gathering signatures for the referendum was one of the scariest times in my 30 years of living in Carlsbad. I was followed by Caruso employees. I was yelled at, I was afraid. Put the referendum on the 2016 ballot. Don't make the taxpayers pay for a special election and then blame us.

Vickie Syage
I've lived in Carlsbad for 24 years. I am also a very prolific Nordstrom shopper. You said you couldn't justify a half million dollars for a special election. The only beneficiary of a special election now is the developer.

Ronald Peterson
How could so many citizens want to block this outstanding project if they really studied the specifics of it? I attended your Citizens Academy. That project would create 175 acres of open space. And none of this is open to the public now and won't be in the future if we don't go forward with the project.

Linda Breen
Each of us paid for our own petitions. To raise money we organized garage sales and fundraisers. We had to listen to two lies in one sentence, "Outside interests are trying to destroy my strawberry business." Operatives from outside Carlsbad circulated fake petitions to get people to think they had already signed our referendum.

De'Ann Weimer
President of Citizens for North County
The city should spend the $500,000 for a special election on something else, like trail access now to the Agua Hedionda Lagoon. (Quoting a previous speaker to the council on Innovate 78) "Without the quality of life in Carlsbad we are a very expensive place to live and we are less competitive." How will this project affect the quality of life in Carlsbad, and how much of a disadvantage will be to our competitive position in the county?

Cori Schumacher
Quoted the City Charter, approved 1/9/2008
The intent of this Charter is to allow the City Council and the voters to exercise the maximum degree of control over land use matters within the City of Carlsbad.

Fred Sandquist
President, Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation
The voters have spoken. Either suspend the plan or put it on the ballot in the 2016 General Election.

Susan Cratty
You agreed with the developer that he knows how to preserve open space the right way. But if it was the right way, a bait and switch initiative would not have been necessary. We were caught sleeping. We have been empowered by your refusal to acknowledge our concerns. We encourage you to listen to our voice because Carlsbad votes.

Kerry Siekmann 
I'm here as a resident of Carlsbad and also as an environmentalist. (She fails to mention she's also a member of the Planning Commission and voted to approve the city's General Plan Update). I have been an environmentalist for the city of Carlsbad since 2007. I support this project. I am thrilled to get an endowment for this land that we haven't been able to use. It's a mess. Something is going to be built there. And we couldn't be more lucky than to have this project, rather than a Walmart, or Target or a strip mall, because this place has been zoned commercial, so something is going to go in there. I think we should get this election done as soon as possible.

The city council meets next to address this issue on November 17. At that time they will decide whether to reject the developer's plan, hold a special election within 90 days, or put it on the 2016 General Election ballot. Word on the street is that Caruso is developing his marketing spin for the special election. We'll see what influence that has on the council's decision.

The audience reaction to the meeting's opening prayer and the failure of Mayor Hall and Councilmember Packard to understand why some were offended it may be a clue to why the Council's credibility has been questioned by their unanimous approval of a deceptive developer's attempt to bypass voters.

Dr. Packard is free to pray in any way he wishes, of course. But when he does so aloud, as a representative of the city, he needs to be aware of the diversity of those listening. He was, after all, identified as the leader of a group prayer. He did not say, "I pray for these things in the name of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." It may be legal to profess your faith publicly in the way he did, but it's both bad manners and even worse politics.  

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

L.A. Developer Awakens North County's Sleeping Village by the Sea

Lessons Learned by Rick Caruso, Elected Officials and Carlsbad Voters

Signatures have been validated on a referendum overturning Carlsbad's city council approval of a shopping center on the shore of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon. It's time to reflect on lessons learned from the developer's failed attempt to bypass city voters, the normal review and approval process, and the California Environmental Quality Act.

When L.A. developer Rick Caruso approached city officials three years ago, they urged him to build community support for his plan. They must have assured him 48 acres of land adjacent to the pristine lagoon would be the perfect place for a shopping center.

In courting the developer, however, they may not have told him about the 2006 Battle of the Propositions. Prop E, prohibiting all commercial development there, failed to pass by just 56 votes.

The billionaire developer began his campaign to build community support by having his company, Caruso Affiliated, join the Lagoon Foundation as a deep pockets contributing partner. One of his development managers earned a seat on the AHLF Board of Directors.

I suspect it was Caruso's generosity that led to the Lagoon Foundation Board chair's signature on the Agua Hedionda South Shore Initiative. Adding the signatures of a former chair of the Chamber of Commerce and a former city planning commissioner completed the ruse of a "citizen-led" initiative.

Caruso probably figured buying the signatures of 15 percent of city voters would be cheaper and less risky than an election campaign. The Citizens for North County's all-volunteer army of referendum signature gatherers proved the out-of-towner underestimated the locals.

On May 12 the Carlsbad city clerk received the developer's "citizens initiative" proposal. Three days later, Sean Welch, an attorney with a San Rafael, California law firm created the Preserving Carlsbad Open Space the Right Way, California Domestic Corporation.

Caruso invested in a signature gathering drive second to none, recognizing it would require lots of money and plenty of deception. His campaign to build a mall twice the size of the Carlsbad Premium Outlets would be disguised as an environmentally-friendly grassroots crusade to save the Strawberry Fields.

The developer's door-to-door signature contractors, posing as local residents, carried petitions with the bogus promise the initiative would be submitted "directly to the voters." Mailboxes were flooded with promotional materials.

A video of children romping through long grass in open fields splashed across social media and TV screens, with only glimpses of a "pedestrian-friendly retail promenade," the name chosen for the Nordstrom-anchored mall.

From January 1 to June 30 Caruso Affiliated donated $2.8 million to the Preserving Carlsbad Open Space the Right Way, Inc. The fledgling company spent $2.6 million during those six months. 

The small print accompanying its marketing materials read, Paid for by Preserving Carlsbad Open Space the Right Way, with major funding by Caruso Affiliated. Financial disclosure documents reveal, however, Caruso Affiliated was the only donor paying for those mailers and TV ads.

Those being asked to sign petitions might not be so eager if they knew the only benefactor of the campaign was also its prime beneficiary. Paid for entirely by Caruso Affiliated could be a turnoff. Borrowing from the Bard, methinks Mister Caruso understood that a developer, unlike the rose, under any other name smells a lot better.

Here's a sample of vendors profiting from Caruso's campaign under the alias, Preserving Carlsbad Open Space the Right Way.

$541,000 to Waterfront Strategies, Washington DC, a media buying firm.

$400, 000 to The Baughman Company of San Francisco, "the top creative persuasion mail firm in the business."

$400,000 for Television ads by local affiliates.

$40,000 to Method Campaign Services, Los Angeles. "Our high quality signature gatherers receive thorough training to guarantee that you attain the numbers you need."

$13,000 to the Callidus Consulting Group, San Diego. Matt Hall and Michael Schumacher are among their partial sampling list of clients. Financial disclosure forms show Hall paid them $4,000 in his 2014 mayoral race, and Michael Schumacher $1,750 in his city council campaign. Curiously, Preserving Carlsbad Open Space is not in their list of clients.

Of the $2.6 million spent on Caruso's initiative campaign, Carlsbad businesses got about $30,000.

By comparison, the truly citizen-led referendum drive spent about $9,000, funded entirely by individual donations and fund raisers, to collect enough signatures to overturn the city council's decision to refuse to put Caruso's corporate-led project up for a vote, as promised. 

Lessons learned?
1. Caruso Affiliated, you can't buy Carlsbad voters.
2. City Council, don't underestimate the power of the people.
3. Carlsbad voters, stay awake, do your duty as citizens, and keep watch on your elected officials.

The Riehl World pledges to do its part.