By Dave Schwab
It’s no surprise that the unwavering commitment of the San Diego Downtown Residents Group (SDDRG) to improving the area is why it survived to celebrate its 30th anniversary Feb. 22 at the Children’s Museum.
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, SDDRG was formed in 1987 and has devoted itself since to preserving and enhancing the quality of life for Downtown residents. That’s accomplished, in part, by leveraging collective opinion on key issues.
SDDRG’s president, Gary J.E. Smith, pointed out Downtown “was a different world” when SDDRG started out in the late 1980s with its peep shows and strip clubs and a decidedly unsavory reputation.
Given that Downtown also “did not have a community plan group” back then, Smith said the Downtown Resident’s Group was subsequently formed to fill that niche — and void.
The idea behind SDDRG’s formation was to “make the city keep their promises,” said Smith, adding the group gradually became more proactive over time.
“SDDRG insisted this senior folks home got put over here, and this crosswalk got marked over there,” Smith said. “A lot of stuff was done behind the scenes to make Downtown San Diego a better place to live, work and play.”
There are presently 35,000 residents living Downtown, with projections of as many as 90,000 in the next 30 years. Growth of that magnitude requires careful and cautious urban planning. That’s where SDDRG has stepped in to provide Downtowners with a voice.
“We seek to bring our concerns and opinions to those whose policy decisions will impact the quality of life of our residents for many years into the future,” Smith said.
Among SDDRG’s many successes, Smith cited creation of the “Quiet Zone” that eliminated nighttime train horns, the setting aside of space for Downtown parks and the creation of Petco Park.
Moving ahead, SDDRG intends to grapple with several complex and vexing issues including “the scourge of homelessness, the Navy Broadway Complex, Seaport Village redevelopment, the future of Horton Plaza and a proposed transient occupancy tax to fund Convention Center expansion.”
Topping SDDRG’s accomplishment list was getting community planning representation Downtown.
“One of the things we got we agitated for — our own planning group, the Downtown Community Planning Council,” Smith said adding, “We work in conjunction with them.”
Smith pointed out that, while individual civic groups Downtown are “more concerned about things in their particular neighborhoods,” he added groups as a whole are “more concerned about the overall issues — where bike lanes are going, managing parking, good design and whether or not a building is a good fit.”
Concerning San Diego’s affordable housing crisis, Smith noted Downtown has an advantage in addressing the issue.
“It’s one of the only places that’s willing to take really dense housing,” he said. “We have no qualms about taking dense housing. Part of that is being able to put in parks and other things that make Downtown livable. And our job is to ensure those things happen.”
However, Smith cautioned that affordable housing is “a function of the marketplace,” wherein supply and demand determine price. Unfortunately, Smith said demand far exceeds supply currently.
“There are 40,000 people on a waiting list for housing — it’s a lottery,” he said.
Concerning homelessness Downtown, Smith pointed out that, “as the rest of Downtown has grown up, the homeless are being forced into a smaller and smaller area. Therefore, it starts to look worse with tents and it’s much more noticeable.”
Smith said problems with combatting homelessness are compounded by the shortage of affordable housing.
“We have programs to get these people off the street, and some of them are ready to go into housing, but right now they [the city] have nowhere to move them,” he said.
Seaport Village’s redevelopment is another area of focus for the SDDRG.
“Whether or not you scrape it down and redo it, planning for it is one of the things we’re looking at,” Smith said.
Smith added that, while Downtown “has a huge amount of revenue from sales and Transit Occupancy taxes,” that is counterbalanced by things like the Gaslamp Quarter being a magnet for entertainment drawing people Downtown.
“You have a rash of problems that come with people partying at night, and all of the things that happen in an urban environment,” Smith said.
Even improvements Downtown come with a price, Smith said.
“You build a new park and then you have to worry about how you do the maintenance,” he said. “It’s a constant battle with the city as to how to keep it all up.”
Smith said SDDRG has about 400 dues-paying members, many of whom are couples. For more information, visit sddrg.org.
—Dave Schwab can be reached at email@example.com.