Why are San Diegans paying $1.6 million for closed restrooms?
The public restrooms, stripped of signage and locked, located on side of Stella Public House at Fault Line Park. Oct. 11, 216. Megan Wood, inewsource.

Why are San Diegans paying $1.6 million for closed restrooms?

When the 1.3-acre Fault Line Park opened up to great fanfare in August 2015, it was hailed as a triumph for public-private partnerships and badly needed open space in East Village. It included art installations, a children’s play area, and public restrooms attached to the side of a restaurant built at the park.

The developer, Pinnacle Bayside Development, received $1.6 million in public funds from Civic San Diego in exchange for maintaining the public park and restrooms once they were built. But just two months after the park’s grand opening in August 2015, the restrooms were locked — restaurant staff said they closed them indefinitely because they attracted the neighborhood’s growing homeless population.

Now, only the restaurant’s disabled customers are allowed access.

“It became a haven for drug use and prostitution,” said bar manager Michaela Peacock. “People felt very unsafe and uncomfortable because all of those people were right on our front steps.”

The public space was the result of a 2014 contract between the city — with nonprofit Civic San Diego as its agent — and Pinnacle Bayside Development, intended to eliminate blight in East Village.

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Illustration courtesy of IBI group

Pinnacle’s 46-story residential tower at Island Avenue and 15th Street, Pinnacle on the Park, is the tallest apartment building in downtown San Diego. A second tower is being constructed alongside it on what is referred to as the “super block” in East Village, a parcel of land twice the size of a typical downtown block.

The Pinnacle development is San Diego’s only public-private partnership since 2000 in which the developer was reimbursed fully for the design, construction and maintenance of a public park.

Kristine Zortman, Civic’s vice president of neighborhood investment, said the deal was “unique,” but necessary to activate open space in the area.

“There were concessions made between both sides to hopefully get what was in the best interest of the community down there, but then also to be able to facilitate the developer,” Zortman said.

Murtaza Baxamusa, a former Civic San Diego board member, said the arrangement is “strange” and not something he would have approved.

Baxamusa, who currently has a lawsuit against the city of San Diego regarding its oversight of Civic, said the agreement “highlights the key issue” of accountability between the city and Civic San Diego.

“The developer is pocketing the money, Civic (San Diego) is not doing anything about it, and we’re using the homeless as an excuse,” Baxamusa said. “It’s not right.”

Nonprofit Civic San Diego focuses on redevelopment downtown and in certain other underdeveloped neighborhoods. The city “holds sole authority over appointment of the members of Civic San Diego’s board of directors” according to Denise Menard, a Civic spokesperson.

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Civic’s unique arrangement

Public-private partnerships like these are a way for the city to create public spaces by negotiating agreements with private developers who, in most cases, take on some of the project’s costs.

inewsource filed a California Public Records Act request with the city and Civic, which showed the Fault Line Park improvements contract is one of five public-private partnerships negotiated by the agency or its predecessor since 2000. The response included contracts for Horton Plaza, the Omni Hotel, The Children’s Museum and the Little Italy Piazza.

In the other four contracts, Civic sold or leased public land to companies that agreed to develop and maintain a public space — at their own expense — often in return for entitlements beyond what their zoning limits allow, Baxamusa said.

Pinnacle Bayside Development agreed to pay $5 million to Civic San Diego for land next to its Pinnacle on the Park apartments so it could build the restaurant and underground parking. Civic said it agreed to pay that same amount to Pinnacle to cover the cost of designing, constructing and maintaining Fault Line Park and two public restrooms.

The map of the sales parcel purchased by Pinnacle Bayside Development. Courtesy of Civic San Diego.

The map of the sales parcel purchased by Pinnacle Bayside Development. The black space on the top left corner represents the restaurant and stripes represent the park. Courtesy of Civic San Diego.

In this unique deal, $1.6 million of the $5 million to Pinnacle was for restroom and park maintenance.

inewsource reviewed all of Civic’s public-private partnerships provided through the PRA, and interviewed officials at the city Park and Recreation Department and Civic San Diego. Civic officials said because every agreement is different, there is no uniform policy for monitoring maintenance.

One year after the project opened, responsibility over enforcement of Pinnacle’s obligations is anything but clear.

The consulting agreement between the city of San Diego and Civic says the agency is responsible for enforcing developer obligations, however Civic’s vice president of neighborhood investment, Kristine Zortman, said they have no mechanism to enforce.

Prior to an in-person interview with Civic staff on Sept. 30, Zortman told inewsource Civic’s role in this park project is to monitor the developer’s compliance. If problems were found, Civic would then notify the city and work with its staff to enforce the developer’s obligations.

At the interview, Civic vice president of planning Brad Richter acknowledged the park maintenance is the developer’s obligation, but said the city Park and Recreation Department is responsible for overseeing the maintenance of the park and Civic only has a “vested interest” in the project.

“We essentially work to negotiate agreements to benefit and reactivate areas in downtown and other underserved communities,” Zortman said, describing the nonprofit as an “asset manager.”

She said city funds used to pay for projects like Fault Line Park were leftover assets transferred to Civic San Diego after the dissolution of the city’s predecessor redevelopment agency.

Pinnacle’s headquarters in Vancouver, Canada, directed inewsource to San Diego development manager Dennis La Salle for comment, but he refused to answer questions about the contract over the phone and did not respond to emails.

Baxamusa said the role Civic plays in negotiating contracts makes it too easy for problems to go unsolved.

“It’s so simple, if you have a problem with a public restroom, you go to your elected official, make some noise and they’ll fix it. That’s how it’s supposed to work in a democracy,” Baxamusa said. “It’s not supposed to be some obscure entity that is unaccountable to the public that makes a deal with the developer and gives them a break when they want.”

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Public restrooms and the homeless

Data reported by the Downtown San Diego Partnership in August shows the homeless population count in East Village is more than 800 people.

Currently there are four public restrooms in East Village, including the Portland Loo at Park Boulevard and Market Street, restrooms at the Neil Good Day Center, at St. Vincent de Paul Village, and when Petco Park is open, restrooms at the Park at the Park.

Robert Weichelt of the Downtown Planning Council said the restroom situation at the Pinnacle building confirmed many of the East Village residents’ fears prior to the park’s opening.

“It was a shame because everybody talked about how they were going to say ‘you watch, it’ll turn into a homeless camp.’ So many of us don’t want that to happen,” Weichelt said.

Patricia Botello, who regularly walks her dog at Fault Line Park, said she has submitted numerous complaints to the city about the safety and upkeep of the park.

Patricia Botello, a resident of East Village, speaks to a security guard at Fault Line Park. She said too often she sees homeless people drinking, doing drugs and using the park itself as a bathroom. Megan Wood, inewsource. Oct. 5, 2016.

Patricia Botello, a resident of East Village, speaks to a security guard at Fault Line Park. She said too often she sees homeless people drinking alcohol, doing drugs and using the park itself as a bathroom. Megan Wood, inewsource. Oct. 5, 2016.

“I want this park to be beautiful and to be used by the community,” Botello said. “Nobody is paying attention, not the management of this building, not clean and safe, not the police department, not the city council and not the mayor.”

She said one security guard patrolling the entire park is not enough because the homeless have made the central grassy area and children’s playground a place to conduct illegal activities and sleep at night.

Tim Graham, a spokesman for the city Park and Recreation Department, said they meet with the developer and Civic once a month to discuss the ongoing issues at Fault Line Park, but it is unknown when the restrooms will reopen.

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About Megan Wood:

Megan Wood
Megan Wood is a multimedia journalist for inewsource. To contact her with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email meganwood@inewsource.org.