Downtown developers should be assessed a fee on their projects to help pay for needed road and traffic improvements in the city's center, acting Mayor Ed Struiksma said Tuesday. Without such a fee, he warned, downtown may choke on its own success as gridlock drives people to the suburbs.
Speaking at a downtown Lion's Club luncheon, Struiksma, who is a candidate for mayor, said the fee program would be patterned after those imposed in outlying areas of the city, such as Mission Valley, where developers are required to help pay for off-site improvements such as roads, schools, utilities and parks.
On another downtown subject, Struiksma said he would oppose a permanent ordinance prohibiting demolition or conversion of single-room occupancy hotels because to do so would be "counterproductive." The City Council recently enacted an emergency, one-year moratorium banning such conversions and demolitions.
Downtown is no longer a fragile creature in need of overprotection, Struiksma said, noting that projections for future growth, both in jobs and population, point to dramatic increases over the next 10 to 15 years.
In such an atmosphere, he said, it's not too much to ask downtown developers to help pay for downtown street improvements--estimated at $90 million to $133 million--that will be needed to accommodate the new growth. There isn't a source of funding for half of the needed improvements, he said.
"Unlike development in outlying areas, the downtown boom has occurred without off-site charges," Struiksma said, adding: "There is an alternative for downtown. It is to do nothing, to wait for the expected growth to somehow fail to materialize, or wait for a windfall from the state or federal government that will pay for needed transportation improvements."
Since it is unlikely that any of those scenarios will occur, he said, "I say that if we do not take a pro-active stance, congestion will increase, downtown shoppers will choose to patronize suburban centers, and investors will be deterred from a problematic downtown."
While not specifying the method of levying the fees, Struiksma said some options include an increase in the local sales tax (for both downtown and the rest of the county); a straight-line tax on new projects; an assessment based on how an improved transportation system affects individual properties, or some combination of the various options.
In an interview after his speech, Struiksma said downtown is now strong enough so that development fees won't hurt it.
"At some point . . . you have to step over the line and I think it's important (we) do that," Struiksma said. "It's become . . . apparent we've reached the end of the line . . . where you can build a 30- or 40-story building without (paying) fees for off-site improvements.
"I think that if fees are adopted, downtown will do just fine. Maybe it will set back a few projects a few months, but that's all."
On the matter of single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, Struiksma said he would be unable to support a permanent ordinance banning demolition and conversion of the SRO hotels, which are under threat from downtown's development boom. (The SRO hotels are used by many low-income people and most of the hotels are concentrated downtown.)
"I believe that an ongoing ordinance of this restrictive nature would be counterproductive. In the end, it will force rents up and displace the very people who need affordable housing. A better solution would be to offer incentives, low-interest loans, or state and federal subsidies, to encourage the development and rehabilitation of single-room occupancy hotels," Struiksma said.
Bob Simmons, a Lion's Club member, appealed to Struiksma during a question-and-answer session to change his mind, noting the dire need for affordable housing in the downtown area. But Struiksma said the rights of property owners must be balanced against the need for such housing.