Downtown’s Big Booster
As president of the Downtown San Diego Partnership, Shirley Horton juggles a full agenda of civic and political issues
By Manny Cruz
Shirley Horton has been a businesswoman, a city planning commissioner, a mayor and a member of the California Assembly — background credentials that attracted the attention of the Downtown San Diego Partnership in late 2008 when it was casting about for a new president to replace Barbara Warden, the former councilwoman who was retiring.
In January 2009, Horton was named president of the Downtown Partnership, a business and civic advocacy organization that was formed in 1993 with the merger of San Diegans Inc. and the Centre City Association. Scott Maloni of Poseidon Resources Inc. is the current president of the agency’s board of directors, which conducts meetings at Partnership headquarters in the Wells Fargo building at 401 B St.
Horton was born in Japan while her father was in the Navy, but grew up in Chula Vista, attending schools there before enrolling at San Diego State, where she received a bachelor’s degree. She co-founded a real estate sales and development company and ran it for 16 years. For six years, Horton served on the Chula Vista Planning Commission before being appointed to the City Council in 1991. She was elected mayor of the city in 1994 and was re-elected four years later.
Horton represented the 78th Assembly District between 2002 and 2008, termed out after three terms.
As president of the Downtown Partnership, an executive position, Horton is responsible for guiding the agency’s agenda. Here, in Q&A form, are her responses to current Downtown issues:
Q. What are the major projects that the Downtown San Diego Partnership is tackling?
A. The Downtown San Diego Partnership is a leading advocate for the economic growth and revitalization of Downtown. We work closely with regional business organizations and government agencies to identify needs, develop strategies, shape public policy and implement programs that strengthen the business climate and quality of life in Downtown San Diego.
There are several major Downtown projects that are important to the region and the partnership is strongly in support of all of them — the New Central Library, expansion of the Convention Center, a new Civic Center, the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan, the Downtown quiet zone, new parks, a Downtown shuttle system and a revitalization of the C Street corridor.
We are in the process of creating a business attraction program that will focus on branding and marketing Downtown’s commercial opportunities as well as a retail merchant and outreach program.
This year we are working with stakeholders in reviving the Downtown for the Holidays program, so watch for some exciting and fun activities that will make the holidays sparkle.
Q. What is the Partnership doing to address the homeless problem Downtown? Has the homeless population increased since the time you first headed the agency?
A. Back in 1997/98 the partnership established the Clean and Safe program to improve the appearance of Downtown’s streets and enhance public safety. At that time homelessness was one of the reasons this program was launched. And for a while it seemed that the there was a reduction in the number of homeless as Downtown became more vibrant. But with our struggling economy, there is a growing epidemic of homelessness in our country. So once again, the partnership is directly involved in making a difference in reducing homelessness Downtown. On Sept. 19, the Downtown San Diego Partnership will launch with our partners United Way, CCDC, and LeSar Development Consultants, a program in East Village that was successful in New York City’s Time Square called Common Ground. The Common Ground model registers the chronic homeless over a weeklong session of surveying and identifying homeless, then prioritizing the most vulnerable for shelter and other services. After we reach our goal of housing placement then we will move on to the next targeted area.
The DSDP recognizes that permanent supportive housing is key to solving homelessness in the San Diego region. It is also important to support policies that will lead to lifting the ban on enforcement of the illegal lodging ordinance so law enforcement can better address community concerns. Also, with the rise in the number of young, more aggressive homeless we are working with the city on an aggressive panhandling ordinance. These are a few of the programs that the partnership is working on collaboratively with government and private agencies in the region.
Q. You’ve had experience as the mayor of Chula Vista and, later, as a member of the state Assembly. Compare the challenges you faced as a mayor of a city with the challenges of working in the Assembly.
A. It was a privilege to serve the public as an elected official. At the local level there were less influences from special interests so it was much less partisan than serving in the state Legislature. When I was the mayor of Chula Vista, our council focused on making decisions that were in the best interest of the community and building a future. Unfortunately, at the state level partisan politics dominate and decisions are often made with outside influences guiding the decision-making process. The current huge financial deficit is testament to this.
Q. What is the Downtown Partnership’s annual budget? How many people does it employ? Does it intend to add staff in the next year?
A. The DSDP budget, which includes our Clean and Safe program, is approximately $6.8 million. We currently have 60 employees in addition to contracted services for Clean and Safe. If we are successful in passing our Commercial Marketing District, then we will be hiring within the next year.
Q. What’s been the effect of the Centre City Development Corp. not having a president over the past two years?
A. This has created a difficult situation and has placed a hardship on all involved including the city. It is critical that the city hire a new president who can help lead the agency through this tough economy and move San Diego forward. The city was fortunate to have Fred Maas at the helm during the transition period. Fred has been a valuable steward during this tough economy. He is a successful developer, dedicated and passionate about helping Downtown San Diego. His leadership with the support of the professional team at CCDC helped move projects and programs forward even under these difficult conditions.
Q. How is the economy treating your membership, and has that affected the Partnership’s efforts in any way?
A. The dismal economy has had an impact on our members but they are extraordinary people who continue to be optimistic about Dwntown’s future and believe that we are and will continue to be one of the greatest urban destinations in our nation.
Q. What are your thoughts on train whistle noise?
A. We were 100 percent behind the City Council approving the Quiet Zone because of its positive impacts that this will have on our residents and visitors.
Q. Are you looking forward to the completion of the bridge over Harbor Drive to Petco Park?
A. The new pedestrian bridge connecting Downtown with the waterfront is architecturally stunning and will be an iconic image for San Diego. Residents and visitors will enjoy having the safety and convenience of avoiding traffic and viewing our beautiful city.
Q. Do you have hopes of the Embarcadero plan coming to fruition within the next few years?
A. The Embarcadero is the window to our city, to the region. The planning process has been ongoing for years and deserves to get coastal commission approval.
Q. Do you miss being an elected official?
A. Having the opportunity to serve the public is a privilege and I truly enjoyed the experience. In my 16 years as an elected official, I met so many wonderful people who demonstrate every day the value of giving back to the community. I feel blessed that I had the chance to work with them in building a better future. In many ways the job that I have today it is very similar to the responsibilities of an elected official in that I work closely with the community on issues that help make the city and the region better.
When I took the job with the DSDP I was surprised to learn that through my career in politics I knew or knew of many of people who are involved in the important issues that affect Downtown San Diego and the region. The learning curve wasn’t as much of a challenge as I thought it might be. However, the city appears to be at a crossroads and this creates a challenging period for redevelopment, which is so vital to Downtown’s continued growth and for projects of regional importance.
Q. What is the most misunderstood thing about Downtown?
A. The public perception is that there is a shortage of parking Downtown when in fact there are 60,000 parking spaces. CCDC is working on a comprehensive plan to direct people to available parking. Also, Downtown San Diego is an economic engine for the entire region and should be recognized as a regional asset.
Q. What is the relationship with Mayor Sanders?
A. We have a great working relationship with Mayor Sanders and his staff. Along with Councilman (Kevin) Faulconer, he has been a tireless advocate for Downtown issues.
Q. How is the Clean and Safe program doing?
A. The Clean and Safe program is comprised of two components: Maintenance Ambassadors and Safety Ambassadors. Work crews are deployed into the neighborhood districts seven days a week, 24 hours a day where they provide a variety of maintenance and safety activities to supplement the City’s base-line services.
The tremendous growth in Downtown has increased the demand for service and has raised expectations. Over the last year we have expanded our communications program in an effort to get more feedback and input from the community. Our budget process includes holding individual meetings in each of the districts. This provides the ratepayer a better understanding of the services provided and guides each district community advisory board member in customizing the services to better meet the individual districts needs.
Q. What are four or five of your favorite places to eat?
A. Oceanaire, El Vitral, C Level, Rama and Bice.
Q. What’s the last Padres game you attended?
A. Opening day.
Q. Does your board have a position on the new library?
A. We take pride in calling San Diego “America’s Finest City.” Most great cities have a main library that will stand the test of time and we have been very supportive of moving this project forward.
Q. How about a new City Hall and expanded Convention Center?
A. We strongly support both of these projects. The Civic Center is outdated and poses a grave safety, health and financial risk to the city. Building the new Civic Center would provide long-term financial savings and efficiencies. The Convention Center would add an additional 1 million square feet to the 2.6 million square feet, positioning San Diego to be much more competitive in attracting more conventions to our city. Both projects will create a significant number of jobs and help stimulate our economy.
Q. Do you expect your board to take a position on increasing the CCDC cap (or has it) and then potentially, on a new football stadium?
A. Our board strongly supports lifting the tax increment cap for CCDC. Downtown is not complete and we have a tremendous opportunity to continue the successful revitalization that has occurred over the past 35 years.