To read the Tribune’s breathless coverage of SLO’s Chinatown development approval, you’d think it’s the most incredible thing ever to happen here: “Looks Great,” “Another Jewel in the Downtown Crown,” “all that is right” with SLO’s development process.
In fact, Chinatown is a huge municipal scandal, a fact you’d never guess from our alleged daily newspaper’s reporting (but, into which, thank goodness, New Times occasional casts a slender beam of light).
Chinatown is our local equivalent of giving a huge taxpayer bailout to Goldman Sachs, of moving scarce taxpayer wealth into already wealthy private hands, of making the rich richer and the rest of us tax-paying voters forever poorer. And all the while, public services decline and neighborhoods are neglected.
The sale price of the half-block of public parking lots and the Morro Street city office building was a puny $1.1 million, about the same amount the city sank into remodeling and retrofitting the now-to-be-demolished office building (and a sum for which you can hardly purchase any commercial real estate today). Go back before that to the cost of condemning a half block of prime private real estate for public use, and the city didn’t come close to breaking even on this deal.
The city’s official land appraisal of $8.8 million was widely derided by those in the know as a lowball figure. The apparent fair market value of the city property (based on what the developer paid for adjacent properties) is in the $20 to $25 million range. These numbers expose the taxpayer ripoff involved in transferring the property forever for a mere $1.1 million. But not a word of wonder at this bizarre municipal math in the alleged daily newspaper’s reporting.
The “process” by which this land changed hands was corrupt from the start. The city had a fair and enlightened written policy for disposal of public property, but chose to ignore it. Instead, one developer was given the exclusive right to negotiate in secret for months before the public had a clue their land was even in play. There was never any public discussion whether the land should be disposed of, or whether it could be put to some good public use. There was no public discussion about whether long-term lease for development would be more lucrative for taxpayers than sale. There were never competitive bids to test the fairness of the price offered. There was never any competition to see if another developer would offer a better project than the mediocre one we’re now getting. The behind-closed-doors secret process was scandalous, from beginning to end, not “all that is right.”
Chinatown, far from being a feather in the city’s hat, exemplifies an incredible neglect by the city of its fiduciary duty to protect public assets from plunder, of crony capitalism at its worst, of pick-pocket politics, of taxpayer subsidy of private profits. It is a disgrace, which a real daily newspaper would have hammered on week after week, year after year, until it ended.
Refusal of our only daily newspaper to report the news that enables readers to become informed citizens is a disgrace to the newspaper industry’s very reason for existing, as well as a betrayal of the unique constitutional protections it receives. The Tribune’s decline into irrelevance and public relations disinformation rather than reporting is a sad thing for newspaper lovers and citizens to watch. Censorship of news extends even to their letters to the editor column—at least when letters are critical of their failures to report. Thank goodness for New Times, where at least a “letters” page allows for spirited public conversation.
-- Richard Schmidt - San Luis Obispo
-- Richard Schmidt - San Luis Obispo