Joe Mathews: Beware of Ghosts

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Politicians are pointing fingers and San Diego residents are up in arms over an ill-fated attempt to resuscitate the forma Sempra Energy building downtown. Photo by Nehrams2020, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

That abandoned building your city wants to save could turn into a frightening money pit.

Politicians are pointing fingers and San Diego residents are up in arms over an ill-fated attempt to resuscitate the forma Sempra Energy building downtown. The building was supposed to save the city money...but it’s become a useless monument to wasting taxpayers’ cash. As the economy craters and more buildings are emptying around the state, Zocalo commentator says the 19-story Sempra building has emerged as a cautionary tale for public officials and residents alike. 

Read Mathews’ column below:

The pandemic has left empty buildings littering the state

As Californians explore what to do with thousands of buildings made empty by the pandemic, let’s avoid being as scared and stupid as San Diego.

America’s Finest City has seen its civic-minded brains eaten not by zombies, but by a long-empty downtown office building. Indeed, San Diegans are so frighteningly obsessed with 101 Ash Street that they seem incapable of discussing anything else.

“Are we going to be proud,” Voice of San Diego CEO Scott Lewis asked on Twitter, “that, during this pandemic, with our lives completely upended and the future of things like schools and libraries and the economy in doubt, so much of the local election was about this building?”

To make a long ghost story short, in 2016 the city government negotiated a 20-year, $127 million lease-to-own agreement for the 19-story, 315,000-square-foot property. The deal was portrayed as a way to save $44 million and to house 850 city workers. Only a power wash was needed before employees could move in.

That move still hasn’t happened.

For reasons still unclear, city officials never inspected 101 Ash for goblins or other deficiencies before signing the lease. Eventually, it emerged that 101 Ash—built in 1969 and most recently Sempra Energy’s headquarters, had asbestos, electrical, plumbing, and heating problems costing $115 million to repair. The city was left paying $535,000-a-month for a building it couldn’t use.

Who’s to blame? There are so many different suspects that the fiasco resembles an English murder mystery, with more sunshine and better fish tacos.

Some city bureaucrats, blamed for accepting the seller’s claims the building was in good shape, were pushed out. The real estate company that brokered the deal inserted unusually strong language shielding itself from liability. A previous 101 Ash owner said he had notified the city about the asbestos beforehand.

The top mayoral candidates, City Councilmember Barbara Bry and Assemblyman Todd Gloria, a former councilmember, took responsibility while also shifting blame onto each other, and San Diego’s political culture.  “I’m tired of us being a big city that acts like a small town,” Gloria declared during the campaign. As if to prove Gloria’s point, San Diego’s city attorney Mara Elliott added to the farce by threatening to prosecute a journalist for possessing confidential city documents.

Calling city incompetence “impossible to exaggerate,” the San Diego Union-Tribune recited a litany of unforced errors over the past 25 years—from pension schemes to pro sports giveaways—and asked why the city can’t govern itself. Some critics pointed to the insular political culture. Others noted the outsized power of developers as campaign contributors, including “Papa Doug” Manchester, a part-owner of the building.

The most blame belongs to departing Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a moderate Republican who had been considered the strongest challenger to Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2022. If Faulconer runs for governor, voters statewide should demand a full accounting of the deal.

Turning 101 Ash into a haunted house story might be healthy for Californians. We too often allow our leaders to take consequential decisions with little scrutiny, which is why San Francisco and Los Angeles face their own scandals right now. And empty buildings can destabilize communities because they are voids upon which we project our darkest fears and our most peculiar and expensive ideas.  

101 Ash may be empty, but it is full of lessons for Californians. Let’s not spend too much, or invest too much energy, in any single building. Let’s think more strategically about our built environment. And before you lease your own haunted haunt, don’t be afraid to go inside and inspect the place for yourself.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.



Joe Mathews