Opinion: The 101 Ash Street scandal is looking more and more like a sideshow

101 Ash St. in downtown San Diego has been a source of controversy for San Diego city leaders and candidates.
101 Ash St. in downtown San Diego has been a source of controversy for San Diego city leaders and candidates. Photo by Chris Stone

Those of us in the media always appreciate a good scandal. In today’s online news world, they generate page views and build audiences.

Ambitious politicians also enjoy a scandal. They can leverage voter anger to succeed at the polls.

But some scandals are actually just side shows to larger issues facing a community. Such may be the case today at 101 Ash Street.

Renting to own a building later found to be full of asbestos surely sounds like a bad decision. And investigators may well uncover criminal liability in the transaction and its consequences.

But with a settlement underway, the 101 Ash scandal looks more and more like a side show to a larger issue regarding the future of the city’s real estate in downtown San Diego.

Under a settlement agreement proposed by Mayor Todd Gloria and backed by Council Speaker Sean Elo-Rivera, the city would pay $132 million to buy both 101 Ash Street and the neighboring Civic Center Plaza building. .

That’s a lot of money, but it’s also a lot of real estate in a booming downtown market. During a briefing for reporters this week, Elo-Rivera was asked about his views on the next steps.

He said he was “rightfully very angry” about the original deal, but sees a way for the city to get out of it by coming to terms with its landlords.

“There’s a lot to be gained for the city by becoming a landlord rather than paying rent,” he said. “Our leadership job is to make tough decisions to ultimately move the city in a better direction.”

He didn’t say it, but it’s a tough call for San Diego executives because it’s so easy for naysayers to focus on the scandal.

Colored former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre stepped up last week, calling a press conference and threatening a court injunction if the city goes ahead with the settlement.

Aguirre and current city attorney Mara Elliott believe the city can recover money in court. But, of course, court cases take a long time. And the city could lose.

Gloria admits the 101 Ash deal was a “civic debacle,” but argues there’s no possibility of an ideal outcome, so moving forward with a settlement limits uncertainty.

Elo-Rivera called Aguirre’s threat a “media stunt” and pointed to the long-term value of bringing nearly six blocks together under city ownership. He plans to replace a crumbling city hall with facilities that can effectively deliver “essential municipal services” while redeveloping the civic core.

“We could convert what are now empty buildings, ugly buildings and poorly used spaces into a world-class facility allowing residents to receive world-class services,” he said. “There is a world of opportunity.”

How the 101 Ash sideshow ends ultimately depends on the voters. But I can tell you this: Fewer and fewer people are reading about the scandal.

Chris Jennewein is editor and publisher of the Times of San Diego.