Ho New / Reuters

A proposed residential development threatens a factory that employs 1,800

New apartment complexes and condos have been popping up all over downtown San Diego for decades, turning this formerly industry-dominated waterfront area into a transitional zone of emerging residential life and tourist-focused amenities. But despite the new housing and retail, industry remains. And as these two land uses butt against each other, tensions arise. So when developers in San Diego proposed a new condo building right across the street from an 80-year old turbine factory, the prospect of new neighbors was not particularly welcomed.

It’s not the people that are the problem. The real issue is the additional environmental reviews that would be required for the company that owns the factory, as the San Diego Union-Tribune explains. Should new residents move in, the company, Solar Turbines, would likely be subject to new air quality rules and health assessments, a prospect with a hefty price tag.

“The primary issue,” said Solar President D. James Umpleby, “is that we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in machine tools. If we were in fact to invest the millions it would take to leave this site, it wouldn’t be a prudent business decision to put the plant in the state of California. Heavy manufacturing has left California for the last 30 years. We’re one of the last heavy manufacturers here. If in fact you looked at the business climate, environmental regulations, costs, taxes, everything that goes into heavy manufacturing in San Diego County — if you invested the money, quite frankly, you probably would not stop until you hit the fence line (of the state).”

A downtown community plan identifies the site of the proposed condos as acceptable for conversion into residential use, but the company fears that the new costs associated with resulting changes in regulatory requirements would be too much to bear. Co-existing with a condo project across the street is seen as unlikely. The factory employs 1,800 people.

The topic has become a political controversy in the city, with city officials, planners, unions, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the San Diego Unified Port District taking sides. A face-off between interested parties was scheduled for this week, but has been postponed until January to try to provide time for a compromise. Unless some deal can be made, the tussle could end up before the city council.

The likelihood that this condo project would make it unsustainable for a holdout downtown factory to stay in business essentially becomes a housing versus jobs debate. As the two sides consider a compromise and local officials look ahead a few months to when they may be forced to make a decision, they’ll have to think about whether it’s easier to create jobs or create housing. Given the current economy, those 1,800 jobs may well be more valuable to the community than condos.

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