ESCONDIDO — The proposed redevelopment of the historic Ritz Theater, a staple of downtown since 1937, may get a vote in front of the Escondido City Council later this year. The redevelopment plan brought forward by Escondido’s New Vintage Church could fit as a piece of the city’s broader plans to revitalize its downtown.
But that vote will ensue without Deputy Mayor John Masson, who has confirmed to The Coast News that he will abstain from voting on anything relating to the project due to his company’s business ties to it. More specifically, his firm Masson & Associates — a land development and land surveying consulting firm that has been in Escondido since 1978 and for which he serves as president — is listed as the project manager and lead contact for the proposed project’s application form obtained by The Coast News.
Masson’s company has been tasked with helping the project proposal clear legal and regulatory hurdles, according to Tim Spivey, a pastor who is representing the New Vintage Church in its redevelopment proposal.
“Masson & Associates was retained to provide engineering and, more recently, project management services,” Spivey told The Coast News. “They are simply representing us — helping us process the insane amount of paperwork, compliance, etc. We are a church and need professional help all the way through this project.”
Among the hurdles cleared, City Council’s vote on the Ritz Theater proposal will now also occur without having to get an advisory recommendation from either the city’s Historic Preservation Commission or its Planning Commission, due to an Economic Development Subcommittee vote which quietly took place on Aug. 9. That vote was a 1-0 one, with Masson abstaining and not attending the hearing and the other Economic Subcommittee member, Mayor Sam Abed, voting to grant the Ritz Theater redevelopment proposal a Business Enhancement Zone tax benefit and regulatory fast-track.
“I was not at the subcommittee meeting,” Masson told The Coast News via email. “I have abstained on all projects that my company is involved with. I’ve also abstained from voting on past/current client projects that I’ve never been involved with. Being in the position that I am, it’s important that there is no real or perceived situation that I may be benefiting from a decision that I am involved with.”
Masson also said that, regardless of his business’ stake in the proposal, City Council has been “working hard to get to yes” on the proposal.
“So as I see it, our council policy is working,” said Masson. “Let’s assume it went down differently and my company wasn’t involved in assisting the project and the vote was 2-0. What’s the difference? It still goes to the full council.”
California’s regulatory code for public officials and conflicts of interest stems from the Political Reform Act of 1974, passed by the state’s legislature, which created a Fair Political Practices Commission. That commission has regulations in place pertaining to conflicts of interest and personal financial interests in projects voted upon by public officials, such as Masson.
“A public official at any level of state or local government has a prohibited conflict of interest and may not make, participate in making, or in any way use or attempt to use his or her official position to influence a governmental decision when he or she knows or has reason to know he or she has a disqualifying financial interest,” reads one chunk of those regulations. “A public official has a disqualifying financial interest if the decision will have a reasonably foreseeable material financial effect, distinguishable from the effect on the public generally, directly on the official, or his or her immediate family, or on any financial interest described in subdivision.”
As previously reported by The Coast News, the proposed Ritz Theater redevelopment — which has been a staple of downtown Escondido in various forms since the 1937, but vacant for nearly two decades — is being reimagined as a community arts and cultural center by the Escondido-based New Vintage Church and temporarily called “The Grand.”
According to New Vintage’s application, the revamped Ritz Theater — located at 309 E. Grand Avenue — would serve as a religious center a small portion of the time, but open the rest of the week for community arts events and activities.
The Business Enhancement Zone tax benefit also calls for private sector projects to receive up to $20,000 in cash from the city’s coffers for projects projected to “generate future annual sales and/or use tax that result in consistent and significant revenue to the City of Escondido,” according to city literature explaining the tax incentive.
At its July 19 meeting, the Historic Preservation Commission had raised questions about the proposal.
Some of those questions revolved around the companion historical property at 301 E. Grand Avenue — currently a dance studio — which would be bulldozed and replaced with a new building that would serve as a key community gathering space for the church. That building, which has also existed downtown since 1937, was part of the focus of discussion at the July 19 Historic Preservation Commission convening, according to meeting minutes.
Abed has previously come out in public support of the Business Enhancement Zone incentive package, doing so in the form of an opinion piece written for the San Diego-Union Tribune back in 2005, back when he was a member of the City Council and not yet the mayor.
Assistant City Planner Mike Strong says the city has already held more Historic Preservation Hearings for this proposal than for most others. He also said, regardless of all other considerations, the project will still have to meet environmental compliance obligations under the California Environmental Quality Act.
“Although the Business Enhancement Zone process may reflect truncation to some, the Historic Preservation Commission has already been given a fair amount of time to review two iterations of the project’s design,” Strong told The Coast News. “This early and unconventional consultation helped give the applicant early guidance on very important building design elements. Traditionally, the Historic Preservation Commission would have only reviewed the application once, at the conclusion of the city’s review.”
At least one member of the commission concurs with Strong, he told The Coast News, saying the panel was “not ignored” as part of the process.
“The Historic Preservation Commission was asked for design suggestions, which we gave them,” said Jimmie Spann, who is also on the board of directors of the Old Escondido Historic District organization. “In my opinion, it is a good project that will re-purpose a building that has lost a great deal of its historic significance and contribute positively to our historic downtown. We were not ignored.”