Scott Peters blurted out, “Who wrote this?!”
Then he realized every staffer in his city council office assumed somebody was in big trouble.
The year was 2002. The author in question was Betsy Brennan. Today, she’s the president and CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership. The DSDP is a low-profile but highly influential nonprofit that advocates for the economic prosperity and cultural vitality of the city’s urban core.
The Partnership’s original mission had little to do with homelessness issues. The subject, however, claims a majority of Brennan’s daily calendar.
When Peters first yelped about Brennan’s written work he was the District 1 San Diego City Councilmember. (Today he’s serving his sixth term in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing California’s 50th District, which includes downtown San Diego).
Two decades ago, Brennan was a law student studying at the University of San Diego’s Land-Use Clinic. She was interning for Peters, primarily focusing on his responsibilities as a member of the California Coastal Commission.
Brennan remembers that around that time she was writing lots of thank-you notes to constituents.
“One note was to someone in Council District 1 to acknowledge we got their letter,” she says. “It was long and technical. But basically, this person was angry that a neighbor had a tree over 30 feet tall that was blocking their view. I explained how the neighbor was in compliance.”
Turned out Peters wasn’t mad about what Brennan had written. Quite the opposite. He was impressed.
Now-Congressman Peters says it was obvious back then that Brennan was a highly competent analyst. And someone who was good at understanding and addressing problems.
“She’s really good at being a listener and identifying areas of agreement,” Peters says. “She’s remarkable at being an analytic problem solver.”
Peters hired Brennan to be a part-time aide while she was still finishing her degree at USD. She went full-time right after graduation.
In 2005, Peters elevated Brennan to be his chief of staff. She was just 29 years old.
The promotion coincided with a turning point in San Diego politics. The public had voted to convert city governance to a strong-mayor system. Peters was named the first president of the city council.
“Betsy helped me invent how the council would operate under the strong-mayor system,” Peters says. “She had to be a really skilled negotiator.”
Brennan was the youngest of all the city council chiefs of staff and junior in age to most of the people around her.
“It was an interesting situation,” she says with a straightforward smile. “I had a lot of people on my team who were older than me. I had been friends with them and then I had to be their boss. I loved it, though. I think I’m a natural boss.”
Her leadership skills germinated early. Brennan was president of her senior class at Fairport High in Rochester, New York. And captain of the field hockey squad and a member of the downhill ski team.
Sports tend to reward players who are loud and aggressive. Brennan appears to have maintained the drive of an athlete, but also exercises poise, congeniality and a natural ability to build consensus.
If you’re hooked into downtown San Diego business and political circles you’re likely familiar with the DSDP.
For those fuzzy on its history, the 300-member organization just celebrated its 30th anniversary. The Partnership was born in 1993 when a group called San Diegans Inc. merged with the Central City Association.
Spawned out of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, which was regional in nature, San Diegans Inc. was focused on downtown redevelopment matters. Members were bankers, property owners and power brokers.
The CCA was also focused on downtown. Membership primarily consisted of retailers. Its central goal was getting foot traffic to come downtown and patronize shops and businesses.
Then came redevelopment efforts in the Gaslamp Quarter in the 1980s. And the creation of the (now former) Horton Plaza mall. By the early ’90s it was decided that downtown’s best interest could be pursued if the two groups merged.
From the beginning, The Partnership worked in tandem with a redevelopment agency called Centre City Development Corporation. They drove the creation of the San Diego Convention Center, Petco Park and the new Central Library.
For the last two decades, including five-plus years under Brennan’s helm, the nonprofit DSDP has been the managing organization of the Clean & Safe program.
Clean & Safe is a Property and Business Improvement District. It provides enhanced maintenance and safety services, beautification efforts and comprehensive unhoused care services for 275 blocks of downtown.
The Clean & Safe program was the brainchild of former DSDP president Laurie Black, who held the position from 1997-2001. Brennan considers Black a mentor. The two have known each other for decades.
Black calls Brennan “phenomenal,” says she is “highly-respected” and has “become a part of the fabric of the quilt that is downtown.”
Black also credits Brennan with bringing nonpartisanship back to The Partnership.
“I didn’t like the Political Action Committee that was started before Betsy,” Black says. “I felt that it diluted some things. Homelessness is not partisan. Potholes after a rain are not partisan. Betsy’s gone back to ‘let’s just get this job done’ and not worry about what the politics are.”
Homelessness may no longer be a partisan issue for The Partnership, but it’s definitely an omnipresent one.
“It’s an emotional and really complicated topic,” Brennan says. “If you had asked me five years ago, I would have said our mission is economic prosperity and cultural vitality. But, wow, more than half of my time now is spent on homelessness.”
As president and CEO, Brennan plays the role of advocate. Case in point: The Partnership recently formed a Downtown Safety Coalition of more than two dozen prominent groups. The group drafted an 8-point letter that was sent to Mayor Todd Gloria in late 2022.
“The letter is very specific on what we want from a safety standpoint and a quality of life standpoint in downtown San Diego,” Brennan says.
A majority of the letter focuses on homelessness. In summary, the coalition calls for:
- Enforcement of a “no tent” policy on sidewalks.
- Adjusted levels of city-obligated trash and sidewalk cleaning services.
- Implementation of a future Safe Tent camping site.
- San Diego Police Department walking patrols in critical corridors.
- Deployment of Behavioral Health Services and medical resource outreach.
- Keeping known offenders of narcotics abuses and other serious crimes in jail.
- Advocacy for continued state and federal funding for programs that aid the city.
- Addressing streetlight repairs.
Led by District 3 City Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, political leaders currently seem determined to pass an aggressive ban on tents on city sidewalks. However, a similar ban already exists and is randomly enforced. A major flaw in creating and enforcing a stricter ban: There’s a severe shortage of shelters for people now living on the streets.
Note: Communications representatives for Mayor Gloria and Councilmember Whitburn did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Coalition groups whose leaders signed the DSDP’s letter include San Diego’s Port, Tourism Authority, Restaurant Association, Chamber of Commerce, Building Industry Association and Regional Economic Development Corporation.
Two neighborhood groups based within the 92101 downtown ZIP Code are also signatories on the DSDP letter: The Gaslamp Quarter Association and the East Village Residents Group.
Kathleen Hallahan is the immediate past president of the EVRG. She served five years in the role.
Hallahan praises Brennan’s efforts to bring consensus on downtown issues.
“There seems to be an open-door policy since Betsy Brennan took over,” Hallahan says. “She seems to have energized the office. And she’s open to the idea that all the neighborhoods are important and that we all can be working together.”
Hallahan believes the general public lacks an awareness of what the DSDP does.
“Before getting involved with them, my own image was that it was just for large businesses,” she says. “But I found they’re determined to have all aspects of downtown be synergistic, and have a goal of being symbiotic.”
That opinion is shared by John Brady, who has “lived experience” with homelessness. He’s currently head of Lived Experience Advisors LLC, and has been contracted in the past by DSDP to do research.
“The Downtown San Diego Partnership has become a key component of the homeless response system,” Brady says. “The monthly count of people living on the street that they do is an incredible benchmark. Betsy is a solid leader. And compassionate to the issue. She has a difficult job to do while balancing the needs of her constituents.”
Brady adds: “It would be nice to see some people with lived experience on her boards and committees.”
Brennan and I met twice for this profile. First informally, over coffee. Then, on the record in her ground-floor office in downtown’s Wells Fargo Building. She was surprisingly forthright and direct, especially about the city’s homelessness problems.
She won’t point fingers. Even in her coalition letter to the mayor–who has received mixed public reviews for his handling of homelessness–she offers praise and assistance on shared challenges.
On occasion, Brennan does fall into talking points. Rote recitation, though, comes at a minimum. She’s guarded, naturally, but simultaneously engaging. Discourse with her feels refreshingly like a discussion.
Her emotive personality might be the modern textbook example for anyone seeking to assume political office or run a quasi-governmental organization. In a political age where compromise and truthfulness are rare commodities, Brennan seems both bipartisan and believable.
“I think Betsy Brennan shows that you don’t have to be aggressively belligerent to be a leader,” Hallahan says. “Her skills are gathering information and pushing for solutions, behind closed doors.”
Hallahan reiterates that Brennan and The Partnership face challenges while working to lift up downtown.
“Homelessness is not what that organization was created to deal with,” Hallahan says. “But I think every downtown group can’t just focus on its own agenda because homelessness is everywhere.”
Nonetheless, Brennan says she’s allowing herself to feel optimistic about homelessness and sees glimmers of hope for an overall upward trajectory for the city.
“I’m not going to be a Pollyanna,” she says. “But I feel like the state of California, the city and the county are actually on the same page now on policies that could allow us to see some progress.”
In addition, the Institute of Governmental Studies recently ranked San Diego number-one among 62 U.S. cities for rebounding from the pandemic.
Local travel and tourism numbers also have solidly bounced back. The American Hotel and Lodging Association reports that 2022 hotel revenue surpassed pre-pandemic numbers from 2019.
And Brennan says new faces are signing up as DSDP members, as are some former members who moved out of downtown but missed being part of the urban ecosystem.
It’s all conjecture at the moment, but local officials are trying to drum up support to redevelop the unsightly six-block area known as the City Hall Complex. There’s no timetable yet; nobody’s holding their breath.
Along with the homelessness conundrum, there are still plenty of hurdles to getting the city back to business. Office leasing has been slow, for example, and there are far too many empty storefronts all over downtown.
“But I’m glad to be talking about this now and not six months ago, ” Brennan says. “I can be authentically optimistic. I really am in a much more hopeful place.”
If you live, work or play on downtown San Diego’s tent-clustered streets on a regular basis, your skepticism is acknowledged.
You may want to shout, “Who can say this?!”
Consider the source. It’s reliable. SDSun
[This story was updated on 4/17/23 to reflect the connection between The DSDP and Clean & Safe.]