Tucked between a freeway, a Navy base and three large shipyards, Barrio Logan is not frequently part of the land-use disputes that roil City Hall.
But now the blue-collar, largely Latino neighborhood is at the center of a high-profile fight that pits the Democratic majority on the City Council and environmental health activists against the business establishment and the city’s Republican mayor.
On Tuesday’s ballot are two measures that would rezone part of Barrio Logan to restrict further industrial development and encourage housing and shopping in the neighborhood.
Residents say their health is damaged by the industry in their neighborhood: machine shops, recycling centers, welding and metal fabrication businesses, car repair and dismantling shops, and more.
“We can’t have these toxic polluters near homes and schools — our children need to breathe,” said Elva Martinez, 50. Her son Robert, 18, suffered severe asthma attacks as a child and still uses an inhaler, she said.
A business coalition said Martinez and others are wrong and attributed the health problems in Barrio Logan primarily to the nearby 5 Freeway.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer and others insist that Propositions B and C, if adopted, could cost jobs at small and medium-sized industrial businesses and could even imperil the future of the shipyards: BAE Systems, Continental Maritime and the mammoth General Dynamics Nassco, all major economic drivers.
“For generations these shipyards have contributed to economic development and jobs in Barrio Logan,” Faulconer said at news conference outside City Hall as opponents tried to drown him out by shouting, “Stop lying! Why do you hate Barrio Logan?”
The fight over Barrio Logan is the second of what may be three major clashes this year between the City Council and the city’s business establishment.
First came a tax the council placed on construction projects to provide low-income housing. When the business community waged a petition campaign against it, the council backed down in March.
The Barrio Logan plan was adopted by the council on a party-line vote, setting off a petition campaign by the business community that put the measures on the ballot.
Later this year, the council may vote to boost the city’s minimum wage, which is already being opposed by business leaders.
Steve Erie, political science professor at UC San Diego, said the three battles are a sign that San Diego’s power structure is shifting from Republican to Democrat.
“Once red and [now] trending blue, [San Diego] is up for grabs politically, and partisan battles are the order of the day,” Erie said.
With both sides overstating their case, Erie said, the winner will be the side that spends the most on advertising. If so, that favors the business coalition, which has a television campaign backed by the shipyards and featuring former Mayor Jerry Sanders, now chief executive of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.
More housing would mean more people exposed to the fumes of the freeway, and that could mean people would begin demanding that the shipyards leave, opponents say.
The two measures “threaten the repair capability of our Navy,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. Len Hering, one of 12 retired admirals opposing the measures.
But Councilman David Alvarez, who lost to Faulconer in February’s mayoral election, said the issue is one of justice.
“This is a fight to right the wrongs that have been done to Barrio Logan for years,” he said. “This is a working-class neighborhood whose voice in the past has been drowned out by people who have lobbyists and consultants.”
Alvarez grew up in Barrio Logan and feels his asthma was caused, or at least exacerbated, by toxic fumes. The Alvarez family lived in a small house behind the Martinez house — with a machine shop on one side and a plating business, now gone, on the other.
Martinez’s niece Cuicani Villegas, 5, needs to use her inhaler when she begins coughing and gasping for breath after riding her bike.
The girl’s father, Hector Villegas, 37, a muralist, remembers the Barrio Logan of his youth. “You could taste it, the metal, the rust, the oil. It was in the air,” he said.
Barrio Logan is one of San Diego’s oldest neighborhoods, dating to the late 19th century and named for . John Logan, a congressman. When refugees from the Mexican Revolution of 1910 fled to the area, “Barrio” was added to the neighborhood’s name.
If the measures are defeated, Faulconer has promised to resume negotiations to find a compromise.
But Villegas, who supports measures B and C, hopes the political fight rekindles some of the activism that led to the establishment of Chicano Park in the 1970s.
“We’ve had a culture of not complaining,” Villegas said. “That’s a bad culture to have in Barrio Logan.”