Editor’s note: Steve Preston has served as San Gabriel’s City Manager since 2009. After 19 years with the city, Steve will be retiring in January 2018. In this brief interview, we asked him to reflect upon his service and the city’s accomplishments during his tenure.
Could you describe the social and economic landscape of San Gabriel when you joined the city, and when you began your tenure as City Manager?
I came to San Gabriel in January 1999. In my first weeks on the job, I had the opportunity to bring in an economic development expert to evaluate the city. The expert had several interesting observations: why does the city look so worn, and why doesn’t the city have higher standards for its development? That was sad – but important – to hear, and the Council took that concern to heart.
The idea was that if the infrastructure of the city is looking old and damaged, it’s a less desirable place for people to invest. So for most of my years in San Gabriel, we’ve been putting our efforts in generating funds for infrastructure. At the time, the city didn’t have a master sewer plan or a long-term street paving master plan. With an engineering staff of one, we put together our first street paving program with a budget of one million dollars. We were thrilled, because we doubled or tripled the amount of money going to street paving. But now, we might produce four to five million dollars in a good year of street paving, so it shows how far we’ve come since 1999. And we have beautified our corridors with street trees, utility undergrounding, and more.
When I became City Manager in 2009, we had made some progress on issues like street paving and the economy, but I became City Manager right as we were entering into the deepest recession of the era. We spent two or three years digging deep to keep our basic city services running even though there were drops in revenue across the board. But we came out of it strong, and I’m proud of where the city is.
What were the city’s biggest challenges when you were appointed City Manager?
My first assignment was to improve our communication with residents. We re-envisioned our publications, launched a new website, increased public notices, created a whole portfolio of social media, started a popular e-newsletter, City Beat, and began aggressively developing community engagement and cultural events to build bridges.
The combination of the economy and the recession meant that we had to go to our employees and ask them to contribute to their retirement plan. That created several years of challenging labor negotiations and legal challenges, but we have worked together to address those issues.
Have there been any notable developments or accomplishments that the city has accomplished?
Over my time here, we’ve gone from having no standards for design quality to having clear, comprehensive standards. A city that had never received an award for its planning has now attracted a number of awards for its planning, economic development, and sustainability programs.
We are also paving more streets than we have before, and we’re now putting more money into sewer retrofits than in any time in our history. We have built a new public works facility (the first new city facility since 1962), and are about to build a new police facility. And Marshall Park, opening soon, will be our first new park in almost 20 years.
Of course, there’s the three hotels that have been built during my time here, such as the Hilton – which has some of the highest occupancy rates in the San Gabriel Valley – and the new Sheraton, along with an upcoming new hotel at Valley and Del Mar. I don’t think there’s any room for more hotels in the city, but I think we’ve done a good job figuring out how to capture the tourist and business investment in our city. But we are still working to secure retail and grocery uses.
What are some of the challenges that the city should be mindful of moving forward?
The first is the long term financial sustainability of cities in general. That’s a function of both what happens in the state legislature, and what happens with the economy. San Gabriel has grown its resources in a tremendous way in recent years, but we are not a city that can rely on its wealth as the solution to all problems, and the rapidly increasing cost of insurance, health, and other issues will continue to pose challenges.
Another challenge is housing. Affordable housing is tough to come by in San Gabriel. There is no land for us to build it on, and there’s very little in the way of financial resources to construct new housing. And yet the state legislature has put in place an aggressive strategy for producing new housing over the next decade. San Gabriel is going to have to get on board with that and figure out how to provide that housing in a way is reasonable, comfortable to its citizens, and meets the objective of providing affordability in a region where affordable housing is hard to produce.
Finally, I think the continuing evolution of the city is a huge opportunity. San Gabriel is a different community today than when I first got here, and a very different community than it was 30 years ago. Learning how to embrace those changes and to embrace all the people and cultures that make San Gabriel unique is going to remain high on our agenda for the next 20 years to come.
Finally, what does San Gabriel mean to you?
My mother called me one day after I took this job and said “you finally did it.” I said “I finally did what?” and she responded, “When you were a little kid and you were thinking of working in government, you said to me that someday you’d like to work in a city that had a mission.” I had forgotten that I had this dream of working for a city that had a mission, but I finally got the chance to work in one.
From my earliest days here, I knew that if I was having a tough day or a stressful day, I could stroll over to the mission, wander through the gardens and experience that peace and serenity and know that this was something unique that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. The history and culture of San Gabriel is something that makes it unique. This is a really special place on the landscape, and we would be very smart never to allow the changes that occur here to diminish those characteristics. This is a city of wonderful people and I will always treasure the people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing here.