View from Presidio
A rendering of the view from the Presido after 30 years of development of the site. Courtesy of the Navy

In 1984, I received job offers from the U.S. Attorneys’ offices in both Los Angeles and San Diego. Although the position in Los Angeles might, arguably, have presented me with greater opportunities to handle noteworthy cases, my wife and I didn’t relish the prospect of raising a family in a city beset by, among other things, monumental traffic jams and constant pollution.

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LA was a city that had paved over its main river (yes, Virginia, there is a river running through Los Angeles), converting it into an enormous concrete channel. Clearly, LA was not the land of milk and honey or the golden state paradise envisioned by people born and raised on the East Coast.   

At the same time, San Diego actually held the promise of truly being “America’s Finest City.” Along with what might be the best weather in the country, the city had minimal traffic and virtually no air pollution, with wide-open undeveloped areas, numerous parks, and varied outdoor activities accessible to all. 

The decision to raise our family in San Diego was an easy one. One we have never regretted.

Unfortunately, over the years, our politicians have too often tarnished and twisted the label of America’s Finest City — until it is now more of a slogan than a promise. The beautiful canyons and cliffs of Mission, Carmel, and Sorrento valleys (to name just a few) have been transformed into malls, parking lots, and concrete thoroughfares.

Our highways are jammed at all the major intersections as we creep ever closer to Los Angeles-style levels of congestion. Developers have been allowed to build needed housing developments without incorporating adequate green space for hiking, bicycling, camping, and other outdoor activities.

Now, unbeknownst to most of the general public, the city of San Diego and the Navy are supporting a massive redevelopment project that would bring San Diego a giant step closer to becoming another Los Angeles. This project seeks to modernize the old NAVWAR site (a collection of buildings alongside Pacific Highway just east of Old Town) and the Navy’s Old Town Campus (a contiguous area running along Midway Drive containing parking lots and storage facilities).

However, what is being sold as progress is simply a giveaway to developers that will inexorably lead to further deterioration in the very quality of life we all prize in living, working, and vacationing in this still beautiful city.

The proposal being pushed by the Navy and city (but opposed by more than 90% of residents polled on the topic) would replace the existing NAVWAR buildings with as many as 106 new edifices, including as many as 65 high-rise buildings that would be as tall as 350 feet (more than 30 stories) and encompass millions of square feet of commercial, hotel and residential space — while doing absolutely nothing to address the city’s critical lack of affordable housing and the problems of its homeless population.  

Even under the Navy’s most rosy predictions, any of its favored alternatives would take 30 years to complete, and result in an additional 70,000 daily auto trips, leading in the interim to major traffic slowdowns on Interstates 8 and 5, and significantly increasing travel time to downtown, the airport, Mission Bay, and our beaches. The Navy estimates that the I-5 northbound on-ramp at Old Town Avenue will experience staggering lines of over 500 cars long during rush hours with wait times of more than 1½ hours.

Either Mayor Todd Gloria has not lately travelled on these already jam-packed roads or, more likely, he simply doesn’t care if the developers continue to turn our city into another Los Angeles.

The Navy’s cursory environmental impact statement blithely notes that the area’s air quality would likely diminish (i.e., increased air pollution), and the project’s visual impact would be “significant and unavoidable” affecting “19 historic properties located within a half-mile.” Translation: the project will completely transform and disfigure the character of several of our tourist and cultural jewels.  

Although Congressman Scott Peter’s staffers were reputedly aghast upon seeing pictures of the proposed project in his district, the Congressman has curiously not voiced a single objection to either the Navy or the city. Similarly, we’ve heard only “crickets” from Congresswoman Sara Jacobs (whose district lies within feet of the project).  

Among other negative impacts, the proposal favored by both the city and Navy will permanently blemish the character of neighboring Presidio Park, which features 40 acres of green open space, picnic areas, and memorials commemorating both the original Kumeyaay inhabitants and California’s early European settlers.

Sadly, the effects on Historic Old Town would be even more calamitous, as this treasured glimpse into colonial life in San Diego will be plagued by increased traffic and noise; and the proposed skyscrapers will tower over the park — casting a permanent shadow on its tranquility and beauty.

The city and the Navy should no more be allowed to build their project at this location than they should be allowed to build it next to Williamsburg, Virginia, or Salem, Massachusetts.

The only real benefit the city and Navy claim for this obscene project is a new rapid transit hub, which they refer to as “San Diego’s Grand Central Station.” But this new $4 billion hub would be located less than a mile from the existing Old Town transit hub and three miles from downtown.

And, it will still lack a rail connection to the airport, Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, or La Jolla. Rather than a Grand Central Station, it more closely resembles “Unnecessary Auxiliary Political Pork.”  

Fortunately, the Navy has presented an alternative which would simply require renovating the old NAVWAR buildings. Although the Navy and city appear to dismiss this low-cost alternative out of hand, it would allow the city to develop the rest of the area as part of a “Bay to Bay River Park.” 

This solution offers San Diegans with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set aside public space for the people without having to purchase land from private developers (the Navy can simply transfer it to the city).  For once, we may be able to take down a parking lot and put up a paradise.  

Phillip Halpern was an assistant U.S. attorney for 36 years in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego