The Port of San Diego last week approved the $1.2 billion development called Seaport that makes way for new hotels, park land and attractions along the downtown waterfront.
“This is the biggest project that we’ve ever undertaken in the time that I’ve been here,” said Commissioner Robert “Dukie” Valderrama, who has been on the board since 2005. “I think it’s the biggest undertaking that the port has ever taken since its inception.”
Seaport would cover about 70 acres of land and water along downtown’s Central Embarcadero — the land just south of the USS Midway where the waterfront bends around Seaport Village and Ruocco Park — and replace those landmarks with two hotels, a hostel, a 480-foot Spire, an aquarium, acres of public parks, retail space, a charter school, underground parking and a revitalized marina.
There is much at stake.
That land belongs to the public, and though the port acts as its steward, San Diegans are ultimately responsible for assuring it’s developed for the greatest public good. As it stands today, many stakeholders support Seaport, and have helped craft its development.
But the port has a well-documented history of ignoring or changing plans behind the scenes, piece by piece, to suit its commissioners’ ambitions — as evidenced by changes to the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan, a one-mile stretch of land just north of Seaport detailed in a recent inewsource story.
In light of that history, inewsource has compiled a list of four things that have the potential to change Seaport’s design, footprint and use. These are things the public should watch closely.
Shades of the North Embarcadero
By far the biggest criticism of the port’s North Embarcadero Visionary Plan was, and still is, the amount of land designated for the public along its one-mile strip.
The visionary plan, and resulting Port Master Plan Amendment, called for a large oval park at the foot of Broadway Pier, parks on Navy and Broadway Piers, and rebuilt, publicly accessible piers at the end of Grape Street. Today, Broadway Pier hosts an overflow cruise ship terminal that generates very little income and sits empty most days. Navy Pier, alongside the USS Midway, is still a parking lot. The Grape Street piers are rotting and inaccessible, and the oval park is nonexistent.
The Seaport proposal dedicates 75 percent of its 40 acres of land “to parks and public open space” with esplanades, plazas, a public pier, beaches and a rooftop park. “Seaport has been thoughtfully planned,” the proposal reads, “always keeping in mind that the Port’s tidelands belong to the public…”
Yehudi Gaffen, who is leading the project, told inewsource in August, “That 75 percent, I believe, will be there whatever configuration” the project ends up taking.
Yet in a supplemental report submitted by Seaport to the port district, the developers dropped that number to 70 percent if certain elements — such as the proposed pool or beaches — are not approved by regulatory agencies.
“The number 75 is not a critical number to me,” Port Commissioner Bob Nelson said at last week’s public meeting, and clarified that although he wanted to see it “up around 70 to 75 percent,” there is a “little bit of flexibility in this.”
The old men and the sea
There was once a booming commercial fishing industry in San Diego, one that employed thousands of workers and defined the city as “The Tuna Capital of the World.” Those halcyon days died decades ago, and a thriving “working waterfront” has remained a dream among today’s aging generation of fishermen.
Seaport aims to make that dream a reality.
Part of Gaffen’s plan is to revive that legacy industry by capitalizing on the findings of a 2010 study that suggested linking San Diego Bay’s two commercial fishing marinas, Tuna Harbor and Driscoll’s Wharf, and investing in aquaculture and new construction.
San Diego’s commercial fishermen, by nature a skeptical and solitary bunch, have come together to work with Gaffen to hash out that vision: Who will run the day-to-day at the docks? Will the fishermen mix with yachts and other tourists in the marina waters, or will they be able to call it home? Who’s going to pay to fix infrastructure problems at both harbors?
The two parties recently reached a point of compromise and mutual support. Speaking in front of the board on Tuesday, commercial fisherman Phil Harris described some of those compromises — including a commitment from Gaffen to allow the fishermen to manage the marinas as part of a cooperative.
But, he said, if things look like they’re headed in the direction that the North Embarcadero project took, “we won’t hesitate to withdraw our support.”
Without the fishermen’s support, which carries far more weight than their numbers would convey, regulatory agencies such as the port or the California Coastal Commission could throw a wrench into the Seaport plans.
Lawsuits, lawsuits, lawsuits
By now it’s a safe assumption that anything built along San Diego’s waterfront will elicit litigation, almost certainly from local environmental attorney Cory Briggs and possibly others. Briggs, on behalf of the nonprofit Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, filed three lawsuits over the North Embarcadero for the loss of the oval park, the commercialization and loss of public space on Broadway Pier and the construction of the Broadway Pavilion, and more than a dozen in total against the port since 2007.
In July, Briggs and the coalition threatened to sue the port again over “all major projects” — a lineup which includes Seaport — “due to the District’s piecemeal nature of waterfront planning.”
He has asked the port to create a citizens advisory committee and dedicate staff to accelerate the completion of an integrated planning process.
Though Briggs lost all three cases over the North Embarcadero, he did craft an agreement with the port in 2010 that changed the vision and enabled the district to skirt its own master plan — which is state law.
Briggs, in his first and only interview with inewsource, said in February 2015 the legal agreement was a compromise, reached before he lost one of the lawsuits. The result was a park across Harbor Drive from the water, 150 feet wide and adjacent to Lane Field, in place of the multi-block waterfront park promised in the vision.
If Briggs or any others sue on Seaport, dramatic changes to the plan could result.
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What lies beneath
In the same August interview with inewsource, Gaffen described a nightmare scenario in which he found a major earthquake fault underneath the Seaport footprint. With a 480-foot tower, underground parking and a charter school proposed, a finding like that could be devastating.
“God forbid there is a major fault that comes through,” Gaffen said. “It may lead to us redesigning our project.”
That’s not likely, according to Eric Frost, who specializes in earthquakes and directs San Diego State University’s Visualization Center for emergency response.
“The main strand of the Rose Canyon fault is on the eastern side of downtown,” Frost said. “It’s not along the waterfront.”
The real problems Seaport will need to face, Frost said, are liquefaction and contaminants.
All the land surrounding the bay is mud, and during an earthquake can immediately turn into liquid — “liquefaction ” — which can topple buildings and swallow cars, roads and people.
“When downtown San Diego was built, no one ever heard of the word,” Frost said. Today, developers and construction companies are well aware of the potential threat, one easily remedied by digging deeper than 50 feet — where liquefaction occurs — and removing the mud, or tamping it down.
Removing the mud may also solve the problem of contaminants that are likely to be in the ground around the bay.
“That’s a place where there has been a lot of industry, a lot of Navy activity, construction, manufacturing …,” Frost said of the Central Embarcadero. “During World War II, people didn’t think about, ‘Oh, this stuff is going in the ground.’ They were trying to build airplanes.”
Gaffen and his team will know more about what lies beneath the Central Embarcadero in the coming months, and how — if at all — the findings will affect the project. According to Frost, whatever they find should be manageable.
“And that’s actually where journalism is a nice watchdog, of saying ‘Are you doing this?’” Frost said. “It makes way more sense to pay up front to build a quality building than to do something stupid and rebuild a building.”
PS: The reality of building things
Gaffen and members of the port board have acknowledged that development of this scope may not come out of the ground as originally envisioned, but that there is a commitment to keeping things as close as possible to what was approved.
“If there’s an expectation that every single thing that happens in that drawing is exactly what we’re going to get, I don’t have that expectation,” Commissioner Nelson said. “I think it will be substantially, substantially similar to what we approve, but if one thing changes or two things change — I’d be shocked if they didn’t.”
Keep a weather eye, as they say.