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Uncertainty washes over downtown waterfront project

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Aired 4/19/09

San Diego appears to be applying the brakes to a redevelopment project that could re-define the city's downtown landscape. The Center City Development Corporation has postponed its final public hearing on the bay front Navy Broadway Complex until September. That means more time for city staff to evaluate the Manchester Group's plan - and more time for public debate over what to do with a site, often called San Diego's front porch. KPBS reporter Alison St. John has more.

It is arguably the most scenic spot for an office building anywhere in San Diego The sun sparkles on the Bay, an onshore breeze brings waves lapping gently against the embarcadero and tourist bicycle taxis ply the wide sidewalks. This is the Navy Broadway site where the white navy office blocks lining Harbor Drive will be replaced by . . .well. . . What?

New architecture graduate Tillie Whitehead, let her imagination run wild and produced for her graduation thesis a design with a landscaped lake and a public concert hall in the middle.

WHITEHEAD: "I cut into the site, brought the water in so the site could connect to the water and then built out this is the music pavilion so you'd actually go over this bridge over to this pavilion and its just green rolling hills down into the stage."

Green rolling hills? In the center of town? Whitehead admits her design had no cost limitations, but she says she was inspired by the well known Millennium Park which has transformed Chicago's downtown. The point of her effort is to Dream Big, and create a memorable public space.

The plans produced by San Diego developer, Doug Manchester, are more conventional. They suggest almost three million square feet of buildings, including a new office block for the Navy, a 40-story high hotel and about five acres of promenades and public open space.

Recent versions of the plan have included design elements to appeal to the public, like a signature dome. But adding architectural features like a dome may be window dressing at this point.

GENSLER: "The issue now is not whether it's a dome or a pyramid or what it is."

Arthur Gensler, the lead architect for the project, says it's all about the so- called foot print of the buildings.

GENSLER: "The issue now is to make sure that we comply with the data and the graphical info that they want make sure we meet all the set backs and the steps and that we create a character of the building that is an appropriate one for San Diego and for the location."

The plan is based on a 1992 redevelopment agreement between the city and the Navy, an agreement that's been updated several times. But this time plan is the real thing, and the city is looking for a vision for downtown not just evidence the plan complies with the rules and regulations. Wayne Raffesberger is a board member of the city's redevelopment agency, the CCDC.

RAFFESBERGER: "There isn't an objective sheet that we're going from - check this, check that, you know - automatically they are approved."

Raffesberger says he wont be ready to sign off on the plan until he sees something stunning, and worthy of San Diego's prime waterfront site.

Raffesberger: "The bottom line is as far as I'm concerned is we can say no."

While the city's redevelopment agency is refusing to rubber stamp the plan, the developer is determined to meet an end of the year deadline to finalize a lease agreement with the navy. Manchester spokesman Perry Dealy says though the plans have changed half a dozen times already, that's because it's an evolving project.

Dealy: "You do want to continue refining it to accommodate a lot of the issue the public and the community and agencies, as well as from our own to make sure the project is a good investment."

Dealy says the project is financially challenging because Manchester has to cover the costs of building new offices for the Navy with proceeds from the rest of the commercial development. Peter Q Davis, former head of the city redevelopment agency and of the Port District, is highly skeptical of Manchester's claims that it's a tough project to make a profit on.

DAVIS: "Mr. Manchester's spokesman will tell you that this is a break even deal that they can hardly put it together--it doesn't wash. Mr. Manchester needs to understand this doesn't have to max out to pencil out."

Davis estimates Manchester could cover the cost of the Navy office in three to five years and use the rest of the term of the lease as profit. His calculations are rough, but since the whole lease agreement between the navy and the developer is confidential, it's impossible to confirm or deny.

Architecture student Tilly Whitehead acknowledges there are hard financial realities to deal with on any downtown development, but she says, that doesn't mean the public should give up hope for an inspirational design.

TILLY: "I think it's important we don't sight of the dream as we go in with this development."

While the community and the developer wrestle with creating a vision for the prime waterfront site, the Navy fervently hopes something will be finalized by the end of the year. Without an approved lease agreement by December 31st, they lose the best spot for an office in San Diego, as the Federal government steps in and takes over the site.

Alison St John, KPBS News.

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