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Memo on Navy Broadway Complex Stirs Up Semantics Debate

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Aired 10/2/09

Opponents of the Navy Broadway Complex are seizing on the Navy's choice of a single word inserted into a city memo to describe whether its contract with San Diego to build the project can be reconsidered.

Opponents of the Navy Broadway Complex are seizing on the Navy's choice of a single word inserted into a city memo to describe whether its contract with San Diego to build the project can be reconsidered.

Artist's rendering of Doug Manchester's proposed redevelopment of the Navy Broadway Complex.
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Above: Artist's rendering of Doug Manchester's proposed redevelopment of the Navy Broadway Complex.

Words matter in any dispute. So when the Navy wrote in a memo it didn't believe reconsideration of its 1992 agreement with the city allowing construction of the Navy Broadway Complex would be ethical, the opposition pounced.

"What's so striking is they don't mention whether it would be legal. And we've been arguing that it would be legal. They don't seem to want to have to answer that question."

Cory Briggs is an attorney for the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition. The group wants to stop the plan to build hotels, shops, offices and new Naval administrative headquarters on 16 acres of prime real estate along San Diego's waterfront.

Briggs isn't the only who's parsing the Navy's language.

"It's an interesting choice of words. I think what we've always been arguing is that the context for this project has changed and that the approvals were provided many, many years ago when downtown was a very different place."

It was Councilman Todd Gloria who posed a series of questions that elicited the Navy's answer.

"I think what we were trying to do is explore what is possible here. The fact that they have not broken ground on the project still provides us with an opportunity to reconsider what should be there."

But the Navy's Captain Matt Brown says there is no wiggle room to reconsider.

"There should be no significance placed on the language in the memo that went to the city where the term ‘ethical’ was used. We believe that the Navy and the city have an agreement and whether you choose to use the word legal or ethical. We believe yes, it is a binding contract," says Brown.

The question about the Navy's agreement with the city was one of several Councilman Gloria posed to Mayor Jerry Sanders and Fred Maas at the Center City Development Corporation. The questions dealt with the Navy's lease with its project developer Manchester Pacific Gateway. But they also asked whether a study had been done to see if other land exists where the Navy's headquarters could be built, whether the project makes sense given the economic slowdown, whether military-civilian operations can co-exist without jeopardizing public safety, and whether the city council has any basis to reconsider its previous approval of the proposed Broadway Navy Complex.

The mayor's office declined to answer those questions and turned them over to the Navy. Attorney Briggs says that move is revealing.

"We now have the smoking gun proving that the mayor and the CCDC are letting the Navy call all the shots on the Navy Broadway Complex,” says Briggs. “So who in city government is looking out for the taxpayers' best interests in this project? It sure looks like the answer is nobody. The project requires the city to provide all of the utilities and infrastructure to the project for free. This city is broke. The city cannot afford to do that."

"The actual contractual relationship is between Manchester Financial and the Navy," says Fred Maas is chairman of the CCDC.

"The Shots are not really to be called by CCDC. We've been out of the process for a long time,” he says. “Our limited role throughout the entirety of the NBC project has been as a design review agent of the city council. We've had no authority whatsoever to negotiate at all on behalf of the city."

So what about the city? Do officials think they can renegotiate the agreement with the Navy?

"No. Besides being poor public policy, and setting a bad precedent, reneging on our development agreement would have pretty serious legal and financial repercussion which the city I don't think is prepared to bear,” says Maas.

Rachel Laing of Mayor Jerry Sanders' office doesn't believe, unlike opponents of the project, that the Navy is offering the city any legal wiggle room in reconsidering its agreement to allow the Navy Broadway Complex. In fact, she contends when the Navy says the city's reconsideration of the contract wouldn't be ethical, that's a thinly veiled threat that there might be legal action.

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