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Will The Arts Save The Embarcadero?


The Port of San Diego's plan to renovate the Embarcadero is stalled because of a dispute between the Port Commission and the state Coastal Commission over a park first proposed by the Port and later removed from its plan. Now, a developer has proposed that the San Diego arts community be a major player in the project.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. San Diego's waterfront is one of its greatest treasures, but how to use the bayfront's public property to its best advantage has been a bone of contention for quite some time. For the rest of the hour we'll be talking about projects proposed to enhance San Diego's waterfront from the Embarcadero to the Coronado Bay Bridge. These ideas for public art and recreation face stiff challenges in a time of economic recession and vacillating political support. Joining us first to talk about the ongoing effort to enhance San Diego’s Embarcadero is my guest, KPBS metro reporter, Katie Orr. Katie, good morning.

KATIE ORR (KPBS Metro Reporter): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Remind us about what the original Embarcadero project was because you’re going to tell us that there’s a new proposal to get the Embarcadero renovation going again. But if we don’t know what it was to begin with, we’re not going to know, we’re not going to care about why we want it to go again. So what are they planning to do?

ORR: Well, the plan is to basically renovate the waterfront from about Seaport Village all the way down Harbor Drive across from the airport. In total, it’s about a $230 million project and it involves, you know, making it a more pleasant place for people to come down. That’s often called San Diego’s front porch, and it’s sort of a renovation of the front porch.

CAVANAUGH: So why is it stalled now?

ORR: Well, the latest hitch is they were going to get started on Phase I of the project, about a $28 million project, but the Port in its final plans for Phase I had left out a large oval park at the end of Broadway right at the beginning of Broadway Pier. And open space advocates had said wait a second, you know, where is that park. You had always planned to put this park there. The Port said no, it was a conceptual park and now that we built the cruise ship terminal there, we need that to be a space that trucks can get through to get to and from the cruise ships. And so that is the sticking point right now.

CAVANAUGH: Now, because – So in other words, the cruise terminal was built after the idea of this public park was approved.

ORR: Well, the park was never approved.


ORR: It was in the plan, and then when the Port submitted the final master plan, the park was not in the plan and these open space advocates and Coastal Commission staff as well, were – said, you know, wait a second. Where did this park go? And the Port said, no, it was just conceptual. Now we need the space. They’re proposing a large plaza instead but not like park and grassland because, again, they need these trucks to be able to get on and off the pier to unload the cruise ships that are going to be docked there.

CAVANAUGH: But apparently the Coastal Commission is not buying that argument.

ORR: Right, the Coastal Commission agreed with the staff. Well, the Coastal Commission, in April, voted 5-5 to – they tied on whether or not to approve the master plan, and they needed 6 votes to approve it. So basically the Coastal Commission said that the Port had to go back and negotiate with these open space advocates who were angling for the park and see if they could come up with a compromise, which is what they’re trying to do right now.

CAVANAUGH: Do we know how that – those talks are going? Any compromise in sight?

ORR: Well, I spoke to one of the open space advocates involved and he said they’re talking but nothing so far from their side has really progressed at this moment but the negotiations are ongoing.

CAVANAUGH: So now comes a developer named David Malmuth who has a new idea for getting the Embarcadero renovation back on track, and it involves a heavy participation of the arts. Tell us first, who is David Malmuth?

ORR: David Malmuth is a developer and he’s worked on the 42nd Street project in New York. He’s in San Diego. He’s lived here for the past 15 years. And he’s interested in using the arts as a tool to revitalize the Embarcadero. He’s also putting on an arts conference in San Diego in September called “Art San Diego.”

CAVANAUGH: So what did he hope for by stepping in like this?

ORR: Well, he says he thought someone who was new to the situation might be able to shake things free a bit.

DAVID MALMUTH (Developer): This is my city, this is my backyard. I felt like maybe a neutral party stepping in and bringing a different perspective or a different process might be able to get parties to work together that, you know, heretofore hadn’t been willing to do that.

CAVANAUGH: So the idea of integrating more arts projects along this stretch of Embarcadero, is he the only voice basically that’s been talking about this kind of arts and entertainment area?

ORR: Well, he is the first one to really come forward and say like let’s use this as a vehicle for reinventing the Embarcadero, and there were several meet – artists – He had a meeting on Saturday and there were several artists there who appeared to be interested in his ideas. Don Wood is a waterfront advocate who’s been involved with negotiations with the Port, and he says that the arts can be involved but he doesn’t want to see them be the whole thing.

DON WOOD (Waterfront Advocate): I do think that there needs to be a place for the arts on the waterfront. I think that arts and culture need to be built into planning for the waterfront. I don’t think they can dominate it. I think that public space is as important, parks and increased public access.

ORR: There’s also – Ian Campbell is the general and artistic director of the San Diego Opera. Back when I was doing my series on the development of downtown San Diego, I spoke with him and he said he would support – he has a concept of putting a big arts center on the water there, you know, no definite plans or anything but he says in the future he thinks it would be great if there was a big arts center on the water to draw people down there as well.

CAVANAUGH: I know that he’s made comparisons to the Sydney Opera – the opera hall…

ORR: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …in Sydney that, you know, is like that iconic structure…

ORR: Yeah, and he…

CAVANAUGH: …in Australia.

ORR: Yeah. Yeah, everyone thinks of the opera house when they think of Sydney and it’s this beautiful building and it’s a center for the arts and I’m – I think he’d like to see something like that here in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: And why, specifically, do people who advocate this, David Malmuth and Ian Campbell and so forth, believe that that would be a – generate some real – real interest for San Diego that would really spruce up the waterfront?

ORR: Well, it’s sort of looking at the situation from the opposite angle. I think right now people are looking at it as we’ll make some renovations, we’ll physically make it a nicer place to go and that will draw people. You know, David Malmuth is saying, well, listen, let’s get activities down there that draw people to the area so that they become more invested in it. You know, they go down there to see an art show or to hear a music performance or see a dance performance. They get down to the area and they realize that it’s a place that maybe they would like to see improved upon and then the public’s interest drives the renovations.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, so while the Port of San Diego is in conference with activists who want to see – to try to come up with some sort of compromise on this whole park proposal…

ORR: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …at the foot of Broadway, where is David Malmuth with his idea about having – revitalizing this area with arts projects?

ORR: Well, originally he had spoken to the Port and they had agreed to give him $120,000 to sponsor a series of 3 day-long workshops where they would get an artist and the involved parties, the activists, the Port, and try and hammer out some kind of agreement, some programming ideas down there. A couple weeks before the first workshop was to take place, the Port decided that it wanted to wait. It didn’t want to go ahead with the workshops right now, so they didn’t fund the money. The money was to go to pay for some architects to help facilitate those meetings for the most part. But David Malmuth decided that he wanted to go for it on his own so he had a half-day workshop last Saturday and next week he’s going to have a meeting with different arts organizations to try and get their ideas about what could happen down at the waterfront and then he says he’ll talk about it at his “Art San Diego” conference in September.

CAVANAUGH: I see, so he’s pursuing this idea and basically setting forth the cash for these meetings himself?

ORR: Right, we’ll they’re definitely scaled down. He’s not having the three day-long versions anymore. He had that half-day session that was open to the public and then it sounds like the meeting on the 21st is really an invite meeting. He’ll reach out to the arts organizations and bring them in. And then the conference, it’s a – you know, you pay to go to the conference in September.

CAVANAUGH: Is there any reason that we know of that the Port pulled the plug on this project for Malmuth?

ORR: Well, I asked the Port why they did that and, yeah, I got a statement back saying, you know, they really support public input but because they’re going through negotiations with activists right now, they say it’s a delicate time and they thought it was best not to complicate the situation with public outreach at this time. So they’re saying because of the negotiations they’re in, they want to focus on those and not put their energies towards another concept for the waterpoint – waterfront right now.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So, in addition to the park that’s under – that is so controversial now, what else would this waterfront renovation do to that whole area that we’re so familiar with along Harbor Drive?

ORR: Well, it would widen the walkways there. They would put in some benches. They would put in plazas, a lot of jacaranda trees. There is talk about making the Navy Pier right next to the Midway a park. Right now it’s a parking lot for cars going to the Midway. And I think there’s general agreement that people would like to see that become a park for people, you know, so you can have the view, and not your car, of the water. So that is one phase. And then – And so right now it’s just this first part of the Embarcadero and as the project goes on, it’ll reach further down towards – down Harbor Lane towards the airport.

CAVANAUGH: Now is there – This is a hard question to answer and I don’t know if you can. But is there a lot of public support for this project?

ORR: Well, I know that it was something that the Port and that the mayor and several city council members were really hoping would happen, and when the Coastal Commission basically denied the project in April, you know, they were really disappointed because, you know, they might – The Port says that they have to go back and revamp their master plan, that it will take up to two years. There’s some concern that the money that’s set aside for this project will be siphoned off, you know, just to other things as time goes by. So the politicians were upset. Of course, you know, the waterfront activists say, you know what, we think that the cruise ship industry is hijacking this project. The cruise ships bring in a lot of money to San Diego. They say every cruise ship that stops here generates about $2 million for the economy. So the activists are – believe that the cruise ship industry’s money is sort of controlling this project so, you know, they’re happy to try and negotiate out some kind of other agreement.

CAVANAUGH: And besides the area – the Navy complex that you were talking about, we are talking about public lands, right?

ORR: Yeah, it’s – there are public tidelands there.


ORR: So, you know, it is – it’s public land. And I guess it just depends on what side of it you’re coming from. You know, the Port certainly thinks they’re doing a great thing for the public by improving that area, and activists say, you know, listen, we want more park space. We want a gathering spot in San Diego on our front porch where we can go and have civic celebrations and just enjoy the waterfront.

CAVANAUGH: And talk to me just a little bit more about the money. There’s – there apparently money set aside for this project but there is the fear at least that it could basically be sort of whittled away if this goes on and on with no resolution?

ORR: Well, right now the money for Phase I, it’s about $28 million, is there. You know, if the Port – if the Coastal Commission had given its okay for this project, the Port says they could’ve started construction in December. And, you know, there – I don’t believe that there’s anyone with any, you know, eyes on their money but I guess people are just worried that the longer this project sits, other priorities come up. You know, the city is facing a huge funding gap. I believe CCDC contributed some money to this project as well; they might have other priorities. I guess people are just worried that this project will fall further and further down the list, and if you have $30 million sitting there…


ORR: …you know…

CAVANAUGH: It’ll find a place to go.

ORR: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Now where are we now in the scheme of things? We have – You told us about David Malmuth and he has a public meeting coming up when?

ORR: Well, he is meeting with arts organizations on the 21st of this month to talk about specific programming ideas and what they think their organizations could bring to the waterfront. He’s having a conference in San Diego on September – in September regarding – it’s a large arts conference but he’ll be talking about this there as well. And in the meantime, the Port and its critics are continuing to meet, trying to negotiate a compromise. You know, if we can’t have this oval park at the foot of Broadway, is there a place we can put it to mitigate the loss of that park? And that might be what they’re talking about. You know, and the negotiations are ongoing.

CAVANAUGH: They have no deadline to resolve this?

ORR: No, they just have to go back to the Coastal Commission, although the activists have filed a lawsuit and there will be a hearing in the fall so I – you know, there’s definitely that time pressure. You know, they have to reach a settlement unless they want to go to court.

CAVANAUGH: We have a phone call. Ian is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Ian. Welcome to These Days.

IAN (Caller, San Diego): Oh, yeah, good morning. I just wanted to make a couple of comments. You made a comment about a park on the Navy Pier. That’s got nothing to do with the NEVP. It was supposed to be a mitigation for the Midway and it was supposed to have been put in 10 years ago, and the Port still hasn’t done it. That’s one point. The other is that the – a lot of us who are activists support the concept of Embarcadero Visionary Plan until it was altered by the Port by putting a cruise ship terminal on the Broadway Pier, which was supposed to be a public pier. And I’ll leave it at that. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you. And as I said at the very beginning, this has been a bone of contention for a long, long time. Katie, would you like to respond to his comments?

ORR: Well, I – That has been one of the big controversies, the pier on – I’m sorry, the cruise ship terminal on Broadway…


ORR: …Pier. That was supposed to be a temporary facility while they fixed up the B Street Pier but there’s a lot of security regulations with the workers there and making sure the bags are checked and all of that that the Port decided that it needed a permanent structure because they couldn’t meet all the requirements with a tent or something. And that was a big deal because that pier was going to be closed off at certain times for security reasons, limiting the public access to that pier. The Port has said, you know, it will make walkways around the terminal and the terminal, between the terminal and the water there’ll be a plaza that people are allowed to go to. Again, however, you know, not all the time because when certain ships are docked, you can’t just walk up and down, you know, near the ships.

CAVANAUGH: Certainly. I’m wondering, if, indeed, there is some compromise reached by environmental activists and the Port of San Diego about this controversial park space, do you think there’s going to be any chance for these arts organizations to get onboard the Embarcadero plan or do you think, indeed, that they’ll – that there is a good chance that they will just go with their revised plan and take it to the Coastal Commission and get approval?

ORR: Well, you know, from what I can tell, you could still have the park and go forward with the plan and you could still have arts groups come down there and do their performances. You know, you can – if you want to set up a – get a permit and set up a little orchestra on the side of, you know, somewhere on the sidewalk, I don’t see why they wouldn’t be able to go ahead and still do that. So, you know, it’s possible they could work in tandem…


ORR: …with each other.

CAVANAUGH: One big compromise, huh?

ORR: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Katie, thank you so much. Very, very complicated issue. Thanks for clearing it up for us.

ORR: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with KPBS metro reporter Katie Orr. If you’d to comment on what you’ve heard, you can go online, Coming up, we’ll continue to talk about San Diego’s waterfront: the Coronado Bay Bridge lighting project. That’s ahead as we continue here on KPBS.

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