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Proposition B - Is It Technically Feasible

The waterfront around San Diego Bay is some of the most valuable real estate in Southern California. Which is why there's a growing tension between the industrial working waterfront and the commercial

Proposition B - Is It Technically Feasible

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(Photo Credit: Alison St John/KPBS)

The waterfront around San Diego Bay is some of the most valuable real estate in Southern California. Which is why there is a growing tension between the industrial working waterfront and the commercial dreams of developers.

Now a developer has put his dreams on the ballot, with a proposal to build a deck above the existing Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal. He wants to make the space available for a convention center or even a football stadium on top. KPBS reporter Alison St John has more on whether this idea is technically feasible.


Ray Carpenter’s office is full of photographs of the projects his engineering firm has built around San Diego Bay. 

Carpenter : I personally have been working on the bay since 1978.

One of the photos shows a forest of pillars being drilled into the ocean floor to support loading docks for the aircraft carriers on North Island. Carpenter says building a 40 foot high deck on pillars over the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal would create an impossible work environment for the dock workers below.

Carpenter : These right here are relatively far apart, but you still couldn’t get a crane or a truck or a 150 ton load that is 100 feet long in through and maneuver it around, you couldn’t do it.

Carpenter’s firm, R.E. Staite Engineering, built the Convention Center and the Hilton Hotel right next to the Tenth Avenue Marine terminal. So he knows about commercial development. But standing on the edge of the docks at Tenth Avenue he argues against letting commercial development spread south into industrial territory.  


Carpenter : What’s really important is the deep water. Deep water is a commodity that has far more value than the land, because there’s very few areas where you can bring a ship in alongside a flat area to unload the commodity.

The docks are also right next to a railway line.

Carpenter : There was more tonnage went through here up until the late '30s than Los Angeles.   

But the docks have declined in importance, partly because San Diego is at the end of the railway line.

Frank Gallagher, the developer behind the initiative to double decker the docks, says Tenth Avenue imports a tiny fraction of the cargo unloaded at other west coast ports like Long Beach and Oakland.

Gallagher : And in my opinion it is in cardiac arrest, this needs a major overhaul to try and make this port more competitive.

Gallagher says he consulted with one of the largest engineering firms in the world, CH2MHILL, to ask them if the deck is technically feasible, and if it could be constructed in such a way as to improve the cargo operations ] below.

Gallagher :   And the answer to that was unequivocally yes 

However, CH2MHill has now disassociated itself from the project. The company says it did spend about a month last year drawing up conceptual plans for the developers, but it’s no longer linked to the Tenth Avenue project. 

So we asked another engineer, Bob Englekirk , whose company built Horton Plaza and the Emerald Shapery building downtown, if he thinks you could build a 97 acre deck without compromising cargo operations beneath. 

Englekirk : If you say it has to come down on 12 inch square columns at 400 feet un-centered, that’s obviously not doable, but yes, you can do this creatively.

Englekirk says his company might even be interested in taking the contract if the measure passes.

However he says it would be financially foolish to build the deck without knowing what was going to built on top of it, because designing the load bearing pillars effectively would be impossible.

Englekirk : You’re building something that is going to have a flexibility, or that you pay such a tremendous price for that, in the end, you can’t afford it. That is the worst direction to go.

Developer Frank Gallagher has said he’s just asking for permission to build the deck,

and future uses such as a stadium could be decided later.

Ray Carpenter of RE Staite engineering doesn’t believe you could ever overcome the cost of the foundation work to make the projects on top financially profitable. He fears Gallagher and his partners are using the initiative process to get voter approval for the development, and when it turns out the costs don’t pencil out to keep the docks below, they’ll argue that the people have spoken, and go ahead with the plans anyway.

Carpenter says the docks may not look pretty but they are economically essential.

Carpenter:  They’re  not as much romance as a hotel or a stadium or any of these other things, but it supports the regional needs of millions of people.

And unlike the engineers quoted in this story, developer Frank Gallagher cannot point to any project he’s accomplished elsewhere in the past, to prove his experience of pulling off a development of this magnitude or significance to the region.

Alison St John, KPBS News.