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How San Diego’s Vision For A World-Class Waterfront Vanished

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Brad Racino / inewsource

A couple strolls along the North Embarcadero at sunset, Feb. 23, 2016. Under a “visionary” plan created more than 15 years ago, the Grape Street Piers in the background were to be knocked down and rebuilt for the public. Today, the piers are off-limits.

GUEST:

Brad Racino, reporter, inewsource

Transcript

When Teddy Roosevelt passed through San Diego in 1915, admiring its landscape and potential, he issued a warning to its people: “Keep your waterfront and develop it so that it may add to the beauty of your city. Do not let a number of private citizens usurp it and make it hideous with buildings your children will have to pay an exorbitant sum to tear down.”

A century later, the waterfront along downtown San Diego’s North Harbor Drive constitutes some of the most valuable property in Southern California, and nearly all of it belongs to the public — held in trust by the Port of San Diego.

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In 2001, a vision became law that laid out its future: large parks and public spaces would form a signature expression on the land and the piers for generations to come. Think Chicago, Baltimore or Sydney.

Today, the B Street Pier is reserved for cruise ships and their hundreds of thousands of yearly tourists. On Broadway Pier, just next door, a concrete plaza rolls up to a 52,000-square-foot steel and glass pavilion that’s empty most days. Navy Pier, to the south alongside the USS Midway aircraft carrier museum, mirrors the water surrounding it — a sea of car windshields reflecting the sun. To the east: parking lots and hotels. Small retail pavilions, park benches and a smattering of green spaces are scattered throughout.

What happened?

Little by little through the past two decades, the legal plan for the one-mile stretch of the waterfront — called the North Embarcadero — was ignored. inewsource reviewed hundreds of documents and interviewed dozens of people including developers, activists, environmentalists, current and former politicians, lawyers and regulators to understand how and why San Diego’s front porch so radically veered from its planned future.

In digging into the history and probing the public’s ongoing stakes along the waterfront, inewsource was directed to two men repeatedly: longtime port commissioner, mayoral adviser, auto and travel industry guru and master negotiator Steve Cushman; and a man seemingly on the other side: Cory Briggs, an environmental lawyer who has made a business out of suing government agencies.

Their discreet alliance, along with moneyed interests, economic realities and toothless state enforcement, helped radically alter the waterfront of America's eighth largest city.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: City of San Diego

Shops in the 900 block of Fifth Avenue in the Gaslamp Quarter Circa 1970's.

Liberty Town

It began more than 40 years ago when the smell of urine permeated the streets of downtown San Diego along with the tides of prostitutes and homeless who made their way back and forth from Market Street to Broadway with the sun.

Tuna boats, icons of an industry on the outs, bobbed along the rotting piers. The world’s oldest active sailing vessel, the Star of India, stagnated in the bay.

In the 1970s, San Diego “was a true liberty town,” said former San Diego Port Commissioner Peter Q. Davis. “You would not take anybody down there that you wanted to see again.”

Davis, a former chief executive officer of the Bank of Commerce, joined the board of San Diego’s newly formed Centre City Development Corp. in 1976 and served on it for 17 years. The organization — charged with revitalizing downtown — was flush with property tax funds and running wild with downtown development projects that either had potential or were in the works: hotels, housing developments, Horton Plaza and Petco Park.

Meanwhile, the waterfront itself, said Mike McDade, another San Diego political insider and former port chairman, “was being totally ignored.”

That changed in 1983 when McDade, then chief of staff to Mayor Roger Hedgecock, persuaded the port, which was also sitting on strong financial reserves, to fund the construction of a $165 million convention center on the water and lease it to the city for $1 a year.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: San Diego Convention Center

The San Diego Convention Center is shown in this undated rendering. "…in 1989 the port began to undergo an amazing transformation in the eyes of local politicians and the public. After operating as a quiet giant for more than twenty-five years, one day it wrote a check... to pay for the convention center, unintentionally attracting everyone’s attention and ensuring its own new future as a visible, powerful, and potentially controversial redevelopment force in San Diego for years to come.” — “America's Waterfront Revival” by Peter Hendee Brown

“All the sudden, people's vision and view started focusing back on the waterfront,” McDade said, “but not with any clear focus.”

In the early 1990s, he joined a wave of new port commissioners — young, business-savvy and politically active. McDade had both the political connections and the developer’s know-how needed to execute an idea that had been “percolating” in his mind for months: breathing new life into the waterfront.

The idea, as McDade recalls, was to build the waterfront as a gift to citizens, instead of developing it for profit. In his inaugural address as port chairman in January 1997, he gave a speech calling for “the rebirth of San Diego's front porch” then, using a network he had established over two decades in the political, legal and development arenas, he helped unify the decision-makers among the five vested government agencies that could make it happen.

"The Port District, as trustee for the people of the State of California, will administer the tidelands so as to provide the greatest economic, social, and aesthetic benefits to present and future generations." —Port Master Plan

Within two years, the team — named the North Embarcadero Alliance — published its 190-page plan. It was loaded with schematics, zoning plans, funding projections, and a set of 12 goals and 29 policies designed to reconnect “the city with its bay” after conducting what McDade called “the biggest outreach to the public that you can imagine.”

Along the western edge of downtown San Diego, the plan called for an oval park approximately two city blocks large at the foot of Broadway Pier, which itself would be turned into a public park. It planned for the Midway museum to be moored at Navy Pier and that pier to be turned into a park, as well. One of two proposed alternatives kept part of B Street Pier public. The Grape Street Piers would be consolidated, upgraded and made public.

“There was very deep buy-in at that moment emotionally,” McDade said, “and people who had hated and cursed each other ... all of a sudden started saying, ‘Hey, we can work together and we can make this better, and it’ll be our legacy.’”

In 2000, the port formally adopted the major elements of his vision into its Port Master Plan, which is the law of the waterfront.

Diana Lilly, who has worked for more than 20 years as a planner at the California Coastal Commission — a state agency that authorizes coastal development — said the master plan holds the port accountable.

“They have to follow it,” Lilly said. “It’s not just guidance — it’s the law.”

McDade felt good about his vision, and after six years on the port board stepped down, never anticipating the plan would be dismantled piece by piece.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Megan Wood / inewsource

A locked gate is shown at the Grape Street Piers, Nov. 8, 2015. Under the original North Embarcadero Visionary Plan, the Grape Street Piers were to be knocked down and reconstructed for the public.

North Embarcadero Visionary Plan

Outrage and pushback

Although he was just one of seven port commissioners, Steve Cushman spearheaded major changes to the plan during his 12 years on the board.

“Yes, I was the firebrand to some extent,” Cushman said. “The commissioners looked to me to carry the water on this project, and that’s why I was the representative all the way through.”

Cushman and the port board altered the core elements of the vision — getting rid of the signature oval park, for example — without formally amending the law or notifying the state’s Coastal Commission, with the end goal being more commercialization.

It's Gonna Be A Sleigh Ride

“Public projects of this scope cannot be built if there isn't money to build them,” Cushman told inewsource.

Pat Flannery was a real estate broker and civic watchdog who followed the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan from the start.

“I’m not really here to criticize what actually happened,” Flannery said. “It’s the way it happened that’s important.”

Flannery gathered documents through the state’s public records act, questioned policy makers, wrote hundreds of posts for his Blog of San Diego (with links to documents well before the practice became popular), and was an all-around thorn in the side of the political establishment at port and city public meetings. The changes to the waterfront plan infuriated him.

“We didn’t even get the basics of that darn thing,” he said. “The damn sausage wasn’t even served.”

There was a group, the San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, that took notice of the port’s actions. It consisted of “dozens of local urban planning groups and environment organizations and hundreds of individuals dedicated to preserving public access to San Diego’s downtown waterfront...” according to Cathy O’Leary Carey, who was involved in the group’s meetings and activities.

To fight their battles, the coalition members hired attorney Cory Briggs, who created his Upland-based law firm in 2002 and filed his first suit against the city of San Diego the following year over a downtown hotel development, eventually earning a reputation as an environmental and open government advocate.

Photo by Megan Wood / inewsource

Cory Briggs leaves court in San Diego, July 31, 2015.

Over the next decade, Briggs brought lawsuits against California cities, counties, the state, developers, Walmart and others on behalf of environmental nonprofits — many part of a network of corporations closely tied to Briggs, his family and close associates.

Briggs became a major player on San Diego’s political scene: sparring with the City Attorney’s Office in court and through the media, leading a drive to get Bob Filner removed from the Mayor’s Office and most recently, pushing an initiative to boost the city’s hotel room tax and dissolve the Tourism Marketing District.

He has become so enmeshed in the city’s affairs that he was featured in the San Diego County Taxpayers Association’s promotional video for its award ceremony last year — he’s seen flailing about in the ocean, arms waving, as he yells to the mayor, City Council members and staff that he’ll let them “have the Convention Center” — a frequent subject of his litigation.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: KPBS

The Navy Broadway Complex has attracted the ire of activists and environmentalists concerned with a further “walling off” of San Diego bay — as happened along the South Embarcadero with the convention center, Hyatt, Marriott and Hilton hotels.

Briggs fought his first case for the coalition in 2007 against a 15-acre development on the south edge of the North Embarcadero called the Navy Broadway Complex, following quickly with three more suits over the mega-project through 2009. That same year, he began suing the port over the changes to the visionary plan: the loss of the oval park, the commercialization and loss of public space on Broadway Pier and the construction of the Broadway Pavilion.

From 2007 to 2015, Briggs filed 13 lawsuits on behalf of the coalition — three that dealt with the visionary plan. And while those cases worked their way through court, he was also meeting with Cushman, then-Councilman Kevin Faulconer and port staff.

There are no public records of what went on in those meetings: no notes, no calendar events, no log of phone calls, no draft plans and no emails between the parties involved.

What resulted from those discussions was a pivotal legal document, signed by Briggs, that enabled Cushman and the port to persuade the state to approve a North Embarcadero project that violated its master plan, its own law.

Briggs, in his first and only interview with inewsource in February 2015, said the legal agreement was a compromise, reached before he lost a lawsuit over a park on the water.

“So we had to make lemonade,” Briggs said. The result was a park across Harbor Drive from the water, 150 feet wide and adjacent to Lane Field. (Minor league home to the Padres from 1936 to 1957, Lane Field has been a parking lot since the 1960s. Today, the port is developing the land for hotels.)

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Brad Racino

Hotels are shown at the Lane Field site. They were an integral element of changes to the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan. With support from attorney Cory Briggs and the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, the port substituted a small setback park in front of the hotels in place of the visionary plan’s large oval park along the water — and gain Coastal Commission approval for the project.

Briggs abruptly ended that interview after inewsource asked about his business practices, and he did not respond to questions emailed to him since then about the agreement and his reasons for signing it.

He told a reporter at The San Diego Union-Tribune in January 2015 that he and Cushman “once wrote down the outlines of a deal involving the embarcadero on the back of a cocktail napkin. They traded it back and forth for months, showing other people.”

Flannery, a close acquaintance of Briggs and coalition members for many years, said Cushman and Briggs are close, despite their often very public sparring.

“They absolutely have been co-players together on the waterfront,” Flannery said. “Neither one of them could have done any of the things that they’ve done without each other, and Cushman is the first one to recognize somebody who needs to be controlled. I believe very strongly that the Cory Briggs that you know, and that the city now knows, is a Steve Cushman creation, entirely.” —Pat Flannery

Cushman described a very close working relationship with Briggs, saying the two frequently meet at each other’s offices, talk on the phone and often “threaten” to have a beer together.

“I’ll talk to Cory this afternoon,” Cushman said. “We talk all the time. The mayor and Cory and I talk all the time.”

Cushman praises Briggs as a man of principle, a community do-gooder and an excellent listener. “I think I know him as well as anybody,” Cushman said.

Cushman also insists nothing about the waterfront agreement was done in secret.

“I’m a pick-up-the-phone-and-talk guy. So is Cory. So I call his cellphone that he says he doesn't take messages on. He sees that I call and he calls me back. So we talk. I mean, that’s just the way I am.”

Broadway Pier

An insider’s perspective

While Flannery is a citizen with no real authority or accountability other than to himself — Laurie Black is the opposite.

Black, who was a port commissioner from 2007 to 2009, was president of the business-oriented Downtown San Diego Partnership during the 1990s and worked as a consultant for the port in developing the North Embarcadero vision.

“What was envisioned ... did not happen,” Black said. “No, no, no.”

“It’s my belief that the government,” Black said, “creates opportunity for the private sector and entrepreneurs and environmentalists and developers to create an economy and a quality of life for the people.

“There are others,” she continued, who believe “the port was there to create buildings, hotels that create revenue — ‘We need to bring in more money money money’ — without thinking about sometimes less is more.”

Same Old Port

Cushman embodied the latter mind-set, Black said, and although today she counts him as a close friend, during her time on the port board she regarded the commissioner as a bully — a difficult man with a singular, revenue-driven plan for the port’s future.

“I’ll tell you what I said to Steve,” Black recalled. “I said, ‘You’re a bully, and I don’t like bullies. Stop bullying me.’ And he did.”

Black said she and Cushman disagreed over the port’s role as a public agency entrusted with public land: Black believed in creating a vibrant landscape along the water for the people, while Cushman wanted to monetize that property for the port.

“It can take one person who doesn’t really understand that government is about creating opportunities,” Black said. “And that’s what happened to the … project — it got stuck.”

Photo credit: Michael Schuerman

The County Administration Building is shown with the San Diego County Water Park in the foreground, June 27, 2015.

Murtaza Baxamusa, who sits on the board of Civic San Diego — a successor agency to the Centre City Development Corp. — told inewsource he felt good about the early stages of the visionary plan.

“(It) was a plan we should have worked toward,” Baxamusa said, recalling how happy he was with the county waterfront park on North Harbor Drive — a key element of the vision that was later developed independently by the county.

But as for the visionary plan’s future?

“I don’t really have that much confidence in the players at the table,” he said, referring to the remaining government agencies in charge of implementing the project, “but that’s sort of my own apprehension.

“Maybe I’m wrong, I’m willing to be wrong here.”

Mr. San Diego

A quote, attributed to Steve Cushman, on a plaque in his conference room reads, “I DON’T LIKE TO LO$E MONEY!” It’s next to the coffee maker.

The 75-year-old is a homegrown San Diegan whose family’s Southern California roots stretch to the 1800s. He made his money in the travel and automotive industries, selling his Cush Automotive Group in 2005. “My family and I have been very blessed in this community, and we live very comfortably,” Cushman said.

Photo by San Diego Convention Center

San Diego Convention Center board member Steve Cushman is shown in this undated photo.

Never elected to public office, Cushman has served on dozens of public boards and commissions. He’s been a voluntary assistant to five mayors and is known in town as a dealmaker and a backroom power broker — the guy standing just behind whoever is in the spotlight.

He’s perhaps one of the most visible members of San Diego’s good ol’ boys club and remains knee-deep in local politics — most notably as a special adviser to Mayor Faulconer on the Convention Center expansion project. Named “Mr. San Diego 2013” by the downtown San Diego Rotary, Cushman now says he’s “running out of runway.” He wants his tombstone to read, “He made a difference.”

At one point in the interview, Cushman’s cellphone rings. He looks down and presses a button. “I just cut off a city council member,” he said with a grin.

Cushman often refers to himself in the third person and is expert at steering conversations toward what he sees as the triumphs in his career — “I just remember the victories” — while glossing over criticism.

“You could probably give me a lot of the dark side of what we did in all of these things, and how tough it was, and how we got beat up. I don’t remember those times, I just remember the victories.” — Steve Cushman

Cushman’s first of three terms as a port commissioner began in 1999. He served as chairman of the board twice, once in 2002 and again in 2009, and worked alongside Peter Q. Davis, Mike McDade and Laurie Black at different times.

Taken together, the three former commissioners described a powerful, strong-armed and revenue-hungry workhorse of a man who could be as divisive as he was well-meaning.

“He has this mind-set that he is always right and he doesn’t have to listen to people and that you're an obstructionist if you don't see and support his goal,” Davis said of Cushman. “He carried that same vision over to the port.”

Davis said port staff sensed Cushman was the strongest of the commissioners and tailored reports to his liking. Other commissioners, more interested in international trips, Davis said, felt keeping Cushman as a friend was “of more value than crossing him.”

“One told me the secret to success on the port was to ‘pick your battles,’” Davis said, “and fighting Cushman was not one you should pick.”

Cushman won an untraditional third term on the port board, though Davis said that behind the scenes there was “disgust for his muscling this appointment.” A longtime friend of unions, Cushman would prepare for votes by packing the port meeting room with supporters, Davis said, usually “labor types who would yell and scream whenever he said anything and boo and hiss when someone opposed him.”

Cushman said he relished working on big projects and believed that when he arrived at the port that most of McDade’s plan for the North Embarcadero was doable.

That changed as the years rolled on.

Who Wanted It?

Chain reaction

In 2001 — two years into Cushman’s tenure — state legislation took away the San Diego International Airport and its revenue from the port’s jurisdiction. The county pulled out of the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan in 2003, along with its share of the funding for the project. Then the Navy dropped out.

The port needed money and hoped the cruise industry could help.

A feasibility study projected close to a million yearly cruise ship passengers in San Diego by 2017, which meant passenger fees and similar charges on visiting ships. The study recommended aggressive redevelopment of the B Street Pier but only maintenance of Broadway Pier, which the analysis said was “sufficient to meet the needs of … ships which do not require a terminal.”

"We talked about putting a cruise ship terminal off of Harbor Island. ... We talked about 10th Avenue marine. We talked about a lot of potential solutions because we were on the path to a million passengers. But all of that went straight upside down on us." — Steve Cushman

Cushman began negotiating with Carnival Cruise Corp. — the port’s biggest moneymaker at the time — and worked out a deal for an $8 million loan. The terms: The port would upgrade its B Street Pier and in exchange, Carnival would get a guarantee of better spots for its ships.

Broadway Pier would host a temporary structure, one that could handle passengers while the terminals on B Street were being upgraded.

The port then asked Carnival to up its loan to $12 million and began to change the plan, redirecting money from B Street to build a permanent structure for ships on Broadway Pier. That eliminated the public park and fountain from the North Embarcadero plan and sidestepped a requirement that the pier supply public views. All seven commissioners at the time voted publicly in favor of the agreement.

Repurposing the pier was also a major strike against the oval park, which would have been in the way of the trucks needed to service cruise ships.

Path To Paradise: Downtown

Carnival warned the port against relying on a booming cruise industry anytime in the near future, citing economic changes both at home and abroad. In a 2007 letter, Carnival wrote that the cruise line couldn’t “get close to the passenger figures” the port needed to justify massive spending. Carnival executives even met with then-Mayor Jerry Sanders to voice their disapproval of the project. Port commissioners plowed ahead anyway.

The California Coastal Commission caught wind of the action too late, said Lilly, the commission planner, and instead of forcing the port to back up and go through the formal process of an amendment, it allowed the project to move forward.

“That’s another situation where I would say the process didn’t work as well as it should have,” Lilly said.

The commission mandated a replacement park be built somewhere else on the waterfront, which still hasn’t happened.

The $28 million Broadway Pavilion opened for business in December 2010. Since then, it has brought in slightly more than $1 million through events. Between September 2013 and December 2015, it saw a total of 12 ships and a corollary $415,000 in passenger fees. The port does not have accurate totals for the years prior. Briggs, in his brief interview with inewsource, called the pavilion a “roughly $30 million money pit.”

When asked why he kept pushing the plan, Cushman replied, “you just have to know Steve Cushman.”

“I’m an eternal optimist,” he said.

Briggs and Cushman clashed over the oval park, one of the jewels of the visionary plan for the North Embarcadero. Two city blocks in size and right on the water at the Broadway Pier, part of it would have stretched dramatically out over the bay. Briggs later said the oval park became a symbol for San Diegans fighting the port’s actions. But at trial, Briggs “did not present any evidence concerning an oval park/plaza,” according to a judge’s ruling.

“…approximately two city blocks in size, considerably larger than any of the parks in downtown. Because of its one-sided conLguration, with buildings only to the east, the scale of the bay gives the space an expansive feeling larger than its actual size, much as in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor or the harbor in Barcelona.” —Oval park description, North Embarcadero Visionary Plan

Cushman thought the idea of an oval park was “ludicrous,” not just financially but bureaucratically.

“It would take 21 government agencies to get approval if you really want to cover the water,” Cushman said, adding that “none of us are young enough” to get through that many layers of government.

The visionary plan’s park on Navy Pier, where the USS Midway is moored next to a sea of cars, never materialized either. The port board is currently considering “next steps for Navy Pier parking.”

The former general and artistic director of the San Diego Opera, Ian Campbell, once helped arrange a philanthropist’s offer to donate $200 million for a combined opera house and concert hall on the site of Lane Field — at the foot of Broadway Pier just north of the Navy Broadway Complex.

“It would draw a lot of public attention that the city cares about the arts,” Campbell told inewsource. “Every cruise ship would see it, every person would see it.”

But Cushman opposed the idea, saying he favored “a hotel to provide us with the money” for the rest of the visionary plan.

Former Commissioner Black, who supported the opera house offer, said it boiled down to Cushman not being an arts guy.

“Those aren't things that Steve does. … He didn't go to the symphony, he didn't go to the opera, he didn't participate in the arts,” Black said. “And so for him, personally, that's not where money would go.”

Cushman was also against a Coastal Commission mandate that the port build low-cost housing, like a hostel, to mitigate for the Lane Field hotels.

How San Diego’s Vision For A World-Class Waterfront Vanished

“Let’s talk about low-cost housing,” Cushman said. “I don’t subscribe to the theory that the Coastal Commission has that we need to have a youth hostel in $2 (million) to $3 million-an-acre land. That doesn't compute to me.”

Briggs and the coalition

While all this was going on, Briggs was suing on behalf of the Navy Broadway Coalition and losing:

• He sued over the Broadway terminal and the loss of the oval park. The court ruled in favor of the port.

• He sued the port and U.S. Coast Guard claiming federal regulations required a “security zone” around any cruise ship entering and berthing in the San Diego port, then agreed to dismiss the case a few months later.

• He sued the port a third time over the Broadway Pier and lost again.

Briggs never appealed any cases he lost against the port — only appealing cases he lost fighting the Navy Broadway Complex.

A variety of people supported these lawsuits and donated money to the cause. They met in living rooms and restaurants — environmentalists, activists, philanthropists, attorneys — and wrote checks in the name of making San Diego’s waterfront a place for its people, just like Chicago had done.

Black, McDade and others said some of those lawsuits were well-justified, especially over Broadway Pier. But the courts didn’t agree.

“If there’s not a bias, there’s a built-in tilt toward supporting government decisions unless they were doing public harm,” McDade said about the courts. “I think the port may have had the upper hand in that respect.”

There are no public records of how much money was raised to support Briggs’ lawsuits, even though the plaintiff — the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition — is required by state and federal law to account for its revenues and expenses on public tax forms.

inewsource was able to independently confirm two payments — a $5,000 payment from a labor union, Unite Here Local 30, made in October 2010 — and a $105,000 settlement payment made to the Navy Broadway Coalition in 2010.

Failing to account for revenues and expenses is not unusual for nonprofits associated with Briggs.

Briggs and his law firm have sued on behalf of at least 36 charitable nonprofits since 2006, almost all of which he and his family helped create. State and federal agencies have suspended more than half of the groups for failing to file legally required documents showing finances, mission statements and board structures. One nonprofit, which did file paperwork, showed an unexplained loss of nearly a quarter million dollars.

Five people — one since deceased — have directed the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition since its inception.

Ian Trowbridge, a former Salk Institute professor who was perhaps best known for his civic activism, is listed in documents as the group’s president and co-chair before he died in 2013.

Vonn Marie May, a cultural landscape specialist, was listed as the group’s chief financial officer from 2007 to 2009. May told inewsource she hasn’t been involved with the nonprofit for many years and doesn’t remember what happened “long ago.”

In an initial interview about the North Embarcadero, May was open and informative. After a follow-up email asking if she was aware she was listed as the coalition’s CFO, May asked that a reporter “not report any” of the previous interview and demanded that if it were published, inewsource should “include the full content of this e-mail message so that your readers have a complete picture of how you operate...” (Readers can see the entire exchange by clicking here).

Don Wood is listed as the coalition’s secretary. Wood is a former policy planner for San Diego Gas & Electric and a well-known San Diego activist whose primary focus has always been the waterfront. Diane Coombs is listed as the coalition’s co-chair and CEO. She’s a former county Board of Supervisors employee and another longtime environmental activist. Karin Langwasser — Briggs’ cousin who has been on the board of at least eight other Briggs-associated nonprofits — is the group’s current CFO.

Despite multiple requests, all three declined to comment for this story.

An agreement among foes

Talks that culminated in the legal agreement Briggs signed took place several times, according to Cushman and emails mentioning the meetings, although the district has no records from the meetings themselves.

Former Commissioner Black, discussing the culture at the port during her years as a contractor and later as a commissioner, said backroom meetings weren’t uncommon. “The first eight years of the time that Mr. Cushman was a port commissioner, and before that — there were secretive meetings, and I knew they were happening.”

Peter Scheer, executive director of California’s First Amendment Coalition — a nonprofit dedicated to open government and public participation in civic affairs — found it “highly improbable” that the Briggs-Cushman negotiations left no paper trail.

Additionally, Scheer said, “It’s always troubling when an agency enters into some kind of a legal agreement that obligates the agency to do things that normally would require separate resolutions, deliberations, considerations or the appropriations of funds. I’ve always been troubled by that, and even more troubled when it happens in a purely private negotiation session.”

The port’s real estate area manager, Shaun Sumner, is the only person who was involved in the meetings and is still working for the agency. As a city councilman, Mayor Faulconer was also involved. Through spokespersons, both declined to speak to inewsource about the agreement.

Steve Cushman On Cory Briggs And The Coalition

The port board of directors did publicly vote and approve the agreement that came out of those negotiations. It was signed on Nov. 9, 2010, by the port’s interim-CEO and its attorney; by Briggs, Trowbridge and Coombs for the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition; and by the corporate secretary for Lane Field Developers LLC. The agreement was sweeping in its scope:

The Lane Field developers would reach labor peace with the local hotel and hospitality union, Unite Here Local 30, which is listed as a member of the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition on the agreement. One month prior, the union donated $5,000 to the coalition, according to union disclosure reports.

The port and Lane Field developers agreed to build a 150-foot wide setback park and the port would try to acquire a portion of Navy property, called 1220 Pacific Highway, to add to that park.

The port agreed to study the funding, feasibility and impact of another park — 205 feet long on Harbor Drive — in its forthcoming Port Master Plan Amendment.

As of today, neither the acquisition of the Navy property, the study nor the amendment has happened.

As a tradeoff, Briggs and the coalition agreed to “support and actively advocate for” the changes to the visionary plan.

With their signatures, Briggs, Trowbridge and Coombs put an end to all discussions about a large public park at the foot of Broadway — the land Briggs had promised coalition members years prior — and according to his critics, delivered a victory to the port, the Lane Field developers and the hotel workers union.

Despite its $5,000 donation, Briggs told inewsource Unite Here was not a party to the settlement agreement and that he had never represented the group “on Lane Field or the waterfront, period.”

The port used the agreement to show the California Coastal Commission, which was hesitant to award a permit for North Embarcadero construction, that the public supported the project.

“The public was completely excluded,” Flannery said. “There was no media questioning — none at all. That’s why we’ve got what we’ve got.”

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Megan Wood / inewsource

Pat Flannery, an activist, former real estate agent and author of the “Blog of San Diego” speaks with inewsource reporter Brad Racino on Broadway Pier, Nov. 20, 2015.

Two people who say they were members of the coalition and its legal committee also believe Briggs abandoned their fight. There is no public membership roster for the coalition, but both men — Scott Andrews and John McNab — provided inewsource with email communications that show their affiliation.

Andrews, an activist who has followed the port for decades, told inewsource he left the coalition and its legal committee in 2010 after learning about the agreement.

“Briggs is acting like a self-appointed arbiter,” Andrews said.

During meetups at a Mexican restaurant in Ocean Beach, Andrews offered collections from his archives: old board meeting minutes, developer schematics, lawsuits, emails and other public records gathered during the course of his more than 20-year fight against unmitigated development.

Andrews blames Briggs for giving up the promised park at the Broadway Pier and settling for “an inland strip park” in front of Lane Field — much smaller in size and not on the bay — calling it the “antithesis” of the coalition’s goal of a waterside park. Briggs, in his February 2015 interview with inewsource, said Andrews left the coalition “very early on” and “didn’t see eye-to-eye with the other directors.”

Today, Cushman regards the agreement as a pinnacle achievement.

“When you see an agreement like that,” he said, “to me that is the ultimate compliment — not the right word — the ultimate solution, a magnificent solution, to a lot of hard work done by a lot of people because everyone came together at the end.”

Andrews worked alongside another environmental activist, McNab, on the coalition’s legal team. McNab said Briggs and the coalition’s Wood and Coombs “stopped clear communications with [their] members a long time ago.”

He pointed, as an example, to a court case Briggs argued for the coalition in February 2015. No coalition member showed up, McNab said, because they didn’t know about it. Briggs lost that case last month in the court of appeals.

McNab and Andrews believe Briggs consolidated control of the coalition to Wood, Coombs and himself, shutting out anyone who questioned his actions.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Megan Wood / inewsource

John McNab, a longtime San Diego activist and former member of the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition's legal committee, told inewsource he's disenchanted with the nonprofit. "It has not operated as a public interest group," McNab said. "It doesn't put out press releases, it doesn't put out position papers, it doesn’t say 'This is why we did this.' It does nothing, absolutely nothing."

Flannery, who said he knows Wood quite well, said he is consistently amazed by “the extraordinary deference that both of those people” — Coombs and Wood — “give to Cory.”

“They would never question him or what he was doing,” Flannery said, “and they didn’t know much because he didn’t tell them much. Several times I was amazed to find that they didn’t know in advance something that Cory did or was going to do.”13

A question of money

Without access to private records, it’s impossible to say who, if anyone, is paying Briggs to continue representing the coalition. Questions about money and Briggs’ business practices have yielded few if any answers in the past.

Despite protesting inewsource’s coverage in print and in court, Briggs has refused to explain why he frequently used his law firm to enter into more than $4 million in liens, or mortgages, with people throughout several Southern California counties — transactions that a host of experts called questionable and possibly fraudulent; how one of the many nonprofits closely associated with him was missing $230,000 from one year to the next and what that tax-exempt organization actually does; or what role Sarichia Cacciatore, his wife who worked for a San Diego-based environmental consulting company, played in his environmental lawsuits. inewsource asked Cushman if he had ever paid Briggs directly for any reason.

“I am proud to tell you, nothing I have ever settled with him have I ever paid him dime,” Cushman said.

Had he ever facilitated a payment to Briggs for any reason?

Cushman took a long pause, then spoke slowly. “On an issue that has nothing to do with the Port of San Diego or anything we have discussed here, I did attempt recently to facilitate,” he said. “It’s private business that he had some issues on, which I’m not going to get into. But they may have paid him some money.”

What comes next

Despite the perfect weather on a morning in November, the port’s environmental and land use program manager, Wileen Manaois, is nervous.

Although she has worked at the port for nearly 20 years, it’s her first time being interviewed on camera. She trips over a few sentences at the onset, but then, walking along the south end of the North Embarcadero, finds her rhythm in describing what the port has accomplished so far in its first phase of the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan, which wrapped up late-2014.

She points out new construction at the intersection of West Broadway and Harbor Drive; a small pavilion housing ticket vendors, a tiny retail store selling hats, T-shirts and sunscreen, and a soon-to-be Carnitas Snack Shack — ”San Diego’s Original Fast-Casual Porkhouse.”

She describes the benches and trees on each side of the pavilion as “the formal gardens,” and explains the thinking behind constructing a nearby observation deck.

The sound of a jackhammer drowns out her voice as she says, “You’ve also got this — the best looking restroom you’ve ever seen,” acknowledging a boxy structure decorated with words inspired by the 1970 Richard Bach novel, ”Jonathan Livingston Seagull.”

“We’re really happy with how things turned out,” Manaois said.

Tanya Castaneda, a port spokeswoman, said she doesn’t believe the agency has skirted its promises to the public, and that there are many contributing factors to a change in vision. “The planning process is messy, and it takes a long time,” Castaneda said.

“In fact, we can say that the initial visions not only might change, they will change for anything that is envisioned for the waterfront. And that's part of the process,” she said.

Owen Lang, a renowned architect and designer of the visionary plan, echoed Castaneda’s statement.

“Time, economics, who’s running the port, who’s the mayor, what the county feels like, what the Navy feels like, what Cory Briggs feels like — all these things affect the next decision. The next project that comes on deck. So have that in mind,” Lang said.

The scope and funding for the next phase of the visionary plan has yet to be identified, according to the port. On indefinite hold are: new piers and a piazza at Grape Street, the transformation of Navy Pier to a public park, a new 1.25-acre waterfront park, a “market square” at B Street Pier, large grassy lawns along Harbor Drive, art installations and infrastructure upgrades along the bayfront.

The port still owes the California Coastal Commission a new master plan amendment, which has been in the works since 2009. It is on hold while the port works on a new overall master plan, which has been in progress since 2013.

On a warm and sunny morning in November, former Commissioner Black took in her surroundings on the Broadway Pier.

“I don’t love what I see,” Black said. “I guess you could come here and have lunch ... We can walk and it’s pedestrian friendly. But I certainly can’t bring grandchildren here for a picnic. It’s not going to happen … But if you take a look at the plans from 20 years ago, that’s what was envisioned.”

McDade thinks, in the long run, the North Embarcadero will turn out to be “a very successful and permanent part of our city” — except the pavilion on Broadway Pier. “I nearly choked when I saw that being proposed,” he said.

Former Commissioner Davis, when reflecting on the progress of the visionary plan in a September conversation, said, “I guess I'm just pleased that the waterfront has been cleaned up to the degree it has been and that people can now walk back and forth on it.”

Two months later, he sent a follow-up email:

“I also got to thinking after our earlier interview,” he wrote. “I have been disappointed, in particular with the Navy and the port’s decisions, to use their tideland properties to maximize the commercial income available from these properties rather than to develop them as the great public spaces they could become, and which the County of San Diego did with their waterfront property.”

For Flannery, it’s not so much what was built, but the way in which it was done in defiance of what he feels — and the Coastal Commission verified — is the law: the Port Master Plan.

“Laws are only as good as the people’s cries to make those that are put in charge obey those laws,” Flannery said. “Otherwise we’re not a government of laws — we’re a government of men who happen to get themselves into power.”

Briggs lost the group’s biggest case against the Navy Broadway Complex last month, and lawsuits over the Convention Center and a pending plan for hotels on Harbor Island are still in the works, but the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition is no longer in the spotlight — despite massive commercial development planned for the port’s near future.

Yet Briggs isn’t finished with the waterfront as a whole. He has designed a 77-page ballot initiative aimed at financing a noncontiguous expansion of the convention center downtown while dissolving San Diego’s Tourism Marketing District. It could go on the November ballot.

As for Cushman, late last year in the office building bearing his name, a reporter told him this story would highlight not only his time on the port but also his detractors, those who take issue with the way the visionary plan turned out. He paused, appearing confused for the first time during the hourlong interview.

“There are people who don’t like it?” he asked.

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