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San Diego’s Downtown Earthquake Fault, Kept Quiet For Years, Now Surfaces

The Long Beach earthquake on March 10, 1933, left gaping cracks in a road bet...

Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Above: The Long Beach earthquake on March 10, 1933, left gaping cracks in a road between Seal Beach and the Bolsa Chica Gun Club.

San Diego’s Downtown Earthquake Fault, Kept Quiet For Years, Now Surfaces


Brad Racino, reporter, inewsource


San Diego government agencies discovered an active earthquake fault nearly 10 years ago under the Central Embarcadero on the downtown waterfront, yet they didn’t alert the public, the state, or the company currently undertaking a billion-dollar redevelopment of the land.

A geologist with San Diego’s Development Services Department and the president of the San Diego Unified Port District — the two agencies involved at the time — told inewsource it wasn’t their responsibility to do any of those things. There is no law requiring it.

Faults are ubiquitous in California. There are more than 15,000 of them throughout the state, and more than 500 are classified as “active,” which means they have moved at least once in around the last 11,000 years, and likely will again.

It is against state law to build any structure for human occupancy atop or within 50 feet of an active fault in California.

The downtown fault was rediscovered in 2017 by the land’s current developer, Yehudi Gaffen, who proposes to reshape the Central Embarcadero with parks, hotels, an aquarium, a revived commercial fishing industry and other improvements. Gaffen estimates the geological testing and plan changes to avoid building on the fault have cost close to a million dollars.

inewsource interviewed three independent geologists for this story. All said evidence of the waterfront fault was available long before 2008 in state and consultant data — but no one wanted to look at it comprehensively.

Photo caption:

Photo by Brandon Quester / inewsource

Mark Legg, president of Legg Geophysical, Inc. in Huntington Beach, California, said there is a longstanding culture in the state of hiding or ignoring faults because it can be costly and damaging discovery. Legg has studied faults in San Diego since the 1970s.

“It is a cover-up,” said Mark Legg, president of Legg Geophysical, Inc. in Huntington Beach.

“It’s a very contentious issue,” he said. “There’s big dollars behind it, there’s big government behind it, there’s all sorts of egos behind it.”

Earthquake faults spell money and headaches, the experts told inewsource. The lack of disclosure of the downtown fault is indicative of a longstanding culture in California of hiding, or at least ignoring, what can be a costly and damaging discovery, according to Legg.

Asked about the lack of public notice concerning the Central Embarcadero fault, Legg replied, “It doesn’t surprise me, but it bothers me. Because it shouldn’t happen.”

The first findings

San Diego’s Old Police Headquarters — that sits between Kettner Boulevard and Pacific Highway, south of West Harbor Drive — was an eyesore. Built in 1939, the building served as the San Diego Police Department’s headquarters until 1987, when the agency moved to a new building at 14th Street and Broadway.

Randa Coniglio, the port’s CEO, recalled walking potential developers through the abandoned building in the early 2000’s as part of her job in the agency’s real estate department.

She ended up delegating those tours after one visit left her covered in fleas.

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Photo credit:

An undated photo of the Old Police Headquarters’ courtyard.

“It was a blight sitting right there in between the fancy Hyatt and the Seaport Village,” she told inewsource. “We were very anxious to try to get something done with it.”

The space was a financial opportunity for the port, since the agency earns much of its revenue from its hundreds of master and subtenants who lease port property. The port’s real estate department is projected to earn more than $97 million this year.

In May 2008, Terramar Retail Centers of Newport Beach negotiated a 40-year lease on the old police property to transform it into the commercial hub that it is today, with restaurants, shops and art galleries.

Terramar commissioned a geotechnical study as part of the permit process.

William Lettis & Associates, once a California firm but now an international company, performed the work by combing through previous research and 11 geotechnical reports that covered nearby land. Only one turned up a potentially active fault, located half a mile to the north near the Santa Fe Depot train station.

Lettis then dug into the ground. Their work revealed a fault zone cutting across the southwest corner of the police station property and declared the site potentially exposed to the “hazard of surface fault rupture.” The firm designated a 50-foot setback zone “in which no new structures for human-occupancy should be constructed.”

A few months later, the port and the city filed a notice with the San Diego County Recorder’s Office describing the fault and referencing the Lettis report. The notice was signed by Coniglio, then-director of the port’s real estate department, and Kelly Broughton, the former director of the city’s Development Services Department.

In recent interviews, both Broughton and Coniglio told inewsource they had no recollection of signing the document.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: City of San Diego

City of San Diego Seismic Safety Study

The Central Embarcadero fault doesn’t appear on the city’s online seismic maps or California’s interactive fault map. A spokesman for the California Geological Survey told inewsource the agency was never alerted to it. The city and port said they never issued a public notice, though the port board did publicly vote to file the notice with the county.

A write-up in the local paper about the unveiling of the new headquarters in 2013 made no mention of it.

Years later, as companies vied to develop the adjacent 40 acres of property, public records and interviews show no indication that the port or the city said a word about it.

History repeating itself

Mark Legg’s life’s work makes up the decor of his Huntington Beach office. The walls are plastered with maps of Southern California land and ocean. Hundreds more are scattered throughout the room. Near the door sits a photo of a younger Legg, squeezing into a submersible to explore faults underwater.

Photo caption:

Photo by Brandon Quester / inewsource

Mark Legg, president of Legg Geophysical, Inc. in Huntington Beach, California, points to various fault lines that have been discovered in and around San Diego.

Legg has studied San Diego faults since the 1970s. He wrote his graduate thesis on the tectonics of the Southern California and Northern Baja region while attending the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Then he earned his PhD in geological sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The fault running through San Diego’s Central Embarcadero came as no surprise to him.

“That fault’s been known for about 30 years,” he said.

Legg said the fact that it’s not publicly known fits a culture in California that goes back more than a century. He described the Hayward earthquake that rocked San Francisco’s Bay area in 1868, the resulting scientific study, and the rush to hide it in light of San Francisco’s shot at becoming the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad.

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Photographs showing damage throughout the San Francisco Bay area after the 1868 earthquake.

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Photographs showing damage throughout the San Francisco Bay area after the 1868 earthquake.

“Let me throw in another big one,” said Patrick Abbott, a geologist, professor emeritus at San Diego State University and author of college textbooks on the subject.

He described the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, when the chamber of commerce and mayor quickly jumped in to say that it wasn’t actually an earthquake — it was a big fire.  

“They didn’t want it known as an earthquake,” Abbott said. “That was another very large, well-documented cover up.”

Photo caption:

Photo by Megan Wood / inewsource

Patrick Abbott is a geologist and professor emeritus at San Diego State University.

For a more recent example, Abbott recalled arguing in the 1970s with the California State Geologist to classify the Rose Canyon Fault in San Diego as active.

“It’s obvious that the fault is active, and yet the state geologist says, ‘No, there’s no evidence,’” Abbott said. “It’s either a lack of ability or a fear of offending somebody as a state employee.”

Legg told inewsource there’s a “natural human tendency to avoid problems, and earthquakes are problems that you really don't want to talk about if you don't have to.” And discovering impediments to coastal development can be dangerous work, he said.

Legg recalled a colleague who was literally run off the road for his work studying coastal erosion.

“When you shake the tree you gotta be ready for the branches that fall down on your head,” Legg said.

As a student, Legg did research for Michael Kennedy, now a retired geophysicist from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Kennedy told inewsource that as a graduate student in the early 1970s, he had mapped an ancient landslide at the base of San Diego’s Mt. Soledad, near the high-priced community of La Jolla. Shortly after, he received a letter from a city engineer instructing him to “leave it alone.”

“He couldn’t order me to do anything,” Kennedy recalled, “but it was a pretty strong letter about, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about or doing and you’re scaring everyone to death … You’re some young geologist and you’re going to stir up a hornet’s nest.’”

“There’s a lot of money in Mt. Soledad, and people didn’t want to hear about it,” he said.

Kennedy was the first to map — and name — the Coronado Fault in the bay, and his work is often cited among Southern California geologists. His reports in the ‘70s and ‘80s pointed out more probable faults in the region, he said, “and one by one they’re coming to pass.”

“But those journal articles are very rarely cited or brought up, especially by the consulting world,” he added.

According to Legg and Abbott, there is a mixture of historical amnesia and ignorance when it comes to California faults.

“There really needs to be a major, thorough investigative report on this type of cover-up,” Legg said. “It’s not just San Diego — though San Diego just seems to be one where it’s blatant.”

The city side

Jim Quinn, who has worked for the city as a geologist for the past 17 years, said that in 2008 he and his colleagues did what was required — they reviewed the police headquarters’ geotechnical report.

“If you’re asking if the city is going to investigate, that wouldn’t typically be our role,” Quinn said. Nor is it their role to alert the public, he added.

City spokesman Scott Robinson added that the city is “completely transparent” with regard to its work with faults.

“I’m just trying to underscore that there’s nothing to hide here,” Robinson said.

Photo caption:

Photo by Megan Wood / inewsource

Randa Coniglio, president and CEO of the San Diego Unified Port District, poses for a portrait, Oct. 17, 2016.

Coniglio said the port filed the notice with the county, “and if anything else related to the seismic conditions on this site were needed to be done, then the experts that required the filing and received the filing, I think, would have been responsible for doing it.”

Asked why she never brought up the fault during public board meetings discussing the Central Embarcadero redevelopment over the past two years, Coniglio said she didn’t remember anything about it.

“You got me really curious now,” she told inewsource. “I'm going to start paying more attention and looking into this kind of thing.”

A nightmare come true

Seated at a picnic table at Ruocco Park downtown in August 2016, Gaffen explained his vision for Seaport, a $1.2-billion mix of hotels, an aquarium, commercial and retail space, parks, a school, and the revitalization of San Diego’s commercial fishing industry.

Seaport San Diego Promotional Footage

Gaffen’s team had recently beat out five competitors to develop the Central Embarcadero, which encompasses the parcel of land south of the Midway and west of the Hyatt, as well as 30 acres of water in the bay.

During the 2016 interview with inewsource, Gaffen — the CEO of the San Diego-based project management company Gafcon — described a nightmare he had experienced. In it, he found a major earthquake fault running through the project site.

“God forbid …” he said at the time. “It may lead to us redesigning our project.”

Shortly after, Gaffen began to hear rumblings of a possible fault found years prior under the Old Police Headquarters. The site’s former architect remembered something about it, as did a few local engineers, Gaffen said.

So he started researching.

“We went through the traditional public records requests to the city, to the port — nothing showed up,” he said.

The Lettis report from 2008 seemed to have vanished.

“It is odd,” Gaffen said, “because usually you'll find the report somewhere. But not only have we not been able to find it, our geotechnical engineers haven't been able to find it.”

inewsource attempted to find the report in February through public record requests to the port and the city. Neither had it. The port said they may have destroyed it as part of the their record retention guidelines, which mandate how long a government agency is required to keep certain documents. The city’s initial response to inewsource’s request was “no responsive documents” exist.  

inewsource pressed for the records, and two weeks prior to this story’s publication, the report surfaced on the same day — first from the city, then from the port.

Finding the fault again

In 2017, Gaffen’s consultants bored 100 feet into the ground with a truck-mounted drill in parking lots around the Old Police Headquarters. They also swept the bay using a high-intensity radar to explore where any potential fault approached the land from the south.

They found a fault zone running through the middle of the project site, from the bay to the southern portion of the fault found in 2008. Its width was interpreted to be between 25 to 30 feet wide. Core samples indicated the fault was active, and the “onshore continuation of the active Coronado Fault,” according to the resulting report published in February.

The findings forced Gaffen’s team to alter their plans for Seaport, shuffling around buildings, dividing underground parking plans and designating a wide setback zone atop which nothing could be built.

“It's not a show stopper by any means,” Gaffen said. “It's just the nature of where we live.”

Photo caption:

A geotechnical report published in 2018 shows where the Coronado fault extends onto land, through Seaport Village and up to the Old Police Headquarters. Credit: Gafcon.

He proposed relocating one of the site’s hotels as part of the reconfiguration during a presentation to the port board of commissioners in March. The move would have partially blocked guest views at the Hyatt, one of the port’s existing tenants.

“I’m very concerned about affecting another tenant,” said Commissioner Marshall Merrifield, who then suggested Gaffen remedy the problem by putting the hotel on top of the fault and buying earthquake insurance.

“Unfortunately, you could not do that with the current laws in the country,” Gaffen said.

San Diego government agencies discovered an active earthquake fault nearly 10 years ago on the downtown waterfront, yet they didn’t alert the public.


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