NAVWAR Redevelopment Could Revitalize Midway District
Thursday, February 27, 2020
Photo by Andrew Bowen
The Navy is in the process of putting together what could be one of San Diego's most consequential redevelopment projects in decades, as it seeks a new facility for its cybersecurity operations in the Midway District.
Naval Information Warfare System Command, or NAVWAR, is responsible for developing high-tech communications software and hardware for Navy vessels. But it carries out that mission in a decidedly low-tech location: a sprawling group of World War II-era hangars built to manufacture B-24 bombers.
Greg Geisen, who is overseeing the NAVWAR redevelopment project, said the 70.5-acre site is a poor fit for a host of reasons: less than optimal security, no air conditioning and offices so far apart that it can take a half-hour to walk to a meeting and back.
For years, the Navy has been mulling ways to move NAVWAR into a new facility. It's now exploring a partnership with the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) that would add new housing, commercial space and a major public transit hub to a neighborhood plagued by blight.
The Navy says it will likely be able to pay for the new facility by leasing or selling off its excess land for private development. This has already been done in downtown San Diego with the Navy Broadway Complex, which Manchester Financial Group is replacing as it also builds new office, retail and hotel space next door.
The NAVWAR project would differ from the Navy Broadway Complex in a few key ways, however. NAVWAR is nearly six times the size of the Navy Broadway Complex land, and unlike downtown, NAVWAR's surrounding areas are largely underdeveloped.
The Navy is also considering including a major public works project in its plans: a new transit center that would connect the nearby rail network to San Diego International Airport.
This is where SANDAG, the county’s transportation planning agency, comes in. Its executive director, Hasan Ikhrata, signed an exclusivity agreement with the Navy last month, and the two sides are meeting weekly to hammer out a joint development deal.
"It’s going so well it’s a little scary," Ikhrata said of SANDAG's partnership with the Navy.
Ikhrata argues San Diego needs a "Grand Central Station" where transit riders from around the county could quickly and easily transfer to a rail line that goes straight to the airport terminals. He said much of it could be paid for with grants from the state and federal government, and the roughly $500 million the Airport Authority has pledged to spend on transit improvements as part of its Terminal 1 expansion project.
But the transit hub would also need some funding from local taxpayers — either as part of a new tax measure or reallocating future revenue from SANDAG's existing half-cent sales tax extended by voters in 2004. Ikhrata said he hopes San Diegans would see the value in finally connecting rail to the airport.
"This is transformational," he said. "This is going to influence what happens from the Sports Arena all the way to downtown."
The Navy is in the midst of conducting an environmental analysis required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). At a recent open house, Mission Hills resident Clifford Weiler said he feared the project would make traffic worse in the Midway District. But, he said, he’ll reserve final judgment until the Navy provides more details.
Meanwhile, he says NAVWAR's status quo is unacceptable.
"That needs to be replaced," he said. "It looks nice on the outside, the skeleton looks beautiful, but the inside is deteriorating and needs to be replaced."
Despite all the planning for the transit center, the Navy insists it will not make a final decision on the NAVWAR project until after its environmental analysis is finished and the public has had a chance to weigh in. And the Navy has made clear its need for a new NAVWAR headquarters comes first.
Still, Geisen said, the Navy would be more than happy to help with San Diego's regional goals of building more housing and improving public transit.
"A lot of good thinking by a lot of good people put a lot of combined issues together," he said. "We might have a viable and 'makes sense' solution, which doesn't often happen in local and federal government."
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