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A Vision For San Diego's Waterfront?

North Embarcadero Visionary Plan Concept Drawing
Unified Port of San Diego
North Embarcadero Visionary Plan Concept Drawing
A Vision For San Diego's Waterfront?
We'll discuss the Port District's plans for San Diego's north embarcadero, a site that could become become a world class waterfront.

ALISON ST JOHN (Host): You’re listening to These Days here on KPBS. I’m Alison St John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Just as the natural environment where we live makes a difference to our quality of life, so, too, does our urban environment. In San Diego we have some of the most glorious natural environment you could ask for, even in our urban core. The downtown waterfront along San Diego Bay is so refreshing. You’ve got the glistening blue waters, you’ve got the balmy breezes, you’ve got seagulls, sunshine, the Star of India, and lots of large stretches of asphalt. So the Port District is trying to break ground on a project to upgrade and beautify the North Embarcadero. Citizens activists have blocked the plan, saying it short changes the public with mediocre improvements. The California Coastal Commission has refused to approve it. It’s called the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan. So here we are, a bit stuck in limbo. We have in studio our guests. Irene McCormack, who is a spokeswoman for the Port District. Thanks for being with us, Irene.

IRENE MCCORMACK (Spokesperson, Port District of San Diego): Thank you very much, Alison.

ST JOHN: And Don Wood, who is a citizen activist who believes San Diego can do better, and who’s also a member of the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition. Thank you for being here, Don.


DON WOOD (Navy Broadway Complex Coalition): Thank you.

ST JOHN: So, Irene, start off by just putting everybody in the picture. Where is this spot that we’re talking about, the North Embarcadero?

MCCORMACK: Well, when you go down to San Diego’s waterfront, if you – the heart of this particular area that we’re talking about today is the intersection of Broadway, West Broadway, with Harbor Drive and where it also intersects with the Broadway Pier. On one side is the Navy Broadway Complex, on the other side is what – is the Lane Field area, which was once the home of the Padres. And it also stretches north to the cruise ship terminal where all the cruise ships come in, which the Port calls the B Street Cruise Ship Terminal because it really is the terminus of B Street although B Street doesn’t go through down to the harbor.

ST JOHN: Okay, now what is there now and how would that change under what the Port’s proposing?

MCCORMACK: Right now, when you walk along it, there’s about six lanes of road and about 28 feet of sidewalk that is directly adjacent to the bay. There’s some – there’s a café down there, there’s a lot of newspaper boxes. It’s not the easiest place to traverse. So what we’re trying to do, what we’d like to do, is actually extend the esplanade all the way into where the roadway is today and make it about 125 feet wide instead of about 28 feet wide, narrow Harbor Drive to about 3 lanes, and create a pedestrian esplanade that also has room for bikes, pedicabs, bicyclists, whatever else you want to do down there, build some pavilions that moves the kiosks off the waterfront and towards – more towards the roadway so that you get a really nicer view of the bay as you walk down there.


ST JOHN: And how will this all be funded?

MCCORMACK: Right now, we work with a partnership with the Centre City Development Corporation, the redevelopment arm of the City of San Diego, and they have agreed to put up $28 million, $14 million of which the Port of San Diego will repay over the years through a maintenance agreement because we are going to maintain it for – in perpetuity. So that’s how it’s going to be paid for right now, and it’s only one piece of a bigger project.

ST JOHN: Okay, so, Don, it sounds like an improvement over the current existing situation. Why is this particular site so important and why are you against this plan?

WOOD: Well, we’ve talked about the North Embarcadero Visionary project. I want to do a little history. The North Embarcadero Visionary project was put together in the mid-nineties by the Port, by the City of San Diego, by the Navy, by the County of San Diego. And it was completed about 1998. And at that time, the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan called for five acres of public park at the foot of Broadway that would’ve included a broad, grand oval park at the foot of Broadway extending out onto Broadway Pier, which was supposed to be under the NEVP. It was supposed to be open public park space. The idea was to have a community celebration site where if the Chargers won the Super Bowl or the Padres won the World Series, all the citizens of San Diego could go down there onto the oval park and out onto Broadway and celebrate.

ST JOHN: And that’s kind of the connection of downtown, isn’t it?

WOOD: Yes.

ST JOHN: It’s like as you move from downtown and you go down Broadway, boom, there’s the bay.

WOOD: It truly linked downtown to the bay. Someone could stand in the middle of Broadway up around Pacific Highway, look west, and look right down over Broadway Pier into the bay.

ST JOHN: And, in fact, not be cut off like at the convention center…

WOOD: Yes.

ST JOHN: …which cuts off the bay.

WOOD: Yes. Now, that was the plan. And if we had followed that plan, we would all be celebrating a very nice downtown waterfront today. We have nothing against the esplanade idea. We think it’s a good idea. The North Embarcadero Visionary Plan calls for a series of parks, a curvilinear pier where Grape Street is now. There’s three small piers at the foot of Grape Street. There’s supposed to be a grand curvilinear pier there. That was supposed to go south to a grand county terrace park west of the County Administration Center, and another series of parks all the way down to the grand Broadway Landing Park at the foot of Broadway. That is what the NEVP calls for, that is not is what is being proposed today.

ST JOHN: The North Embarcadero Visionary Plan. So the sticking point is really the park space, the public open space, is that right?

WOOD: Yes. Yes.

ST JOHN: Okay.

WOOD: We believe that the North Embarcadero offers us an opportunity to mitigate the disaster that happened on the South Embarcadero. If you go to the South Embarcadero and stand anywhere on the east side of Harbor Drive, you can look west and what you will see is a wall of concrete. You will see hotels, large hotel towers and podium buildings, you will see a half-mile long convention center six stories high, and you would not know you’re in a waterfront city.

ST JOHN: Well…

WOOD: We don’t want that to happen on the North Embarcadero.

ST JOHN: So there’s no convention center. On the other hand, there are some cruise ships and some of those things are as big as highrises when they’re in.

WOOD: Exactly, yes. Some of them are 30, 40 stories high, yes.

ST JOHN: So, Irene, why did the plan change? And right now there’s a new pier being built for the cruise ships at the foot of Broadway.

MCCORMACK: The plan changed because two of the agencies that were part of the North Embarcadero alliance dropped out. The County of San Diego no longer wanted to participate and the Navy didn’t either. So it ended up being three agencies, the City of San Diego, CCDC, and the Port of San Diego. So it changed there, and plans evolve. When you realize you can’t do some things because of the cost, you have to come back and try something else. And I think that’s what occurred here. Broadway Pier’s a sticking point, and putting a cruise ship terminal on Broadway Pier has been something that has really bothered some people here in San Diego and I understand that. So what we’re trying to do now because the cruise ship terminal is there right now to handle ships that come in when there’s more than two cruise ships in port at a time, we want to incorporate it as a public place. So what we’re doing to look at the future is incorporate the Broadway Pier with its terminal on it as a public event space. We don’t believe there’s going to be many, many, many ships there like you will see at the B Street Cruise Ship Terminal where almost all the cruise operations occur right now. So in order to move forward with this plan and get a permit from Coastal or get a permit approved without it being appealed to the Coastal Commission, we’re incorporating a lot of other design features into the first phase and will plan for the other phases in our newest amendment to our Port Master Plan to incorporate even more park land. Coastal asked us to incorporate at least 2.5 acres, and some of the ideas that we’ve had is actually closing Harbor Drive in front of the County Administration Center…


MCCORMACK: …so that when the County builds the public parks on either side of its building, which are now parking lots, that’ll be a huge grand place for people to be there. We’re talking about studying whether or not we can close the end of West Broadway so that you don’t have traffic going between the Navy Broadway complex and Lane Field. So closing that down and maybe make that more of a public place. Narrowing Harbor Drive actually all the way through that area would actually make it a much wider esplanade and a prettier place to be. So we have a lot of other ideas that we’re trying to incorporate to help work through the issues that Coastal Commission asked us to work through, more public land for people to play upon, and also more public input, which we just held four public meetings over the last two weeks to get some input on what people thought we should do for the future.

ST JOHN: We’ve got some calls here but before I go to them, I just want to ask both of you, I mean, would you say that it’s true to say that this particular site is one of the key sites for San Diego. If you’d try to imagine a postcard of San Diego that would be iconic, right now we’ve got, you know, beaches and Sea World. But is it true to say that this site is kind of – has the potential to become kind of an icon of what San Diego is.

WOOD: I think it has the potential to be one of the most iconic waterfronts in the United States and in the world if we do it right.

ST JOHN: And, Irene, what would you say?

MCCORMACK: I think so, too, but I think it has a lot to do with the activation of the area rather than what you just build there. It’s what you program there, what you make it, you know. And the Port’s really dedicated to putting out a request for proposals to actually hire somebody to activate the whole area, and I think that’s what makes it different. It’s not just what you build there but it’s how it’s used.

ST JOHN: Okay, let’s go to the phones, 888-895-5727. And Jim is on the line from downtown. Jim, thanks for calling.

JIM (Caller, Downtown San Diego): Yes, good morning. I’d like to ask your panel about if the Port has ever considered moving the cruise ship terminal to the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal down near the convention center and the Hilton Hotel and then using the B Street and Broadway Piers as open space, as twelve and a half acres on both those piers. This would increase the ship security, it would eliminate all the truck traffic, and this probably would make a longterm planning provision to do this in a concerted way rather than a piecemeal way. And I wonder if the Port has ever considered that? I’ll take my answer off the air.

ST JOHN: Thank you, Jim. Irene.

MCCORMACK: The Port of San Diego is dedicated to providing diversity of jobs and businesses along the bayfront. So one of the things that we’ve been charged with with the State Lands Commission, which oversees us, is to make sure that when we have deep water, which is at our 10th Avenue Marine Terminal, we can provide the cargo needed here at – in the Port. A lot of other people depend on our cargo operations for the steel. General Dynamic/NASSCO, that has 4500 employees, depend a lot on what we bring in through our cargo terminals. So while we have looked at that idea, we haven’t studied it, it’s not something that we plan on doing. We need cargo operations in San Diego and we believe the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal and our National City Marine Terminal are the two places that will continue to have cargo operations.

ST JOHN: So, Don, what do you think about this option of having the cruise ships moved altogether down to the 10th Avenue Terminal, which is that terminal south of the convention center.

WOOD: Yes.

ST JOHN: It’s not far, it’s just a bit further down the bay.

WOOD: I think it’s – I think it’s sad that the Port never chose to study this when it was trying to resolve its cruise ship traffic issues. Last week a letter came out from Carnival to the Port saying that with the removal of the only home-based ship here in San Diego, that Carnival would never be able to produce enough cruise ship traffic to justify three berths. But the truth of the matter is that if the Port had chosen to build one cruise ship terminal on the north end of the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal, they could service three large cruise ships in a secure manner that would meet Homeland Security rules whereas right now they’re spending $28 million on one terminal on Broadway Pier which can only serve one short cruise ship if you comply with Homeland Security rules. And I’m not sure that if a cost benefit study had ever been done of the option of moving the cruise ship traffic down to 10th Avenue Marine Terminal and looked at what the opportunity costs would be of having two piers on the North Embarcadero that could be redeveloped with not only park space but also marine related retail and art galleries, etcetera, I’m not sure that economically wouldn’t have made more sense. Now that’s – that decision’s been made by the Port unless the courts overturn it, in which case the Port may want to take another look at utilizing 10th Avenue Marine Terminal for cruise ship traffic.

ST JOHN: Okay, we should mention there is a lawsuit in the works…

WOOD: Yes, there is.

ST JOHN: …at the moment. And you’re involved in that lawsuit, Don, are you?

WOOD: The North – the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition is suing the Port over its decision to park a cruise ship terminal on Broadway Pier because we believe it violated the Coastal Act, we believe it violated CEQA. One of the mitigations of putting the Midway at Navy Pier said that the Port would preserve views across Broadway Pier to the bay. The Port obviously has not done that and so there’s a whole lot of legal issues that may end up moving that cruise ship terminal from Broadway Pier.

ST JOHN: Irene, I wanted to ask you, you’ve mentioned a few reasons why the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal wasn’t considered. And I wondered, has the military weighed in on this issue at all? Because they have a lot of ships in the bay and they’re invested in this whole area.

MCCORMACK: Yes, and as you well know, in 2014 the Navy will have about 84 ships stationed here and right now they only have 53. The 10th Avenue Marine Terminal is used for strategic Port purposes, too, by the U.S. military. It’s where 51% of all the military loadouts from the Pacific coast are done. So the Navy probably—and the Army, which does the loadouts, by the way—would probably be very interested if this particular terminal was turned into a more recreational terminal than a cargo facility. So we have to, like I said before, the Port has to balance many different, diverse businesses on its bay. The Port of San Diego has always had cargo operations in the bay and actually the Broadway Pier and the B Street Pier were used for cargo operations all the way up through the fifties.

ST JOHN: Has the military actually been officially asked about this?

MCCORMACK: When Prop B, which was asking…


MCCORMACK: …voters whether or not to change the use on the terminal went forward, the military came out very strongly saying we can’t support that.

ST JOHN: Okay. Let’s take a quick call here from Ian in Mission Hills. Go ahead, Ian.

IAN (Caller, Mission Hills): Yeah, I’d like to ask Irene a question. It’s an open secret that there’ve been negotiations going on to develop a park on the Lane Field property to mitigate the loss of the oval park at the foot of Broadway. And I would say the coalition and the developer and the union uniting have reached agreement but the roadblock is because the Port refuses to negotiate with Lane Field on business deals and it just…

ST JOHN: Okay, good question. We just have a couple of minutes left so, Ian, let’s throw that question to Irene.

MCCORMACK: Ian Trowbridge is talking about the appellants who appealed our coastal development permit and he’s one of them. And we have been working with Mr. Trowbridge, Mr. Wood, and others on seeing if we could come up with some kind of agreement with the appellants that would keep them from appealing any other coastal development permit we were to issue. So there are some ideas that we have – that they’ve given to us, one of them is studying 150 foot setback, if not bigger, on the Land Field site. The difficulty the Port has with this is Lane Field developers have a permit from the Coastal Commission which they got on a 12-zero vote to build a hotel there right now. And if Lane Field decides it will redesign its site then we’ll work with them to do so.

ST JOHN: So there are a lot of different issues all intertwined in this one issue, aren’t there, and it’s just this particular few blocks as part of the whole bayfront and it’s hard to really imagine the importance of it until you imagine going down there, perhaps if you’ve ever visited the Star of India and you remember what it’s like down there and the potential of that spot. So the future of what’s going to happen down there is in the offing. So, Irene, I just wanted you to wrap up. What – where are we at? When will the Coastal Commission look at it again? What’s next?

MCCORMACK: The Board of Port Commissioners, which oversees the Port, meets on Tuesday. We’ll give an update of where we are and then we hope to bring a coastal development permit back in November.

ST JOHN: Great. So thank you both very much. Irene McCormack from the Port District, and Don Wood, citizen activist and member of the Navy Broadway Complex. Thanks for joining us. Thanks for listening. Stay with us. Coming up after the break we’ll be continuing to talk about how to revitalize neighborhoods using arts and culture.