Aug. 18 2010 10:37 AM

Waterfront agency flip-flops around on the embarcadero project, irritating activists—again

The cruise-ship terminal in progress at the end of Broadway Pier.
Photo by David Rolland.

To call what happened between the Port of San Diego and the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition during the past couple of weeks a “torrid love affair” would be grossly overstating the facts. Still, tensions between the long-warring factions had loosened considerably. Whatever it was, though, it didn’t last long.

Two weeks ago, Cory Briggs, the attorney representing the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition (NBCC)—a group of activists fighting for more public open space on San Diego’s Downtown waterfront—was full of praise for port officials. After months of negotiations, port officials had essentially agreed to the NBCC’s demands concerning the embattled campaign to beautify the waterfront. Briggs hoped it had marked a turning point for a public agency that’s been criticized as being long on politics and short on the public interest.

Now the NBCC is angry at the port again. Last Friday, the port announced that a series of public workshops would be held this Wednesday, Aug. 18, and then Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 24, 25 and 26 (each from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the B Street Cruise Ship Terminal, 1140 N. Harbor Drive). The sessions would collect public comment on revisions to the beautification project, the so-called North Embarcadero Visionary Plan (NEVP), before the port’s Board of Commissioners votes on it.

The last version of the NEVP was derailed by the state Coastal Commission in April because it failed to deliver on a large park promised for the foot of Broadway Pier—the port says the park isn’t feasible because it would impede the flow of supply trucks to the new cruise-ship terminal on Broadway Pier. After that defeat, the port negotiated with the NBCC and the developers of a proposed project to build two hotels on the old Lane Field site at the northeast corner of Broadway and Harbor Drive. Two weeks ago, the parties emerged with a tentative agreement to widen a linear park from hawthorne Street to Broadway and redesign the Lane Field project so that more of the property is dedicated to public open space. [See the editor's note at the end of this piece.]

The port’s workshop announcement said the agency wants to bring the NEVP update to its board for approval in September. The NBCC immediately objected to such a rushed schedule, but by this Monday, they were told by port staff that the September meeting was still the target for a vote. However, on Tuesday, after being questioned by CityBeat, port spokesperson Ron Powell said staff had changed their minds and would now use the September meeting merely as a chance to update the board on what the public had to say at the workshops and what’s going on with Lane Field. Also, he said, more public workshops will be held after the September meeting.

All this flip-flopping has caused Briggs and his clients to renew their skepticism toward port staff. The NBCC were instantly furious that the port would even consider limiting public discussion to two weeks in late August, when a lot of people are on vacation or busy getting their kids ready to go back to school. But, perhaps more importantly, they won’t support a coastal development permit for the NEVP unless it’s inextricably linked to the redesign of Lane Field. A deal won’t be reached with the Lane Field developers before September. The NBCC is worried about another bait-and-switch: approval of the NEVP permit and then—oops!—no park at Lane Field.

We’re as flummoxed as the NBCC is that the port would even consider approving a new permit with such a short public-input period and absent an agreement at Lane Field. Port officials know that if they don’t play ball with the activists, NBCC will appeal the permit to the Coastal Commission again, and if there’s no replacement park somewhere near Broadway Pier, the Coastal Commission is likely to reject the NEVP again. On the other hand, if the port slows this thing down and provides the park it once promised the public, it can avoid the Coastal Commission altogether.

The port has shown that it values the cruise-ship industry’s money over public enjoyment of the tidelands that the port oversees—the NBCC has already sued over that, and a trial is slated for December. But it’s not too late for the port to make amends by involving the public, twisting the arms of the Lane Field developers—in a nice way; after all, their hotels have been approved—and providing the citizens of (and visitors to) San Diego with a first-class waterfront park.

Editor's note: After this editorial was published, port spokesperson Ron Powell asked us to clarify the port's position. We'll let his words do the trick: "The Port committed to study the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition's recommendation to create the linear park along with other suggestions from the public. The Port did not commit to build the 150-foot setback park. Secondly, the Port committed to engage in talks with the Lane Field developers to determine if the group would allow public open space on their project footprint. In truth, the Port of San Diego cannot commit property at Lane Field because it does not control the permit of the development group. Any redesign would have to come from the developers, who have a fully entitled project. All they are missing is financing."

What do you think? Write to