The Port of San Diego’s drawing board is getting a wee bit crowded.
You name it, and it’s being drawn up.
A hotel and convention center in Chula Vista? Check.
A transformed and expanded Seaport Village? Check.
Hotels and more on Harbor Island? Check.
A concert shell on the Embarcadero? Check that one too, maestro …
Architects’ hands must be cramping up. It’s a golden age — for dreams of waterfront grandeur. Will it all pan out? Will any of it pan out?
The port is hopping, because it wants to take advantage of expiring leases at key sites, and because it’s trying to streamline what it describes as a very complicated and arduous development review process.
During the past several years, the port has been devising a visionary, 50-year plan because, officials say, the existing master plan is too firmly rooted in whether individual projects pass muster. When they do not, the master plan must be amended in order to allow them — a process that can take years.
“The idea . . . is to look at the port holistically,” said Port Commissioner Ann Moore, speaking at a recent meeting of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) San Diego - Tijuana District Council.
The port wants to look at all proposed land uses together, in conjunction with local jurisdictions and cities that are part of the port district. (Those cities are San Diego, Chula Vista, Coronado, Imperial Beach and National City.) Moore said a big-picture, connect-the-dots method has not been used since the 1980s.
Critics have argued that the port should wait until it adopts a new master plan before moving ahead with ambitious projects, such as the new Seaport Village. The port’s visionary plan is not the same as a master plan, which requires periodic updating.
Cory Briggs, the well-known environmental lawyer, has threatened to sue over the development proposed for the Seaport Village site, arguing that the port is moving forward without a master plan update.
The new Seaport Village concept is quite the concept, no question. The plan is to convert the quaint collection of tiny shops and eateries into a $1.2 billion development, including hotels, a 500-foot-tall observation spire and an aquarium, to name but a few of its features. The current lease for the site expires in 2018.
The port argues that the visionary plan does away with piecemeal planning, which has hampered some of the port’s potential. All of the concepts being considered fit the port’s long-term visionary plan and will also conform to the port’s updated master plan, officials say.
In the past, it was not unusual for projects to come under fire because they were being considered individually and not within the framework of a larger, port-wide plan, Moore said. So, much community outreach was done to get input for the visionary plan, and that outreach will continue, she said.
“This allows us to do sort of a reset, and to be able to engage with the public and really create a vision and create goals that reflect the desires, and also the needs, of the community,” she said.
The port often has come under attack from critics who said it failed to deliver on promises and focused more on development than on enhancement of open space. When it introduced the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan decades ago, it included an oval park at the foot of Broadway. The concept created much excitement, but the park vanished from later plans. Port officials said it was never truly intended.
The port also made the controversial decision to build the passenger terminal on the Broadway Pier. Many complained it was out of step with the port’s mission of keeping the waterfront accessible to the public. The $28 million structure opened in 2010, just as the cruise business slumped.
The port has quite the canvas to work with. It’s responsible for 2,403 acres of land — arguably some of the most valuable real estate in the region. The recent flurry of activity has resulted in much attention.
For instance, more than 1,000 people attended an open house this summer to see the six development proposals for Seaport Village.
The port has not been timid about making controversial moves, such as voting last year to replace Anthony’s Fish Grotto with an expansive Brigantine Restaurants dining complex.
Anthony’s has been at its waterfront location on Harbor Drive since 1960. However, its lease was nearing its end, and the port entertained bolder ideas that would bring in more rent.
Anthony’s released a statement at the time: “We are saddened that the port showed no loyalty to a company that contributed so greatly to its success.”
However, some praise the port for looking to improve waterfront sites, including its more aggressive moves of late.
“You really have some world-class opportunities here,” said David Graham, deputy chief operating officer for the city’s Office of Neighborhood Services, who was also a speaker at the ULI meeting. “And, I think it’s the right thing to do to be taking on some of these big sites. I love the cookie shop at Seaport Village, but the ideas that are coming out of [the planning] are going to be tremendous.”
Another speaker, Gregory Mueller of Tucker Sadler Architects, said the port’s changes have helped steer projects more efficiently. His firm is designing the $25 million concert shell on the Embarcadero for the San Diego Symphony.
Developers and architects now have a better understanding of what the port is seeking and have more freedom to design projects in conjunction with those goals, Mueller said.
“We have a better roadmap than what we had before,” he said.
He noted that the concert shell is part of that vision. Currently, the symphony plays its summer series on a temporary stage. Not only will the new state-of-the-art venue elevate the symphony’s performances but it will also draw more people to the waterfront.
“Activation is part of this whole integrated planning,” Mueller said.
But attracting big, glitzy projects is not the port’s only focus. It’s also spearheading nuts-and-bolts projects, such as infrastructure improvements.
The Shelter Island boat launch is one example. The current launching ramp handles as many as 50,000 launches annually. It’s believed to be the busiest one of its kind in California. A $10 million project, scheduled to begin next year, is designed to make the launch both safer and easier to navigate.
The port also wants to make certain its many projects are developed in a sustainable manner. Parking, for instance, is a major concern, given that waterfront space is limited — and precious.
So, shuttles and mass-transit options need to be explored. Using the harbor itself as a means of transportation is something that needs to be considered, Graham said.
That could mean more water taxis and other possibilities, he noted.
Climate-change awareness is yet another significant factor. The cities of San Diego and Chula Vista and the port all have climate action plans. Meeting the goals of those plans is critical.
Moore sees the port already moving in a new direction — one that is more progressive and in tune with the public’s desires. That includes creating more pubic access and a sense of place, she said.
“I say we do have a world-class port right now, and what we want to do is to make it even better,” she said.