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Thursday, June 8, 2006 | Point Loma resident Michelle Kareiva spotted a huddle of cameras and suits near the corner of Nimitz Boulevard and Capistrano Street, so she hopped on her bicycle and rolled down the hill to investigate.

“I thought I saw Jerry Sanders,” she said, referring to San Diego’s mayor, who was announcing that the budget he was signing into law would help pay for more street resurfacing projects like the one taking place behind him on Nimitz.

“I hope he kills that Navy project on the waterfront. That’s a monstrosity,” said Kareiva, a 30-year resident who caters events near the site of one of the hottest development debates in town.

Navy and real estate magnate Doug Manchester plan to redevelop the Navy Broadway Complex, a 14.7-acre yard of dowdy gray office buildings, warehouses and parking lots into a four-block promenade of luxury hotels, museums and shops hug the North Embarcadero. In exchange for the right to lease the land to develop and operate these enterprises, Manchester must pay to construct new headquarters for the Navy’s regional headquarters.

Kareiva is among the many residents who say they are concerned about the developers’ plans for the Navy-owned plot of land along the downtown waterfront. Many of these San Diegans have been contacting their elected officials with suggestions about how to best plan along the North Embarcadero for what civic leaders have called the “front porch to the city.” They object to Manchester’s design, complaining the hotels and office buildings planned for the site block downtown’s valuable access to San Diego Bay. They say they want a project that puts San Diego on the map, such as a Sydney opera house or Millennium Park in Chicago.

But while Sanders and the City Council might be feeling the political heat over Manchester’s unpopular design, the city’s elected officials have no say in what is built on the precious chunk of land. Instead, the Centre City Development Corp., the city’s downtown redevelopment arm, will have any final say on how the harborside skyline along those four city blocks is crafted.

The political pressure has rolled into City Hall in the form of phone calls and constituent mail, but it’s the CCDC board members – appointed by the City Council – who will be forced to decide whether to allow the redevelopment project to proceed or to kill it.

If CCDC did kill the controversial project, the plot of land would be subject to the federal government’s standard military base closure process.

Council President Scott Peters said he hopes to talk to Manchester soon about what he believes should be included in the site, but he said he recognized that his role in the Navy Broadway Complex’s redevelopment was limited.

The scope of the mayor and council’s say is limited by a 1992 development agreement the city forged with the Navy over the site.

CCDC will judge whether the proposal submitted by Manchester and the Navy is consistent with technical guidelines such as the square-footage and usage of buildings and where curbs are cut. But as public pressure mounts, they could also enforce some of the subjective language found in the agreement and possibly shape the actual look of the development.

“It looks like potentially we’re going to have a dialogue or debate over our role. Are we going to determine the letter of the development agreement or the spirit of the development agreement?” CCDC board member Fred Maas said.

While CCDC’s staff will audit the technical aspects of the agreement, the agency’s trustees will grapple with whether they will make aesthetic judgments about the proposal. Sections of the development agreement provide them the loophole to do that.

“This Agreement will allow the City to realize extraordinary and significant community-wide urban design, aesthetic, economic educational, recreational, cultural and regional benefits and facilities and other supplemental benefits not otherwise available where development takes place on federal property,” the pact reads.

Gary Smith, president of the San Diego Downtown Residents Group, urged CCDC trustees to dive into these questions.

“I think staff is going to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. You members of the board need to look at the rest of the development agreement,” Smith said at a Wednesday CCDC committee hearing. “Other than the two layers of underground parking, I have not seen anything ‘extraordinary and significant’ about this design to date.”

CCDC has heard gripes about the project from community members who have attended the half-dozen public workshops and board meetings where the Navy Broadway Complex plans were discussed. Several have wanted to kill the proposal altogether and others have called for more park space and less buildings. A scant few have praised the project in its various phases.

The criticism has grown since plans were first unveiled in April by Manchester and Rear Adm. Len Hering, the commander for Navy Region Southwest. Some called for more park space, but CCDC largely supported the proposal.

On May 19, Manchester executives altered the plan, adding more square feet of development to the project, saying they needed to maximize the buildings’ density in order to make the plan work financially. The revision also included an extra building on Pacific Highway, shrunk the planned open space and changed the plan for what was once a stand-alone museum. The plan prompted a chorus of jeers from members of the public and the CCDC board alike.

“We were all presented with a wonderful picture at first that a lot of us bought into,” Maas said. “Obviously it’s been replaced with something we’re not comfortable with.”

Some concerns about Manchester’s plans were quelled in an iteration made public at a workshop Saturday. The newest version trims some of the buildings’ girth, which is supposed to allow less wind and more visibility from downtown.

“To be honest, I still think we have a long way to go, but I think we’re making some progress,” CCDC board member Wayne Raffesberger said.

Manchester and CCDC will likely continue to give and take from one another over the next few months – both hoping that the agency signs off on the plans before August – but their failure to reach a compromise could throw the Navy parcel into the Base and Realignment and Closure process, known as BRAC.

If the project does not receive final blessings from the Navy, Manchester, CCDC and Congress by Jan. 1, the 14.7 property will be moved into BRAC, where a number of groups would get a crack at owning the land before the city could snatch it. In BRAC, the city would have to wait for the Navy, other branches of the Pentagon, federal agencies and recognized American Indian tribes to pass on the parcel before they get a shot at receiving it.

Perry Dealy, president of Manchester Development, said it was important to listen, but said that his company and the Navy are mostly confined to the technicalities and not the style questions.

“Ninety-five percent of [CCDC’s] input is pretty black and white and 5 percent of the things is the other stuff,” Dealy said.

But Dealy has an asset in his corner just in case the more esoteric elements of the plan are debated.

Manchester hired former CCDC Chairman Hal Sadler to consult on the project, a move that will likely place Sadler in a diplomatic role between the developer and CCDC as the two parties move forward. CCDC officials implied in comments that they will not rubber stamp any proposal, even if it means subjecting the centerpiece of the North Embarcadero to BRAC.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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