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In the early 1990s, downtown San Diego was in the middle of a recession. No new building was going on, and no new revenues were coming into the Centre City Development Corporations (CCDC) coffers. CCDC leadership were concerned that the organization might have to default on bonds issued to redevelop portions of downtown. In the mid to late 1980s, the Navy had looked into selling its prime property at the foot of Broadway, known as the Navy Broadway Complex (NBC). This had concerned San Diego’s political leadership, which turned to then Senator Pete Wilson to pass legislation in 1987 requiring that the Navy sign a development agreement with the city before it could redevelop the Broadway Complex.
In the late 1980s, SANDAG created the Broadway Complex Coordinating Group, and charged it with developing design guidelines that would apply to any future effort to redevelop the site. Members of the group included representatives from the Navy, the city, CCDC, the Port of San Diego and several major bayfront property owners. The BCCG developed design guidelines that called for four tall thin towers to be built on the east side of the NBC site, with building heights stepping down from Broadway south to G St. and from Pacific Highway to Harbor Drive. The idea was to create a new economic driver on the bayfront that would help pull downtown out of its doldrums. In an effort to attract developers willing to invest in site redevelopment, the Navy and the city agreed on allowing up to 3.2 million square feet of commercial development to be stacked on the site.
Based on the BCCG guidelines, the Navy developed a master plan and a preliminary environmental impact statement (EIS) for the redevelopment of the NBC site, and had them reviewed by the California Coastal Commission. The Navy purchased the east west street right of ways through the property from the San Diego Unified Port District for $1. In 1991 the Navy sued in order to establish its clear title to the entire NBC property, and a local federal judge confirmed that the Navy owns the entire site, and is not required to limit its use only to military purposes, as stated in the deed created when the citizens of San Diego gave the site to the Navy in the 1920s. In 1992, the Navy and the city of San Diego signed a development agreement based on the BCCG design standards, requiring that CCDC review and approve any final redevelopment plans for compliance with the design standards.
Having developed a master plan and established its ownership of the site, the Navy then did nothing for the next decade and a half. The Navy Broadway Complex continued to function as the regional Navy headquarters and a storage depot serving the Navy Pier at the foot of Broadway.
Then, during the last round of the Base Realignment and Closing (BRAC) review process, the chairman of the BRAC Commission asked the Navy why it had not included the Broadway Complex in its list of bases to be considered for realignment or closure. Local leaders, including the Navy, the CCDC, the Economic Development Corporation, Congresswoman Susan Davis, and others who had been defending the local complex of naval bases from closure under the BRAC process, looked for ways to prevent the Broadway Complex from being closed or moved. They pulled out the 14 year old plans for site redevelopment and argued that instead of being closed or moved under the BRAC process, the Navy should be allowed to move forward and redevelop the site based on the 1992 development agreement. The BRAC Commission agreed not to include the NBC site on the base closure list, but only on the condition that the Navy sign a redevelopment lease with a developer by the end of 2006.
Under pressure to redevelop the site or lose it, the Navy issued an RFP last spring, inviting developers to submit proposals for redeveloping the site based on the design guidelines contained in the 1992 agreement. Eventually Manchester Financial Group (MFG) was selected by the Navy to enter into negotiations to redevelop the site.
Since that time, MFG has developed several sets of plans and design drawings showing what it would like to build on the site. The latest design proposal calls for the site to be subdivided into eight blocks. Along the east side of the site, on Pacific Highway, MFG wants to build four large buildings that would step down from a 35 story condo/hotel on Broadway to a ten story combination office/hotel/museum building on Pacific Highway and Harbor Drive.
The west side of the complex, replacing the existing relatively low rise Navy office and storehouse buildings along Harbor Drive, would include a one block public park just south of Broadway, a new 15-story combination office/condo building – including a second museum structure, a 12-story combined use building and at the south end, a new 10-story condo/hotel/office structure.
Having reviewed several sets of plans, the CCDC Real Estate Committee deferred approval of a compliance finding at its last meeting and a CCDC board of directors meeting previously scheduled in September to approve the project has been cancelled, at least until after the September 19th City Council meeting.
The Coastal California Commission is mandated by law to ensure that public access to downtown’s bayfront is not walled off by excess development. The Coastal Commission’s staff have indicated that the commission’s previous review of the 1991 Navy master plan is obsolete and that another complete Coastal Commission review and approval of the latest project proposal is required.
Don Wood is a former president of Citizen’s Coordinate for Century 3, and served on the Bayfront Complex Coordinating Group’s Public Advisory Committee. He has also served on the City of San Diego’s Land Guidance Committee and numerous other public boards and commissions over the last 30 years. He also led the community fundraising campaign that helped the County of San Diego to restore the façade lighting on the historic County Administration Center in 1989. Email him at email@example.com or send a letter to the editor.