Monday, Sept. 18, 2006 | Two decades ago, when city officials began strategizing plans to redevelop the Navy Broadway Complex, downtown was a very different place.

The urban core was dotted with bankrupt residential projects, stalled construction and blighted neighborhoods.

“There was rebar sticking out of the ground and puddles of water that sat there for years,” said Peter Q. Davis, a former chairman of the Centre City Development Corp.

At the end of the 1980s, the nation was in an economic recession that extended into real estate development. Compounding the decline of prospective development was the savings-and-loan crisis that drove many of downtown’s banks – the area’s major employers – out of business. The slumping economy “was pouring people out into the streets and leaving empty projects behind,” Davis said.

Just as downtown received an adrenaline shot after Horton Plaza was redeveloped into a shopping center – albeit brief because of the recession – the city saw a similar catalyst for revitalizing the western waterfront in the Navy Broadway Complex.

After a few years of behind-the-scenes planning and public meetings, the city struck a deal with the Navy in 1992. The pact allowed the 14.7-acre harborside parcel to house 3.25 million square feet of hotels, retail space, office buildings and museums alongside new regional headquarters for the Navy.

“Here was a large parcel, if it could be developed with enough critical mass, that could help kick-start other things,” said Michael Stepner, a former planner at the city of San Diego.

Today, elected officials and community activists say they are disappointed that the future of the waterfront is being dictated by decisions that were made up to 20 years ago. Even as the current residential real estate market fizzles, commercial real estate remains strong, and critics of the agreement argue that downtown doesn’t need to make the concessions to lure developers the way it had to a generation ago.

“It probably doesn’t match up with what’s happened to downtown now,” City Council President Scott Peters said.

But the project’s supporters – the Navy and the developer it handpicked in a secret bid process, Doug Manchester – take the changes to downtown in stride. Buildings have sprouted and population has tripled to more than 30,000 residents since the city signed off on the 1992 agreement, but plans for the Navy Broadway Complex already projected that expansion, they say.

“Downtown is a different place, but we’ve seen those changes realized in all of these plans,” said Capt. Mike Allen, the chief of staff for the Navy Region Southwest. “The growth was envisioned then, but we see it now.”

The project’s backers, as well as CCDC officials, contend that the development boom was contemplated in every related planning and environmental document since the Navy pact was forged. Reviews have since been performed to involve downtown, the North Embarcadero area that includes the Navy-owned swath, and surrounding properties such as Lane Field and Seaport Village, they said.

“It’s been assumed to be a given to be part of how western part of downtown is developed,” said Perry Dealy, the president of Manchester Development.

That doesn’t stop critics from urging the parties to reopen the debate over the best use for the prime piece of real estate, which is encompassed by Broadway, Pacific Highway and Harbor Drive. The technical details of the project may line up, but skeptics argue that the existing compound of dowdy gray buildings and crumbling parking lots should be swapped out for a true civic symbol for San Diego, not a bulky multiplex of hotels, offices and retail space.

“I do not object to the Navy, the developer or the design team. I do object to the 1992 plan and the land-use entitlement,” former CCDC executive Max Scmidt told a panel of state legislators last month. “This is the premier land site on the West Coast.”

Weeks before the Navy and Manchester retreat to closed quarters to finalize the terms of their negotiations, pending CCDC’s approval, members of the public are hounding elected officials to try anything to reopen the debate on how the land bordering San Diego Bay should be used. A rolling park or a scaled-back set of buildings appear to be the wishes of many of the current project’s vocal opponents.

As the Navy and Manchester work toward a crucial New Year’s Day deadline for having an agreement in place and approved by CCDC and the federal government, they reiterate that it is too late for land-use discussions. City officials had repeated chances to revisit the development guidelines if the plan didn’t meet their satisfaction, they argue.

Most recently in 2002, the City Council renewed the 1992 agreement, with four current council members – Peters, Toni Atkins, Jim Madaffer and Brian Maienschein – approving an extension through 2007. Councilwoman Donna Frye voted against it.

“There have been a number of opportunities for people to review this,” CCDC board member Fred Maas said in an interview Friday. “It’s not as if this thing dropped out of the sky.”

The council will review Manchester’s proposal for developing the Navy Broadway Complex on Tuesday, although it appears they will have little influence on the project. An opinion issued Friday by the City Attorney’s Office says that CCDC will have the final say for the city. CCDC is slated to make a final decision on whether Manchester’s plans comply with the 1992 agreement on Sept. 27.

Maas and other CCDC officials emphasize the limits of their role, which is to simply ensure that the developer’s proposal meets the restrictions on design and density that the city had already set forth in the 1992 agreement.

Although they approved the guidelines for the waterfront site just a few years ago, Peters and Atkins said they’ve scrutinized the proposal more thoroughly now that there is a concrete sketch of one possible way the property could look like under the requirements.

“I don’t think we had a good discussion about it and what it means,” Peters said at this press briefing Thursday. “It would be really smart for the city to sit down and look at it more thoroughly.”

Atkins said that the city’s need to approve a development plan for Navy Broadway Complex before Jan. 1, 2007, lest the military property be shut down and offered to another federal agency, has finally forced the council to scrutinize the agreement. If the 1992 agreement could be executed in that timeframe, the Navy’s regional headquarters could remain on the downtown parcel and the remainder of the property could be redeveloped as envisioned in the 1992 agreement.

Up until the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, decisions, the city thought a decision over the property could be deferred to the future. However, to protect the plot from the latest base closure round, officials were forced to make a move on the 14-year-old development pact.

“The thing that had forced our hand was BRAC,” said Atkins, who, as acting mayor last year, worked with the Navy to set up the contingency for the waterfront property. “That was the big, black cloud we were trying to avoid this time a year ago.”

Mayor Jerry Sanders has stressed that allowing the property to be subjected to BRAC is still a failing option, noting the myriad government and other agencies that have dibs on claiming the prime waterfront property ahead of the city if the base is closed.

However, even as CCDC, Manchester and the Navy hope to press forward with the 1992 pact in hand, Peters and Atkins said they want to reopen the debate, even if it means taking their chances with BRAC.

“I think everything should be on the table,” Peters said.

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

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