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Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2006 | Back in 1850, when San Diego was a small village located at the mouth of Mission Valley, entrepreneur William Heath Davis set out to reestablish a new civic center closer to the bay.

He bought a 160-acre parcel of bayfront land in the heart of what would become modern downtown and, in hopes of attracting a permanent engine to drive commerce and attract settlers from Old Town, donated a swath of land to the U.S. Army.

Although a lack of interest caused Davis’ “New Town” to quickly fail, the Army, which built a barracks and supply depot, remained there through the Civil War and Davis’ idea of using the military to drive the city’s development never died.

As San Diego military presence grew throughout the decades, so too did its economic dependence on defense budgets, a position that allowed the armed forces to exercise mounting influence over the city’s growth, politics and civic identity.

That relationship branded San Diego as a “martial metropolis” – a personality it continues to carry today – and the military’s financial impact helped germinate a burgeoning West Coast city. As such, it became a major city devoid of the traditional pains of urbanization – the pollution of heavy industry, dense housing, and labor struggles – that others had to bear.

But a significant identity crisis has literally been lurking on the city’s front porch as the extent of San Diego’s relationship with the military is tested by two important projects that will shape the city’s identity and growth. San Diego has lacked the marks of other urban giants – an international airport and a symbolic waterfront – and the city’s leaders are standing by as the military dictates the decisions over both points.

This fall, decisions will be made about the future of San Diego’s airport and a key undeveloped corner of its downtown waterfront. But it’s probable those decisions, like many of the past, will be shaped more by the military’s hands than by those of civilians.

The Department of Defense owns the two parcels in question and political leaders for the most part have shied away from confronting the military’s influence.

But in many ways, the city has outgrown its identity as a Navy burg on the desert’s edge.

The economy of San Diego, now the eighth-largest city in the United States, boasts a diversity that has spread into biotechnology, telecommunications and tourism. Downtown, once the bedlam for staggering sailors, is beginning to be pieced together as a vibrant urban hub.

Today a growing, albeit limited, chorus of activists and politicians has started to buck tradition and question the wisdom of allowing the military to wield its power without debate.

“They kind of run roughshod over the area,” said Bob Forsythe, a former county of San Diego planner and a resident since 1967. “They provide a lot of bucks and payroll and everything, but nobody has ever been able to say no to them.”

Some traditional military boosters, such as The San Diego Union-Tribune and the Chamber of Commerce, have begun to curb their reverence for the armed forces in selected circumstances.

“Their unwillingness to sit down and discuss these issues, I think, is disappointing,” said Bob Kittle, editor of the newspaper’s editorial page. “Right now, I think it undermines San Diego’s future if it doesn’t have a relationship to work out these problems.”

Even with a tradition of cheerleading the military community that dates back several generations of Copley family publishers, the Union-Tribune has scrapped with the Defense Department brass over the airport and waterfront issues, even referring to the top brass as “Pentagon foes.”

“These two projects are very, very important to the future of San Diego,” Kittle said.

This fall the city’s residents will get to weigh in on that future. Votes for relocating the airport to a local Marine Corps base and the criticism lodged at the Navy’s redevelopment plans for the waterfront could send a message about the city’s future as a military town, but some say San Diego is far from shedding its long-held image.

“The Navy is synonymous with San Diego, and it will be at least as long as Duncan Hunter is in office,” said Anthony Principi, former U.S. secretary of veterans’ affairs, referring to the local Republican congressman who chairs the powerful House Armed Services Committee.

The dispute over the military’s sway has not been an orthodox debate, as politicians and business leaders have dodged a discussion over the military’s role in today’s land-use decisions or have presented terrifically nuanced stances.

In November, county voters will consider Proposition A, which asks if the international airport should be relocated to Miramar. The Miramar site is touted as the ideal location for an expanded commercial airport, but most community leaders have fallen in line with the Marines, who ardently oppose the idea of sharing its air field with civilians, or have avoided the debate altogether.

At the same time, residents are watching the Navy and a private developer ink plans to transform the last unplanned portion of the downtown waterfront into a multiplex of office buildings, hotels and retail shops.

The plans to build up downtown’s west bank have resulted in a fevered public outcry, but the Navy’s sole ownership of the harborside property, and the threat that too much delay could force the military from the site, has caused leaders to reluctantly hope for the best rather than challenge the plans on the table.

Even the most frustrated say that the military’s influence is a fact of life.

Building Fortress San Diego

San Diego’s transformation from a desert outpost into a military town hasn’t always been a smooth one.

Miramar and the Navy Broadway Complex are just the latest in a long line of land-use decisions that, either through design, desperation or greed, the city’s leadership has allowed the military to control, said Abraham Shragge, a professor of history at the University of California, San Diego.

Starting with Davis, San Diego’s business leaders recognized the bay’s commercial potential, Shragge said. But the lack of local industry and the bay’s natural limitations – its sandbars, shoals, shallow depth and narrow channel – frustrated the Chamber of Commerce’s efforts to attract shipping

In the early 1900s the city’s leaders found solutions to their problems, successfully appealing to Congress for harbor improvement funding while simultaneously campaigning to attract the Navy, Shragge said.

The budding naval presence caused the scope of the harbor improvements – now vital for national security – to snowball. The Navy became a substitute for industry.

The chamber crowd may have traded one dream for another, but that didn’t stop them from lining their pockets, Shragge said.

Operating as the San Diego Securities Company throughout the early 1900s – chamber members, politicians and former Navy officials – sold large tracts of bayfront land to the Navy at record prices. But those sales were often contingent on their ability to convince voters to approve giving away larger portions of city land.

“This is the nature of the salesmanship,” Shragge said. “They have to give away the city in order to get the Navy to do what they want to do,”

But the boosters’ dreams spiraled out of control when San Diego became “the most congested war city in the U.S. during World War II,” Shragge said.

As thousands of troops and defense workers descended on San Diego, the city’s already shaky housing and water stocks were quickly overwhelmed. The federal government stepped in, condemning wide swaths of land and filling them with substandard military housing that lacked the sidewalks, schools and other amenities of planned developments, Shragge said.

In 1944, when the city outgrew its water supply, the Navy intervened and built a pipeline to access water from the Colorado River.

“During World War II the Navy basically took over urban planning in San Diego because the government couldn’t handle it,” said Mike Davis, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine. “They made the city work.”

The Navy may have saved the city from itself on more than one occasion, but the two have also clashed. The deepest scar to date stems from the bitter battle in the 1970s and 1980s over the Navy’s decision to expand the naval hospital in Balboa Park.

In 1972, the Navy wanted to use more parkland to replace some of the hospital’s existing buildings. But the city, eager to reclaim its green space, recommended relocating the entire facility. The city and Navy couldn’t come to an agreement on the proposal and, in 1979, voters panned a proposed land swap.

In the end, Congress condemned the property and gave it to the Navy. The city received the vacated property and some money to restore the site to parkland.

Michael Stepner, a former city planner, said the dispute changed San Diego’s relationship with the Navy. “They were no longer considered somebody who could do whatever they wanted to do,” he said, “but somebody who had to be partners with us and not just push.”

From Barracks to Bright Lights

Continuing local booster’s push to turn San Diego into a major metropolitan center will rely on its abilities to develop the symbolic and economic amenities that West Coast neighbors Los Angeles and San Francisco already have.

Two current proposals- an emblematic waterfront to serve as the city’s “front porch” and a major international airport – are being advertised this year as ventures that will highlight San Diego’s spot on the map. But again, the military will be dictating those plans.

Lindbergh Field is the nation’s busiest single-runway airport, and the agency overseeing its operations claims it will become congested and curb the region’s ability to do business.

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority selected Miramar as the best location for a new international airport after reviewing several other sites in the region. Many of the other alternatives would have also impacted military bases at North Island, Camp Pendleton and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.

The vast acreage needed for an airport’s construction left the agency with few alternatives, and local leaders lamented their quandary just a year after rallying to protect all of their military installations in the Defense Department’s latest round of base closures.

“Whichever base the airport authority selects and places on the ballot, the reality is that our region’s ability to pursue a new airport site will ultimately depend on the decisions made by the Pentagon,” said Mayor Jerry Sanders when he announced his neutral airport stance in May.

Largely expected to be front-and-center champions for a new airport, the business community has remained split on the airport issue. Businesses have been reluctant to defy the military because the armed services continue to generate a great slice of the region’s industry – between $18 billion and $22 billion by the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce’s estimates.

“We talk about the need for San Diego to attract and keep corporate headquarters, so what do you call the Navy Region Southwest or the Marines?” said Scott Alevy, the chamber of commerce’s vice president of public policy and communications.

Before the airport authority’s selection of Miramar, the chamber helped establish an advocacy group to push for whatever site was chosen. The business group’s attitude shifted when the airport authority picked the Marine base to accommodate more direct flights, lure international carriers and attract a greater cargo operation.

The chamber of commerce narrowly endorsed the Miramar proposition by a 19-to-18 vote, with 14 board members staying out of the debate altogether.

Regardless of the public’s vote on Nov. 7, federal law prevents commercial air operations from being performed at Miramar. That hasn’t stopped a small handful of leaders from challenging the military in its local might.

When San Diego City Councilman Tony Young, a member of the airport selection panel, defied the military’s wishes by advocating that a commercial airport be placed at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, he justified his decision by saying that he answered to the people of San Diego and not the Pentagon.

“I’m not going to be told what to do and how to think by the secretary of the Navy or anybody else,” Young said.

Federal legislation governing the Pentagon’s ownership of the Navy Broadway Complex could also disrupt the vision local leaders have for the western waterfront. Local agencies have envisioned a remade waterfront to serve as an iconic “front porch” of downtown by creating a ribbon of trails, shops and parkland along the embarcadero, but any vision concocted by the group will need to mesh to the Navy’s 14.7-acre property there, and the wishes of its top brass.

The Navy currently has plans with developer Doug Manchester to renovate the antiquated Navy Broadway Complex into a 2.9 million-square-foot cascade of luxury hotels and office towers, including a state-of-the-art headquarters building for Navy Region Southwest. Ground-level shopping and museum space are also planned.

The bulk of the development has galvanized critics, including a number of elected officials, who have religiously attended public meetings and sounded off in the local letters to the editor.

Critics have proposed a park, performing arts center or a scaled-down development. They point to great civic symbols found at waterfront attractions such as the Ferry Building in San Francisco, the Sydney Opera House, Millennium Park in Chicago and New York’s Battery Park.

“We should be asking whether we should be building hotels and office space on this site, or should we make more public space on this site,” said Stepner, the former city planner.

A 1992 pact allows the city’s downtown planning board limited, and mostly technical, authority. The Navy has the most sway over the development plans that take shape there. After all, it has been the property’s owner for over 80 years.

Residents and elected officials seem resentful of their diminished role in guiding a project that they say could become a postcard setting, if not a major community gathering place. The military’s business downtown, where several vendors have flocked to be near the Navy’s administrators, is less important to them than the prospect of creating a signature waterfront.

Principi, the former veterans affairs secretary, stressed that the city only became a cosmopolitan center because of the military’s help, and it would have to once again rely on the Navy for help to overhaul the drab waterfront parcel into an international attraction.

“Times change, dynamics change, but I always hope the Navy has a presence in San Diego,” said Principi, who once worked out of the Navy Broadway Complex.

The military’s influence on the waterfront and airport issues may illustrate the armed forces’ sway on local politics, but critics say that political leaders need to start speaking up.

“I don’t think they’re ever going to thumb nose at military, and I’m not completely sure they need to,” Forsythe said. “There just needs to be some kind of decent planning going on in this whole thing.”

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

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