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Monday, Oct. 16, 2006 | As readers of the Scott Lewis on Politics, or SLOP, blog know, I’ve been spending time these last couple of weeks trying to educate myself about the Navy Broadway Complex and the difficult decisions that are being made about it right now.

This is the city’s front porch – or at least part of it. It’s an incredibly valuable plot of land that may in fact be one of the most attractive development opportunities along the entire California coast. On the edge of downtown, its prime placement has provoked many San Diegans to dream about what it could be – whether it could be transformed into a gathering place worthy of the acclaim of some of the great waterfront cities of the world.

But it’s the Navy’s property right now, and the city signed a deal with the Navy long ago that governs what will happen to it.

A Jan. 1 deadline on that agreement is fast approaching. City leaders of all stripes are struggling with the decision about whether to miss the deadline and toss the future of the complex into the air, or whether to meet the deadline and allow developer Doug Manchester to proceed with his plans for the area.

Manchester’s deal is simple, he’s agreed to build the Navy a new office complex in exchange for the right to build a bunch of commercial facilities around it and generate a profit.

I’ve come to a couple of conclusions I thought I would share.

  • Doug Manchester is not the bad guy in this deal.
    If you’re angry or concerned about the plans for Navy Broadway, he’s not the one to blame.

As much as his contentious past, his haughty presence and his bizarrely ridiculous insistence that people call him “Papa” Doug all invite residents to direct their concerns in his direction, he’s being pretty straight forward on this.

We should stay on him, force him to bend to the public will and pick apart every detail of what he’s going to do, but he’s not the one who decided the fate of this area.

Manchester, from everything that’s available, appears to have drawn up his plans for the area according to the specific directions the city and Navy gave him.

The two main complaints about Manchester’s vision are that it plans too much density up against such prime waterfront property and that it lacks open space. But the facts seem pretty clear that Manchester was limited by the development agreement to produce what he has produced. Nobody, it seems, not even Peter Pan, could draw up plans for the area that would conform to that agreement with more open space or less density.

  • Nobody knows what the alternative is.
    There is an alternative, of course. It’d just be nice to know exactly what it looks like.

The city and the Centre City Development Corp. could refuse to sign off on Manchester and the Navy’s plans. But they’d have to come up with some kind of reason about why Manchester’s plans don’t conform to the development agreement the city and the Navy signed in the early 90s and repeatedly reaffirmed since then.

Some say that this recent news, that the city might be forced to once again study the environmental impacts of the planned development, will push approval of Manchester’s past the January deadline.

So what happens if one of the above obstacles successfully trips up the planned development? Nobody is quite certain. Supporters of the current plans warn that the Navy will be forced to close its headquarters at the site and then the property will go into the Base Realignment and Closure process. To hear them tell it, letting the military put the property through its base closure process would leave us with a gigantic and ugly post office. In the back of the post office, Indian tribes would host gamblers and the whole complex would be surrounded by barbed wire.

Without Manchester’s plan, they say, we’re doomed to see something like that on the prized land.

Alternatively, those who are opposing Manchester’s plan say that the military would close the property and most likely give it to the city. The city will take the property, and hopefully, with a good heart and mindful of the lessons of similar situations in the past, redevelop it into something special. Some envision a performing arts center, or perhaps a nice plaza.

But city leaders are genuinely confused. I talked to City Councilwoman Toni Atkins last week. Atkins was in a unique position last year – when she became the interim mayor – to force the property into the base closure process. The Navy, hoping to force something to happen with the old building, had offered to close it down. It forced the city’s hand. Make a decision.

The city decided it didn’t want to let the Navy close the building. Atkins and others were afraid of the casino/post office possibility – the fear that the Navy might just give the property away to another federal agency or some other entity giving the city even less control over the prime plot of land.

She made her choice, right?

Wrong. Now she said she’s changed her mind. Have empathy for her, she said. Atkins had been thrust into the mayor’s office last year during an unprecedented time of upheavel, elections and crises. She had to represent her own district, manage public meetings and deal with what a series of conflicts. Not only that but, with the felony conviction (later overturned) of then City Councilman Michael Zucchet, the downtown area had no city representative.

Finally, those who now are raising hell about the plans at Navy Broadway were nowhere to be found then.

“We should admit that we should have had a real discussion about this. Now, regardless of the agreement and our relationship with the Navy, I’m not sure we should let this go forward as it is,” Atkins said.

So should we kill it and let the Navy close the facility and take our chances?

Atkins said she didn’t know.

Well, that doesn’t help.

The mayor has only been slightly more decisive on the issue. His dynamic new land-use czar, Jim Waring, has endorsed a plan that would create another small “park” inside Manchester’s plan in exchange for several million dollars of city funds. Waring said he’s looked at the plan from every angle and can’t see what else the city can do to guarantee a good outcome.

But this isn’t enough. A consortium of the most prominent leaders in the city of San Diego must get together now and present their preferred alternative to this situation. If the answer is Manchester’s plan, then show us how it will work out in the city’s best interest. If the answer is to kill Manchester’s plan, then show us, step by step, how it will work out.

Because, probably the only thing we can really guarantee now is that if we don’t go through with Manchester’s plan, he’s going to sue.

And he, unfortunately, is pretty good at that.

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

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