Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006 | The city’s downtown planners stalled the Navy Broadway Complex redevelopment plan in July, arguing that they needed more time to vet the makeover of the bayside facility, which hosts dilapidated parking lots and a dowdy military office building.

In the three months that followed, the questions surrounding the controversial project have spilled over onto the turf of several other agencies and will likely linger for some time.

But the Centre City Development Corp.’s partial approval of the controversial project Wednesday was trumpeted by the Navy and its anointed developer for giving them the approval they need to ink a lease for the site – despite their disclosure that they’ve already sent a rough version of the agreement to Washington for congressional review.

CCDC’s board voted 6-1 to OK developer Doug Manchester’s proposed placement and heights of the hotel and office buildings that he wants to build on the pristine waterfront site – but they deferred much of the review the downtown agency is afforded until a later date.

“This is a major step,” said Perry Dealy, president of Manchester Financial Group. “It allows us to go ahead with our lease.”

An agreement between the city of San Diego and Navy in 1992 allows the Navy to lease the land to a private developer so that the four-block parcel at the elbow of Harbor Drive could be built up into a multiplex of offices, shops, hotels and museum space right on the downtown’s western waterfront. In exchange, the developer would be required to build modernized regional headquarters for the Navy for free.

Dealy said Wednesday’s vote put to rest his fears that CCDC’s ongoing delays would postpone the project past a crucial Jan. 1 deadline that would have closed the base. If shuttered, the Navy property would be subjected to a bevy of federal and military agencies that would have priority for obtaining the base before the city of San Diego could bid for it.

But Navy officials also acknowledged Wednesday that they found enough common ground with Manchester and received sufficient assurances from CCDC already that they forwarded the plans to Congress on Oct. 11. House and Senate committees that oversee military operations have 30 days to ask questions about the plan before Pentagon officials sign off on a lease. Calls placed to both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees’ offices were not returned as of press time.

The CCDC board’s vote Wednesday amounted to a basic, yet elusive, affirmation that Manchester’s plans lined up technically with the guidelines that the city and Navy hammered out in 1992. The board was slated to have made that decision and others as early as late July, but balked as more questions arose along the process.

Left unanswered for CCDC are questions about the quality of the project, such as the extraordinary architecture that the developer has promised but that board members said had not yet been delivered in the current plans. Also, individual buildings will have to be fully vetted before they are constructed.

Critics have have been unimpressed with Manchester’s vision for Navy Broadway Complex, which is part of a larger multi-agency effort to revitalize the waterfront from Seaport Village past the County Administration Building, and have also criticized city leaders for permitting the heavy development that is allowed in the 1992 pact.

“I think this is the biggest decision you’ve had in front of you, and it’s ‘What are you going to do with our waterfront?’” said Caryl Iseman, a resident of San Diego for 39 years and a local Realtor.

The downtown planning agency was charged with working within the confines of the plans that city leaders forged with the Navy at a time when downtown’s development was much more immature than it is today. At the same time, the public has pressured them to change, even kill, the project.

Although Wednesday’s meeting doesn’t end the panel’s review of the project, the vote provided clarity that the project is on track to meet the deadline after drifting into uncertainty several times in months past.

Just weeks after the unveiling of Manchester’s development, which was held high above the site in a tower of one of his luxury downtown hotels, the plans he won the bid with changed. The revisions produced more density and more outcry than the original plans.

Skeptics in the San Diego public, including local elected officials, called foul on Manchester and tried to involve themselves in the project. But the CCDC board, comprised of appointed redevelopment experts, was delegated the public’s only official chance to shape the behemoth project.

Many board members congratulated the CCDC staff, the Navy and Manchester for availing themselves to several public hearings where the project was overwhelmingly lambasted and then tweaked in hopes of appeasing a skeptical public.

“In seven months, I’ve never heard anyone say they loved the project,” CCDC Chairwoman Jennifer LeSar said.

With regard to the technical aspects of the project, the review process had run its course, some board members said.

Of the several board members who expressed reluctance to approve the project’s technical aspects – square footage, density, breakdown of allowable uses – only board member Teddy Cruz dissented Wednesday, saying he was hung up on the project’s aesthetics.

“I cannot separate the quantitative from the qualitative,” Cruz said.

As they have before, several board members reminded the nearly 100 people who crammed into the City Council chambers Wednesday that CCDC’s job was very specific and that they were not allowed to design an iconic project themselves.

However, some said CCDC was failing that task as well.

La Mesa resident Don Wood said he interpreted CCDC staff’s review of the plan to show that several pieces of the proposal differed from the requirement set in the 1992 agreement. It was impossible for the board to say Manchester’s plans were compliant when inconsistencies existed, he said.

“It’s either fully compliant or it’s not,” Wood said.

Several people attacked the plan from other sides, as the three-month delay produced even more questions about the project from a myriad of critics. Many contested the environmental studies that date back to 1990. Mayor Jerry Sanders’ staff has said that the studies suffice, but at least two groups said they want to appeal that decision. CCDC voted 5-2 to recognize the decision Wednesday, with LeSar and Cruz voting no.

Critics have been primarily concerned with the project’s impact on downtown traffic, an effect that they say the city ignored as early as the downtown plan update the city approved earlier this year.

Whether the public can appeal that environmental determination has been disputed, with City Attorney Mike Aguirre claiming it can be and Sanders saying it can’t.

Council President Scott Peters said the City Council will consider an appeal, but a hearing for that has not been scheduled. It’s unclear what would happen to CCDC’s decision Wednesday if the City Council grants the appeal and forces a new environmental study.

The California Coastal Commission also weighed in, saying they need a chance to update their decade-old review of the Navy Broadway Complex’s impact on the bay. They also said they were weary of the specter of having condo-hotels built on the site, saying it could be a violation of state law.

Others said the Navy had not conducted the environmental study it needs before it can sign a lease. Capt. Matt Brown said a draft of the report is ready and expects that it is in place by the time a lease is completed.

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