Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007 | The San Diego City Council panned activists’ appeal to further study the Navy Broadway Complex’ environmental impacts Tuesday, instead agreeing with Mayor Jerry Sanders’ staff that reports dating back nearly two decades still stand up today.

By a 5-3 vote that followed a four-hour hearing, the council rebuffed one of the last efforts critics have undertaken to stop the contentious redevelopment project outside a courtroom.

The council’s decision affirmed city staff’s stance that a 1990 environmental study and several subsequent reports properly contemplated all of the changes that have taken place leading up to the project’s maturation, including the development boom that has added thousands of new residents and motorists downtown.

The vote allows developer Doug Manchester to resume his plans to transform the rundown waterfront property into a collection of condo-hotels, offices and shops. In exchange for the right to lease and redevelop the land, Manchester must build the Navy a $160 million regional headquarters.

Members of the public and council officials have criticized the density involved in developing 2.7 million square feet on one of the most attractive pieces of undeveloped land remaining on the California coast, instead proposing that a waterfront park or iconic gathering place be built there. Still, skeptical council members lamented the question before them Tuesday, which was to judge only the sufficiency of the environmental analysis and not proposal itself.

“There are a lot of questions I have about this project, I’m just not sure they’re before me today,” Council President Scott Peters said. Peters, Councilmembers Kevin Faulconer, Tony Young, Brian Maienschein and Jim Madaffer voted to deny the appeal; Councilmembers Toni Atkins, Donna Frye and Ben Hueso voted in favor of it.

Had the activists prevailed Tuesday, they could have triggered a significant delay in the progress of the project, which is slated to break ground in the middle of this year. The city would have had to further examine its effects on the environment.

However, the activists said they are mulling a lawsuit to further fight the city’s decision. A group with ties to Tuesday’s appellants, the San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, filed a lawsuit against the Defense Department, the Navy and Manchester last week over the Pentagon’s similar decision to not thoroughly reexamine the project’s impacts.

At issue for the activists — Ian Trowbridge, Katheryn Rhodes and Dr. Conrad Hartsell — were their concerns that the city’s analysis of the project’s impacts on the public safety, traffic congestion and risk of earthquakes on surrounding downtown landscape was outdated.

Manchester’s lawyer, Steven Strauss, said the public had a chance to raise these concerns when the city originally blessed the studies.

“That horse was out of the barn over 15 years ago,” Strauss said.

Jim Waring, the land-use chief for Sanders, defended his staff’s decision, saying that the schematics of the project haven’t changed, that circumstances of downtown have all been accounted for in studies of the area’s neighborhoods and the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan, and that no new information about the project has been provided since the last studies.

“The cornerstone, for good or bad, is that this project hasn’t changed at all,” Waring said.

Trowbridge dismissed Waring’s assurances, saying that those past environmental documents are “irrelevant” to his concerns.

In another criticism, opponents argued that Manchester’s decision to build condo-hotels on the property instead of standard hotel rooms will cost the city at least $1.2 million annually because the hotel tax money that the city anticipated generating on the site would not be collected. That money would have paid for police and fire protection, among other city services, that would need to be expanded in order to accommodate the growth there.

Waring said his office plans to negotiate a guarantee that Manchester will pay that sum if condo-hotels are built to make up for the lost revenue, similar to the development agreements for the Padres ballpark and the Naval Training Center. But Waring agreed with Strauss that concern was not one that could be addressed in Tuesday’s environmental appeal.

However, Andrew Kahn, an attorney for a local hotel workers union, wrote in a memo Monday that the economic changes subject the project to another environmental study under the California Environmental Quality Act. The California Coastal Commission has expressed interest in reviewing the condo-hotel proposal because of its implications for providing public access to the waterfront, but the Navy has stressed that it disagrees that the state panel has any jurisdiction over its land.

Frye said her concerns were similar to those that prompted her to vote against the environmental documents for the 2006 downtown community plan — because they did not contemplate added public safety costs. If the public safety costs were part of either of the environmental documents, the city could decide to collect more money from the developers, she contended.

“If the city of San Diego is required to provide that mitigation, and we don’t get that money, you don’t get that mitigation,” Frye said.

The hearing served as the City Council’s only direct involvement in the redevelopment deal since 2002, when the panel — which at the time included five current council members — renewed the set of guidelines that govern a project on the military site (Frye was the lone dissenter then). Even the enforcement of those guidelines, which were originally formulated in 1992, is not in the council’s hands.

Instead, that responsibility was delegated to the Centre City Development Corp., the city’s downtown planning board, which determined in October that Manchester’s proposal fulfilled the 1992 requirements. CCDC will continue to vet the individual buildings for architecture and style in the coming months.

“There’s no magic here, the real magic is happening at CCDC, where they’re forcing Doug Manchester to build a world-class development,” San Diego Downtown Residents Group executive director Gary Smith said outside Tuesday’s meeting.

The council staged an informational hearing of the project last September, where council members listened to Manchester and Navy officials present the plans, entertained hours of positive and negative comments from the audience, and chimed in with their own thoughts. It was at that hearing that Frye asked the Mayor’s Office to determine whether the 1990 environmental study was outdated.

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

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