Monday, Jan. 15, 2007 | The San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition has been wrongly criticized for its opposition to the proposed redevelopment along downtown San Diego’s waterfront. Sure, the proposal was conceived 17 years ago. But it was conceived based on very different circumstances and very different information, and it certainly was not written in stone. 

Imagine proud parents of a precocious two-year-old, dreaming of the day when their little bundle of joy moves out of the house to attend an Ivy-League university. The parents work overtime and save every extra cent to ensure that they can afford to send their child to an expensive school. They spend late night after late night helping their child with homework, so that the kid gets top grades.

They support their child in all sorts of extra-curricular activities — music, soccer, recording books on tape for the blind — to make sure that the child’s extra-curricular activities stand out on the college application. So what should the parents do upon learning that their now-grown object of their pride decides to enlist in the military rather than go to college?

Not being a parent myself, I nevertheless submit that good parents take a step back and reconsider the goals that they set well over a decade earlier, based on the child’s situation at 18.

To insist that the child fulfill the parents’ dream because they conceived it — under different circumstances and without all the information now available to them — would be selfish and dysfunctional.

The problem with developer Doug Manchester’s Navy Broadway Complex proposal is that it is just as selfish and dysfunctional. While approved development proposals are entitled to a presumption of environmental compatibility, both the National Environmental Policy Act and the California Environmental Quality require additional environmental review when circumstances change or new information comes to light. By law, those charged with looking out for the public’s well-being and best interests must not ignore changed circumstances or new information related to a proposal — no matter how much time and money has been invested in the proposal after its initial approval.

The coalition has invoked NEPA and CEQA because 17 years have passed since the environmental impacts of the Navy Broadway Complex redevelopment proposal were considered. Are the circumstances along today’s waterfront and downtown San Diego different from what they were in 1990? Is there information about development impacts today that was unknown back in 1990? Only Manchester, who stands to make a killing from the proposal, and the politicians and bureaucrats in bed with him, would dare to deny the tremendous differences that are obvious to the rest of us.

Because there are so many differences between 1990 and today along the waterfront and elsewhere in downtown San Diego, it should not be surprising that the coalition’s list of legal grievances in seeking an updated environmental review is lengthy.  Here’s an abbreviated list of the most obvious differences:

  • Downtown San Diego and the waterfront have been built up and overcrowded in ways not anticipated in 1990. Back then, there was no plan for a major-league baseball park, no plan for a major maritime tourist attraction, no plan for enlarged convention facilities, and an anticipated 3,000 hotel rooms.

Today, in contrast, there’s Petco Park, the U.S.S. Midway, a much-expanded San Diego Convention Center, and more than 4,000 hotel rooms on the books (with hundreds more on the way). Additionally, traffic is far worse than any study by the city or the feds has ever predicted.

  • A 2006 report by seismic consultants, submitted to the city late last month, indicates that there is evidence of faults or fault-like features on the site of the Navy Broadway Complex. Indeed, the city’s own geologist told the city council at last week’s appeal hearing that it would be unsafe to proceed with Manchester’s proposal without further seismic studies. 
  • The air-quality and water-quality regulations applicable to downtown San Diego and San Diego Bay have changed significantly since 1990. For instance, diesel emissions —like those spewed out by heavy construction equipment — were recognized by the state as being toxic only a few years ago. As for the bay, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency imposed a regulation on more than 125 toxic pollutants in May 2000, and the Navy received its first permit for discharges of stormwater, including discharges from the Navy Broadway Complex, two years later.  (There are other air- and water-related changes, but I don’t want to belabor this point.)
  • And then there was that horrible event on Sept. 11, 2001. About 18 months ago, military leaders lobbied for expedited construction of a border fence between San Diego and Tijuana because, they said, San Diego’s military facilities have become a prime target for a terrorist attack. Oddly enough, the coalition’s concern about a terrorist event at the Navy Broadway Complex has been dismissed as a “scare tactic” by the Navy, city officials, and the developer; besides, they insist, a terrorist attack is not the sort of environmental impact that must be analyzed under NEPA or CEQA.

Meanwhile, the coalition’s concern is with the impacts of a terrorist attack at the Complex. Hundreds if not thousands of people inhaled airborne microscopic debris at Ground Zero and now suffer horribly from what is known as “World Trade Center Syndrome,” and the coalition does not want the same thing to happen to people in San Diego. Additionally, a federal appeals court ruled recently that the risk of environmental impacts caused by a terrorist event must be analyzed for high-profile targets proposed for construction. If the threat of terrorism warrants a fence 20 miles away, then it requires a closer look at the epicenter. 

These are just a few of the reasons why the coalition has demanded that the Navy and the city of San Diego perform an up-to-date environmental review of the complex’s proposed redevelopment. They, along with Manchester’s recent decision to build a condo-hotel (resident-tourist) hybrid instead of the typical hotel, is undeniable evidence that things have significantly changed since 1990.

But that is not the only thing that the Navy and Manchester have done wrong.

In an effort to avoid having to perform an up-to-date review of the project’s impacts, the Navy performed a limited reassessment of the impacts and concluded that nothing about the project as conceived today will have an environmental impact different from what was anticipated 17 years ago. Why isn’t this reassessment good enough for the coalition?

The answer: Like too many other things affecting the citizens of San Diego, the Navy’s reassessment was done in secret and without one shred of input from the public.

That’s right!

The public had no say whatsoever in the reassessment — which, conveniently enough, omits several subjects including the risk of a terrorist attack at the complex that military leaders feared 18 months ago. How can the military claim that San Diego’s military is a prime target for terrorism and then not even mention that risk in considering the impacts of redeveloping a major Navy facility?

Public involvement would have ensured that all potential impacts were given due consideration. That is precisely why the law required the Navy to involve the public in the reassessment. Congress might not be the smartest body on the planet, but it was absolutely correct in concluding that public oversight is essential to keeping government agencies honest.

A similar problem under NEPA and CEQA is that significant information about the project has been hidden from the public, even though Manchester — presumably having no security clearance — has seen it.

In the Navy’s lease with the developer, three of the four pages covering “Development of the Premises” are fully blacked out. The public should at least know everything about the project’s development before we’re asked to “trust” our military and political leaders when they say that all impacts have been adequately evaluated and that there’s nothing more to study.

That, in a nutshell, is why the coalition has been demanding an updated environmental review.

Cory Briggs is an environmental lawyer currently representing the Broadway Complex Coalition. Agree with him? Disagree? Send a letter to the editor.

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