Friday, Feb. 9, 2007 | Three sets of signs guide visitors to landmarks lining San Diego’s waterfront.

One group of placards, with a wave of dark blue splashed on a sky blue sign, was designed by the Unified Port of San Diego. The second signage hails from the city’s downtown planners at the Centre City Development Corp., sporting dark teal and violet-blue backgrounds with colorful tile pasted to the tops. The city of San Diego designed a third set of signs, which are green with white lettering and resemble those found on a typical freeway:

The competing signs, which are sometimes found within the same city block, often include directions to the same exact locations. They were never coordinated to look alike, feed off one another, or even use the same terminology.

The agencies had met in earnest during the late 1990s to create a system of signs visitors could use when navigating the waterfront, but the talks turned competitive and territorial, participants of the discussion said. “It didn’t ever make sense to them to come up with one sign,” said Laurie Black, a former president of the Downtown San Diego Partnership.

Today, the future of precious real estate along San Diego Bay hangs in the balance as several key decisions about the waterfront are being mulled by a host of governments, each being tugged by groups who want to stake claims in the valuable bayside turf.

And the scattered, competing signs are emblematic of the debate over the future of downtown’s waterfront.

Some see a tourist haven, a place where visitors can dine with a view before laying their heads to rest in five-star hotel room with a view of the bay. Others see a working waterfront, equipped with heavy industry and busy cargo terminals that offer good-paying, blue-collar jobs that bolster the region’s middle class. The debate has also engaged civic enthusiasts who see an opportunity for establishing an iconic urban landmark that is of a stature similar to Sydney’s opera house or Chicago’s Millennium Park. Environmentalists keep a watchful eye on the effects of development on the marine biology and water quality.

The competition will be playing out in several upcoming projects, spanning from Chula Vista to Lindbergh Field. And the details governing those projects will be hammered out by a patchwork of governmental agencies.

The outcome of these decisions could sway the personality of the region’s waterfront, if not San Diego itself.

“Great cities are defined by their waterfront,” said Ethan Kent, vice president of Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based urban planning consultancy that recently ranked the world’s best waterfronts. San Diego didn’t make the cut. “A city can figure out how to express itself on the waterfront. It’s really key to a city finding itself and preserving its identity.”

The debate has flared up over the past year with arrival of high-profile projects that feature some of the region’s biggest names. Politicians and activists alike have opposed the Navy’s agreement with developer Doug Manchester to build offices and hotels on its bayside property in exchange for a new regional headquarters. More recently, county Supervisor Ron Roberts and former state Sen. Steve Peace presented their own aggressive vision for remaking the waterfront from Lindbergh Field to Chula Vista, but offered scant advice for how to implement their plans.

The scrutiny will likely continue as several projects ramp up throughout the year.

In the South Bay, the city of Chula Vista and the port are attempting to strike a balance between the environment and economics as they develop plans to build a convention center, resort and condos on the bay front. The city of San Diego is also poised to update its plans for Barrio Logan, where industry and residences are enmeshed.

The arrival of a high-profile politician at the North Embarcadero Alliance, which will be planning out the western waterfront between the Navy Broadway Complex and the county building, could also bring calls for carving out more parkland and forcing developers to reshape their hotels.

Business boosters are rallying behind redeveloping the Chula Vista bay front into a 400,000-square-foot convention center and one of the largest hotels in the county, which would spotlight the city’s waterfront after years of rapid growth in east Chula Vista. The city has no large-scale meeting facility of its own, and businesses are pining for such a magnet to attract out-of-town business.

But the behemoth project may be too much for environmental activists, who logged 150 problems they found with the plans. High among their complaints is the location of a street extending through a marsh and the development’s impacts on water quality. Also, they said the port’s plans to protect endangered species, such as the light-footed clapper rail, a chicken-sized water bird, are inadequate. “They do need to make some serious changes and all of them are doable and they’re reasonable and they’re necessary,” Environmental Health Coalition spokeswoman Laura Hunter said.

The appetite for adding to the flourishing tourism sector and residential development has also collided with the interests of waterfront businesses. In Barrio Logan, the San Diego neighborhood that lies south of the city’s downtown, maritime industries are looking to protect their interests after towering condos and hotels that offer rooms with bay views sprouted up along the waterfront with the construction of Petco Park.

Trains traveling from the 10th Avenue terminal have elicited the outcry of downtown’s new residents, who frequently complain about the sounds of nighttime horns. The City Council’s approval last year of Ballpark Village, a colossal retail-and-residential project that is slated for nearby, worried many businesses who predicted that the odors, bright lights and sounds of the working waterfront would draw similar ire.

At the same time, the explosion of trade with the Far East has led some in the maritime community to not only question the wisdom of shrinking the existing working waterfront, but also wonder if it shouldn’t be expanded.

“We’ve got an issue with gentrification, and then you look at how quickly the market is expanding and the real estate is constraining,” said auto importer John Pasha, a member of the San Diego Port Tenants Association. “It’s a real concern for us.”

Bill Andersen, the city of San Diego’s planning director, said the community plan update for Barrio Logan will likely take the next two years to complete. Andersen said that another concern for businesses there will be affordable housing for the nearby blue-collar workforce, as some are worried that the success of downtown condos could spread expensive home values to Barrio Logan.

One potential twist of fate is the waterfront vision proposed by Roberts and Peace, which offers a sweeping transformation of the harbor that would reconfigure the airport and scale back development along downtown’s western edge. Their proposal would move cargo operations from 10th Avenue down to National City in favor of a new cruise ship terminal, a move they said would consolidate two “underutilized” cargo hubs while adding a state-of-the-art facility for the burgeoning cruise business.

Peace and Roberts have not introduced the specifics for carrying out their vision, which also includes closing a portion of Harbor Drive and adding a “people-mover” to circulate passengers between the airport, Old Town and Balboa Park. But Roberts sees a start by reattaching the county to the North Embarcadero Alliance.

The alliance, which until a week ago included only the port and CCDC in its membership, plans to add more than 1,700 trees and narrow Harbor Drive in favor of an esplanade. The plan, which emerged in 1997, has lost most of its participants, but officials from the county and city this week both pledged to rejoin.

The vision by Roberts and Peace competes with the North Embarcadero plan, and observers said they are worried that Roberts will try to change longstanding plans. Roberts and Peace want to completely close Harbor from Seaport Village to Grape Street instead while also scaling back the buildings to only the eastern half of the block between Harbor and Pacific Highway. The move could sacrifice the holdings of hoteliers that have laid stake to the North Embarcadero in favor of more public space.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Project for Public Spaces as Partners for Public Spaces. We regret the error.

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

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