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Friday, Dec. 21, 2007 | After two decades of stagnant vision, a new chapter in the Navy Broadway Complex began in 2006 when the Navy and developer Doug Manchester forged a lease allowing Manchester the right to redevelop the 15-acre waterfront base.

In 2007, Manchester’s proposed transformation of the military parcel from dowdy, blockish buildings and deteriorating parking lots into a bouquet of high-end hotels, modern office buildings and retail shops have drawn legal challenges that threaten to slow down — or even cancel — his grand plans.

But Manchester officials believe 2008 will be the year the pall of litigation will lift from a project that would define the city’s waterfront with towering hotels and office buildings on one of the valuable and developable sites on the West Coast. In 2009, construction will begin, they say.

Shortly after the Navy and Manchester inked a lease, activists filed lawsuits in federal and state courts alleging that the planned transformation of the Navy Broadway Complex would have more drastic consequences on public safety, traffic congestion and earthquake prevention on the area than authorities had predicted after earlier studies. The state Coastal Commission is insisting those changes require Manchester to apply for a new permit, which provoked Manchester to sue.

Other lawsuits involving the developer’s refusal to pay for the city’s legal costs and the Navy’s insistence that the juiciest details of its contract with Manchester be kept secret also came about in 2007.

Manchester executive Perry Dealy brushes off the lawsuits as the “harassment” of opponents and he predicts the legal problems will be cleared up by the middle of 2008. If so, the project would be on schedule to break ground in early 2009, he said.

“Everything is very positive and we’re looking to work through the challenges,” Dealy said.

Critics see it differently. They say Manchester will only overcome the legal hurdles in his way by coming clean with the public about the impacts of locating military facility in a dense downtown locale in the post-9/11 world.

The collection of activists opposing Manchester’s plans, known as the San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, claims environmental laws require the city of San Diego and the Navy to contemplate how the project will impact the environment in a downtown that has added thousands of residents and visitors to the condos and hotels in the last decade.

They point to evidence that a previously unknown earthquake fault could exist under the Navy property. Additionally, the city settled a lawsuit attacking the documents it used to gauge the future impacts that downtown growth had on traffic and transportation — the same ones that city relies on to forecast the effects of the Navy Broadway Complex.

The activists claim the proximity of a military facility, a potential terrorist target, to thousands of downtown residents and workers is a public safety threat that should also be assessed in public safety documents. It’s a concern that San Diego’s business boosters had when they were discussing redevelopment plans for the military site as recently as 2005.

The city has instead relied on environmental documents that date back to 1994, consistently shooting down the activists’ appeals.

Besides the environmental concerns they profess, the activists fought to have an iconic structure or grand bay-front park established on the four-block stretch to create a walkable destination for the public to enjoy.

“Manchester and [the city’s Development Services Department] are the only people in San Diego who think nothing changed downtown in the last 17 years,” said Cory Briggs, an attorney for San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, an activist group that sued over the project.

The Coastal Commission has not eased up on their questions.

It made similar requests, saying Manchester and the Navy are required to apply for a more recent coastal development permit than the one the commission issued in 1991. The commission is concerned the size of the project in the context of today’s downtown could cause harm to the shoreline. Manchester took up the dispute in a lawsuit he filed against the state agency.

However, on another point of dispute, Manchester backed off his plans to include condo hotels after the commission argued that their quasi-residential status conflicted with the Coastal Act.

Dealy is confident that Manchester will prevail in the litigation, and that the project will move out of the courtroom within the first five months of next year. In the fall, he expects to receive building permits from the city, in time for him to break ground on four of the seven buildings slated for the site in the early months of 2009.

As for 2007, Dealy prefers to play up the project’s accomplishments over the challenges it faces.

He cites the city’s approvals of schematics for the first four buildings as well as the redesigned layout of the plan as the significant gains for the project in 2007.

Among those buildings is the $160 million administrative headquarters for Navy Region Southwest. In addition, a 200,000-square-foot office building will be constructed to potentially house the suiting defense contractors that have offered to occupy the whole building, Dealy said.

“These are the defense contractors that want to come to the San Diego marketplace from Virginia and Maryland to be part of the Spawar industry,” Dealy said.

The two other buildings that will be included in the first phase are hotels. Manchester wants one to be a four-star hotel with 1,100 rooms and space for convention exhibits and corporate functions. The other hotel will be a 350-room “urban resort,” which is a luxury hotel with more amenities. Dealy said Manchester is considering several proposals that hotel franchises have made, but that they haven’t chosen the brands for the hotel.

Dealy said the most significant accomplishment was the city’s approval of a reconfigured master plan. To the chagrin of critics and even officials who tacitly support the project, the use of the buildings as hotels, offices and museum space could not be changed because of an agreement the city made with the Navy in 1992.

But Dealy said that some of his opponents, who wanted more activity around the buildings, will be pleased with the transformation of the “hodgepodge” promenade spanning the blocks into an “urban street” that he said will tie together the eight blocks worth of ground-level shops and restaurants. Dealy said that about 30 or 40 “high-end companies” have solicited Manchester about becoming tenants in the retail and restaurant space.

Michael Stepner, an urban planner and architect who has been critical of the project, said he hasn’t seen the redesign. But if Manchester is including an urban street along the lines of those seen in Santa Monica, Chicago or New York, it would be “a move in the right direction.”

“Anything that opens up the project to the waterfront more or encourages a pedestrian ambiance is an improvement,” Stepner said.

But Stepner and Ian Trowbridge, a retired scientist who has opposed Manchester’s plans, said they don’t believe such changes will salvage a project they find to be too dense and not accommodating enough for the general public.

“It still doesn’t do enough to change the development from being another extension of downtown that walls off residents from the waterfront,” Trowbridge said.

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

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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