Thursday, July 10, 2008 | Downtown looms over the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal like an approaching storm cloud. A new 30-story Hilton hotel towers above freight ships, the quintessential picture of the conflicting visions for San Diego’s waterfront.

The cargo terminal is the division between the region’s working waterfront and its tourist waterfront. On the north side of San Diego’s version of the Mason-Dixon are hotels, restaurants, the convention center and Gaslamp. On the south side are commercial shipyards, cargo terminals and longshoremen unloading containers of bananas.

Those two forces, industrial and commercial, have long been in conflict on San Diego’s waterfront. It’s either been one or the other. But a group of developers aims to skirt the conflict between the two sides — by accommodating both, one right on top of the next.

They’ll ask voters in November whether they’d like to see more of the waterfront turned into hotels and restaurants, while still preserving the industrial, blue-collar jobs there today. Developers Richard Chase, Nancy Chase and Frank Gallagher have been leading efforts to place an initiative on November’s ballot that would clear the way for a potentially multi-billion dollar development at the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal, a 96-acre cargo port.

The exact vision for that development is still blurry, and the registrar is still counting signatures to see whether the group submitted the requisite number to get the measure on the ballot. But if voters approve the measure, the developers are considering the construction of a 40-foot-tall deck above the existing cargo operations at the terminal. To bridge the gap between commercial and industrial uses, they would in effect create new land.

To hear Richard Chase describe it, the proposal is the trigger to solving many of San Diego’s civic issues. Start by building the deck, he said.

Then build a Chargers stadium atop it, one that can be converted into a basketball and hockey arena and convention center expansion. Then the city can sell the Qualcomm Stadium site. And the land where the San Diego Sports Arena sits. The cash-strapped city gets an influx of money, the Chargers stay put, more conventions come to town and the region gets greater waterfront access.

And because everything is built atop a 40-foot deck, cargo operations can continue below, bridging those two competing visions. Today, ships dock alongside the terminal, where cranes unload the cargo for storage in large warehouses. The deck aims to allow that to happen beneath a stadium or hotels.

“We can do both: Preserve existing activities while doing these more economically beneficial uses,” Chase said.

The initiative would usurp the larger vision for the terminal’s future from the port’s seven-member appointed board. The agency oversees uses of tidelands for five cities around San Diego Bay: San Diego, National City, Chula Vista, Coronado and Imperial Beach. If the measure passed, any developer would be able to submit an idea for the terminal — not just Chase. The port’s board and staff would be responsible for negotiating that deal.

The ballot measure would clear the way for commercial uses, while formally designating existing maritime operations as a priority. And while the initiative’s language would encourage the deck concept, it would not require building a deck. Hotels or stadiums could be built on the ground — as long as industrial activities are given priority in the redeveloped terminal’s overall design.

The Unified Port of San Diego, which operates the terminal, says such an engineering marvel would be wholly infeasible, no matter how it is constructed. The terminal handles niche cargo — things that can’t be shipped through Los Angeles, the largest West Coast port. Large windmill blades, cement and every Dole banana eaten west of the Rockies comes through 10th Avenue.

Port officials have several objections. The proposal could constrain future growth at the terminal, they say. Moving cargo operations below a deck would make it nearly impossible to maneuver the large shipments that come through. Massive column supports would be needed beneath a football stadium or hotel. And maneuvering large windmill parts around such an environment would be impossible, said Ron Popham, senior director of the port’s maritime division.

“If you try to do what they want to do, there’s no way you could do it,” Popham said.

The port also points to the potential security threats a decked development would pose. Irene McCormack, a port spokeswoman, said having an open space beneath a stadium could invite a bomb to be planted. “It’s in the realm of possibility,” she said. “You’re putting more people at risk than if there wasn’t one.”

But underlying their specific objections, port officials and other opponents fundamentally reject the project as further encroachment of commercial uses into a historically blue-collar portion of the waterfront.

“If we let them get away with this, they’re just going to keep going,” said Jerry Shipman, a political liaison for International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 129, the union that represents dockworkers. “It started with Seaport Village and the convention center, and it’s just an ongoing problem.”

The developers, though, say they are willing to address any concerns held by port or union officials. “We’re not asking to be taken on faith and given carte blanche,” Chase said. “We’ll commit to doing exactly what we say we’re going to do.”

The project does not appear to have a close precedent. The developers point to a New York City project called Hudson Yards as evidence that they’re not breaking new ground. The New York project would sit above a rail yard and has not been built yet.

“I have no doubt that there are some concerns and problems to be solved,” Chase said. “But we can solve them.”

And while the developers say a Chargers stadium would be a perfect feature for the deck, neither side has approached the other, Chargers spokesman Mark Fabiani said early Wednesday. (That changed late Wednesday afternoon. Chase said he’d subsequently left Fabiani a voicemail message, but hadn’t yet spoken to him.)

Fabiani said the team finds the 10th Avenue site attractive — in theory. Because it’s downtown and close to public transit, parking and freeways, construction costs would be “dramatically reduced,” Fabiani said. But the team has never considered the terminal a realistic option, he said, because the port and organized labor do not want to convert its use. “It’s just not a site we consider to be available,” Fabiani said.

The developers’ proposal itself is uncommon, an atypical form of ballot-box planning. Most initiatives do not clear the way for specific projects, but rather for wholesale zoning changes such as height limits.

Chase, though, has turned to the initiative before to secure voter approval for a specific project: the Gregory Canyon landfill near the Pala Indian Reservation in North County. Two-thirds of voters approved it in 1994; a similar number rejected a 2004 initiative to kill the landfill, which has since been mired in legal challenges.

Mike Stepner, a local architecture professor and former city planning director, said he worried the complexities of the waterfront proposal would be lost on the heavy turnout for the November presidential election.

“Ballot box initiatives don’t allow for a full discussion of the issues,” he said. “You get down to the battle of the sound bites in the campaign, and you don’t have the public discourse that’s necessary.”

Chase said he agreed with Stepner. But the initiative would only clear the way for developers to submit proposals to be evaluated by the port district, he said. Voters will not be deciding on any specific development. If approved, any interested parties would have 60 days to submit their ideas.

Chase said he would do so with the financial backing of John Hancock Financial Services, Arclight Capital Partners and U.S. Boston, all Massachusetts-based investors. The deck project alone could “easily” cost $2 billion to $3 billion, said Reece Shaw, vice president of CH2MHILL, an engineering consultant to Chase.

“We hope we do have a leg up,” Chase said, estimating that his group has spent $1 million to date. “We’ve done a lot of work to get to here.”

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