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Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008 | Why did the San Diego Unified Port District spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of public funds to try to keep Proposition B off the ballot?

Fortunately, they lost.

But, when more than 62,000 voters signed petitions to put Proposition B on the ballot, the Port District went to court to try to stop the election.

When the courts ruled in favor of the voters, the port appealed — and lost again. Once more, the question is: Why?

Here’s what’s at stake: 97 acres of prime San Diego waterfront property south of the Convention Center. Proposition B will give the public the right to determine what happens with this property.

Some real estate analysts value this property — even in today’s distressed market — at more than $1 billion and say that it could generate hundreds of millions of dollars annually for cash-starved local governments.

Moreover, as development along San Diego Bay marches steadily southward, the value of this property keeps increasing.

The special interests that control the Port District, on the other hand, want to keep control over this prime acreage. The Port District is so alarmed by the prospect of losing control over this property that they have embarked on a fear campaign. The centerpiece of their campaign is the completely false assertion that Proposition B will somehow eliminate marine freight from San Diego and allegedly cause severe economic harm to the region.

But, the facts are just the opposite. Written into Proposition B is a legal requirement that marine freight must be preserved. Let’s look at what Proposition B really does:

One: Proposition B will not cost the public any money — not one cent. There are no ballpark-style subsidies, no hidden tax breaks and no ticket guarantees. Instead, Proposition B will generate public revenues — and potentially a steady stream of taxes and revenues that could help pay for police, fire protection, roads and schools.

Two: Proposition B calls for a visionary “decking” of the terminal, in order to permit cargo offloading, parking, and other commercial uses to continue at ground level while a pedestrian waterfront promenade and a variety of other public uses can be developed on the top deck.

The Port District has criticized this decking proposal as “impractical” — but the engineering technology exists. What’s lacking is the vision that looks forward and sees a dynamic future for San Diego. For example, almost 100 years ago, in New York City, the operators of the New York Central Railroad developed a plan to put the railroad yards leading into Grand Central Station underground. Today, the “deck” above those tracks is called Park Avenue and is the site of some of the most exclusive hotels, offices and homes in the world.

Three: Proposition B requires the Port District to seek proposals and public input to put the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal area to better public use. In other words, the public — not the special interests who control the port — will determine how this property is utilized.

Below is a list of possible ideas for this site. None of them are required by Proposition B. The final decision will be made through a public process and not in secret, closed door meetings:

  • open space for walking paths next to the harbor
  • a new soccer/football stadium
  • expansion of the Convention Center
  • a new cruise ship terminal
  • a new sports and entertainment arena, like the Staples Center is Los Angeles
  • a world class aquarium, such as Monterrey Bay Aquarium
  • 10,000 parking spaces for Petco Park and the Convention Center.

What’s your opinion? It should count. Each of us should have their favorite from the above list of uses and others that should be added. Use your own vision for San Diego’s future.

Proposition B requires agreements with all interested community groups.

One more point. Proposition B requires the project to meet strict standards set by a wide range of federal, state and local governmental agencies, including Homeland Security Administration, the Department of Defense, the California Costal Commission, the city of San Diego, the California Regional Water Quality Board, the San Diego Air Pollution Control District, and many, many others. The redesigned terminal will also provide a higher level of security for the military strategic port requirements than what currently exists.

Fortunately, the port’s opposition has met its match. The initiative process in California was created in 1911 to wrest control of the political process away from special interests like the port. Back then, the Southern Pacific Railroad, often called “The Octopus,” controlled the Legislature, the courts, even the press.

Today, in San Diego, a local version of the Octopus has been reborn as the Port District. The local Octopus wants to protect its financial interests and those of their business friends.

But, thanks to Proposition B, on Nov. 4 the decision will rest with the voters.

Frank Gallagher is leading the effort to pass Proposition B. You can reach him at csc@cts.com. The piece is part of a week’s worth of commentary for or against Proposition B and discussing the future of San Diego’s harbor. Join it here.

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