For the last few weeks, I’ve been blogging on activities at the port and the Coastal Commission regarding planning along our downtown’s North Embarcadero.

Perhaps a bit of history might be in order here. The following short history is based on my own 26 years of experience with waterfront planning, plus conversations with current and former port and city planning staff and others included in the original NEVP planning process.

Mike McDade, when he was on the Board of Port Commissioners had a very good idea for a civic dialogue about the future of our downtown waterfront.

The original idea was to develop a master plan what would get built all along the North Embarcadero. It was dubbed the North Embarcadero Alliance Visionary Plan (NEVP). McDade convinced the port, the city, CCDC, the county and the Navy to sit down together. The first thing the Port said was that they were only willing to talk about landscaping along Harbor Drive, but any discussion of future buildings the port planned to allow to be built on “its” tidelands long the east side of Harbor Drive was off limits — ditto for the piers that the port controlled on the waterfront.

The Navy chimed in and said that all the planning that was going to be done on the Navy Broadway Complex project had already been done, and no changes could come out of this new civic dialogue. Eventually, the county got fed up and bailed on the effort. (For more background on the Navy Broadway Complex project read this.)

Over about five years, through a lot of hard work by Mike and other NEVP planning participant stakeholders, a vision was cobbled together that envisioned a new “pearl necklace” that would run north to south along the bayfront, with a wide esplanade west of Harbor Drive linking a new curvilinear pier at the foot of Grape Street with a new County Terrace Park west of the County Administration Center, a new park at the foot of Ash Street, the grand Broadway Landing Park at the foot of  Broadway extending out onto Broadway Pier, and a new public park on Navy Pier. This vision was amended into the Port Master Plan in 2001, which is still called for in the Port Master Plan.

Unfortunately, between the time the NEVP was originally completed and now, the port lost control of the airport and panicked over its cash flow, and decided that it would turn over its land use planning functions to its marketing group.

This “palace coup” resulted in the departure of some of the port’s most respected and trusted planners like Ralph Hicks who left to head up planning for the Port of Los Angeles.

The port’s marketing department, ignorant of the Coastal Act and California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), promptly decided that all those pesky pearl parks on the waterfront were unnecessary and instead should be replaced with new hotels and 20-30 story high cruise ships.

Instead of the public pier promised, a new cruise ship terminal would be built on Broadway Pier, even though doing so would violate the port’s own master plan. The port then misled the Coastal Commission, claiming that construction of a cruise ship terminal would have no impact on any other land use plans along the waterfront, knowing full well that such a move would destroy the promised Broadway Landing Park by turning it into a truck and bus intersection.

The Coastal Commission and its local staff have finally figured out that they had been misled by the port and may end up revoking the Coastal Development Permit (CDP) for the cruise ship terminal, which would cost the port more money to dismantle and move to another more secure site. This would open the door for giving back the public the promised public park and pier at the foot of Broadway, promised by the original NEVP.

Based on the April 14 Coastal Commission decision, the port and the city now have to talk and decide whether to roll the NEVP phase 1 effort into the new North Embarcadero Environmental Impact Report and draft the Port Master Plan they initiated for the rest of the north embarcadero last November, or to begin a new, separate process solely for the NEVP phase 1 area. (That would be piecemeal planning prohibited by CEQA, which has already backfired for the port, and probably will again if they try it.)

Readers: This time around, please don’t leave bayfront planning to a small group of concerned citizens. Get off you own butts and get personally involved in making our waterfront something we can all be proud of. Attend all the meetings, write your own comments on new proposals, defend what was best about the original NEVP, and stick with it.

Now that the Coastal Commission has blocked the NEVP phase 1 CDP, the port and the city have announced that they are going to reopen the bayfront planning process, do a new Environmental Impact Report and develop a new Port Master Plan amendment.

What does anyone want to bet that the new amendments they come up with will be aimed at improving on the original NEVP? Be ready to voice your concerns every step of the way, and if the port breaks the law, be ready to contribute to worthy lawsuits to make it comply with the law.

For too long San Diego has been la-la land when it comes to efforts like this with people too busy going to the beach or Chargers or Padres games to get their hands dirty helping shape the future of our waterfront. We all now have a second chance to make things right, but its not going to be quick, and it won’t be easy. But, if we all pull together, it will be worth it.

When it comes to planning on San Diego’s downtown waterfront, if we snooze we’ll all lose, as will our children and grandchildren.  

–DON WOOD

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