I was happy to have been invited on behalf of the Unified Port of San Diego, along with representatives of the city of San Diego, to address the Citizens Coordinate for Century 3 Board of Directors last week about how we could improve our proposal to implement Phase I of the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan, or NEVP, and to gain their support.
We cannot hope to create a world class waterfront without the supportive engagement of the public. When I served on C3’s board in the 1990s, we had a reputation of not just saying no to ideas we didn’t like, but also saying how we would fix them. C3 maintains that reputation, and also understands that if we do not get started with this project soon, we face a real likelihood that the Centre City Development Corp., the city’s downtown redevelopment arm, will decide to spend their money elsewhere on other projects that are ready to go.
If that happens, we may miss a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make the North Embarcadero a world-class public space that San Diegans can take pride in and enjoy.
Right now, there are legal challenges to the new cruise ship terminal on Broadway Pier, which was approved by the port in 2009 and is currently under construction.
But that does not affect the NEVP. The lawsuits challenge what is happening on the pier; the NEVP has to do with improving the areas near and around the pier. I understand that cruise terminal opponents have a right to file such a suit, but I don’t agree with them.
The cruise terminal was prompted in part by security concerns following 9/11 and conceived in 2007 through a long set of negotiations that preceded me. I voted for construction in 2009. It will help our region’s economy, will be a beautiful “green” building, and the building itself and the surroundings on the pier will be valuable public space, open to the public during the eight months or so when there is no cruise business. But agree or disagree about the terminal, and whether the lawsuit is won or lost, it is a different issue than the NEVP.
Nor should the NEVP be torpedoed by the widely misunderstood “oval park” concept once discussed for the foot of the pier. The Broadway Pier has long been part of our working waterfront and was always intended to be a working pier, servicing cruise vessels and other ships.
That is why the 1998 landscape architect’s drawing of grass in front of the pier was deemed infeasible and eliminated. The plan unanimously approved by city of San Diego, CCDC and the port in 2005 shows a non-grass public plaza in front of the pier that could serve as a great civic gathering space and also accommodate vehicle traffic accessing this working pier. (This was all before the cruise ship terminal building itself was conceived in 2007.) And this 2005 configuration was exactly the proposal brought to the Coastal Commission last month.
After a great deal of work and improvement by the staff of all of the agencies, the Coastal Commission staff agreed that this configuration was consistent with the Embarcadero master plan and recommended Coastal Commission approval. Half of the commissioners present also agreed, but the vote was split, 5-5, with two commissioners missing. With just one more vote that day, we now could be leveling Broadway to enhance public views; moving Harbor Drive eastward to create more space for people and less for asphalt and cars; and creating bike paths, art installations and public areas along our waterfront.
My request to C3 was for input and for community leadership. Input on what about Phase I we can agree on, and if there are disagreements, what we can fix. Community leadership now and as we plan and program the rest of the NEVP. How can we move forward on all of the efforts we agree on, letting our disagreements get worked out without getting in the way? And after Phase I, which only includes one block of Broadway and Harbor Drive from Broadway to B Street, there will be the need and the opportunity for much more planning and input.
We need public leadership because this is not a commercial venture that will push itself along to make money. This is a public space project that citizens need to pilot and energize, not a private space project with a profit for some business’ bottom line.
As a public official, I know as well as anyone that the best ideas and the momentum for this will not come from within the city government, or the port or any public agency, as dedicated and talented as our employees are. The NEVP will only come about with the positive and productive input, guidance and engagement of San Diegans who care. We at the port, and our partners at the city and at CCDC, have refrained from declaring a course of action on our own until we gain some public input.
I was not embarrassed to ask C3 for help. We need it — and the sooner the better.
At our port retreat in January, I called the NEVP the “most important public space project in California.” We are running out of time to get started. In June or July, the Board of Port Commissioners will place this item on its public agenda and give direction to staff about what to do about Phase I. We will all be conscious of the money that is in the budget to get us going, but could easily be spent elsewhere if it appears that the NEVP, after 12 years of planning, is still years away.
I can’t speak for my colleagues on the Port Commission, but I fervently hope that we can move forward to begin construction, with public support and enthusiasm, on this great gift from San Diego to San Diegans.
Scott Peters is Vice-Chair of the San Diego Unified Port District, former San Diego City Council President and former member of the Board of Directors of Citizens Coordinate for Century 3. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.