On Saturday morning, a group of residents met at the port district’s planning conference center just south of the USS Midway Museum. The subject of the three hour workshop was bringing more arts and culture to our downtown waterfront.

The story of that little workshop is an interesting one.

David Malmuth is a successful young developer whose previous efforts include the refurbishment of a historic theater near Times Square in New York and the redevelopment of an intersection in Hollywood, among other projects. Malmuth has lived in the San Diego area for 15 years, but had not been involved in regional planning efforts in the past. As he said at the beginning of Saturday’s workshop, he’s the “new kid on the block” when it comes to waterfront planning.

Malmuth is planning a one day “Art in the City” symposium to be held in conjunction with an Art San Diego event this September at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront hotel. He had been a casual observer of what is happening on our downtown bayfront up until April. That’s when the California Coastal Commission (CCC) rejected the San Diego Unified Port’s North Embarcadero Visionary Plan (NEVP) Phase 1 project proposal. The CCC voted to reject the phase 1 proposal because it would have eliminated a key element of the existing Port Master Plan, the Broadway Landing Park at the foot of Broadway, and because of the additional traffic impacts that increased cruise ship activities would have on the North Embarcadero.

Malmuth saw this as an opportunity for him to get more involved in planning our downtown waterfront. He approached his old friend on the Board of Port Commissioners Scott Peters, asking for a $120,000 grant from the port to conduct a three day series of planning workshops. Peters and the port President/CEO Charles Wurster apparently supported this idea initially. On June 1, Malmuth and one of the other event sponsors (the local chapter of the Urban Lands Institute) emailed a workshop announcement to thousands of San Diegans.

In the announcement, Malmuth said that one goal of this process would be to find resolution on the elements of the NEVP Phase 1 that need to be fixed so the plan can move forward in a timely manner. The announcement also quoted Commissioner Peters saying that the public input received at the workshops “will also inform the Port’s Master Plan amendment for the NEVP”.

There was one problem with this idea. Apparently, Commissioner Peters and President/CEO Wurster had not gotten the buy-in for this project from the other commissioners when they told Malmuth that the port would help sponsor the project.

At the beginning of the June 8 port board meeting, following a lengthy closed session meeting where the project was discussed, Mr. Wurster declared that he was suspending discussions regarding port involvement in the proposed workshops. He indicated that this action would delay any potential port funding for said workshops until September or longer.

After that announcement, Malmuth commented that the action by the port board left him in an awkward situation, since he had already sent an announcement out to thousands of San Diegans. He said that the port’s action would undermine the public input process, and he vowed to find alternative funding and move forward with the workshops as planned.

Then on June 9, Malmuth put out another announcement saying that the workshop format was being reduced from three days to a half-day, and the first workshop (now taking place on June 12) would focus on “programming open space using arts and cultural activities” on the waterfront.

Despite withholding financial sponsorship funding for the workshops, the port did provide Malmuth with the use of its embarcadero planning and conference center for the June 12th half-day session.

At the workshop Saturday morning, local Urban Land Institute Executive Director Mary Lydon, Malmuth, architects Rob Quigley and Stan Eckstut, and former city architect Mike Stepner discussed the concept of creating a new arts and cultural district.

Eckstut suggested that a new arts and culture district be formed radiating out 500 feet in all directions from the foot of Broadway. He noted that the area contains a number of local art galleries and historical structures within that distance. He put forward the idea that the Navy and Doug Manchester, if and when they redevelop the Navy Broadway Complex project, could lease all the ground floor space in the new buildings on the site to local arts and cultural organizations in order to make the place livelier.

The audience members’ comments were interesting. One member of the audience said he had attended a workshop on lighting the San Diego Bay Bridge on Wednesday, and mentioned that one of the port representatives at that workshop had announced that the port is now planning to build a public park on the Lane Field site. Stacey Pennington, part of the team that is planning the Lane Field hotels project, said this was news to her.

Gary Smith, president of the Downtown Residents Group, noted that the port’s unilateral decision to build a permanent cruise ship terminal on the Broadway Pier threw a monkey wrench into the NEVP planning process and has bogged the whole effort down in controversy and lawsuits. He suggested that the port expedite the redevelopment of the larger cruise ship terminal on the B Street Pier, then dynamite the structure on the Broadway Pier as soon as the new B Street Pier cruise ship terminal is operational.

During the wrap-up comments of the workshop, Mike Stepner said that it is time for the port to look at moving the cruise ships off the North Embarcadero to another site along the bay.

This whole episode illustrates how hard it is to try to reach any consensus regarding redevelopment of the remaining downtown bayfront.

Promises have been made, then broken. The existing Port Master Plan has been ignored whenever adhering to it got in the way of the port’s desire to accommodate the demands of Carnival Cruise Lines.  The multiple agencies with jurisdiction over the state tidelands no longer trust each other. The California Public Trust Doctrine gets ignored when it gets in the way of more commercial redevelopment on the embarcadero, ditto for federal homeland security laws and regulations.

As Mr. Malmuth mentioned in a June 8th CityBeat Magazine article, he was not trusted by the port board members nor the downtown waterfront tidelands activists. Some people believe he came into the process with good intentions, while others suspected that he had been recruited by Scott Peters to provide a political pretext for the port taking its current phase 1 NEVP proposal back to the CCC for yet another vote, despite clear direction from the state Attorney General’s office in April that CCC regulations do not allow the commission to hold multiple votes on a project that has already been reviewed and voted on.

(The CCC voted no on this proposal in February and April. Read about it here.)

— DON WOOD

In addition to his other affiliations, Don Wood is also a member of the Bayfront Complex Coalition, an alliance of local civic organizations dedicated to preserving and enhancing public access to downtown San Diego’s waterfront.

Correction: An earlier version of this People’s Post we said Stacey Lanksford instead of Stacey Pennington. We regret the error.

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