Three very interesting downtown waterfront planning workshops were held on downtown’s bayfront in October, events which in part reflected the vast differences between the visions and values of the San Diego’s regional urban planning community and those of the San Diego Unified Port District. All three workshops were held at the port district’s Embarcadero Planning Center, formerly the Coral Reef restaurant near Seaport Village, which is scheduled to be demolished around the end of the year to make room for the new Ruocco Park.

The first half-day workshop was billed as a community waterfront planning event, and was hosted by a wide range of state, regional, and local community and urban planning organizations, including Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, the California Public Tidelands Trust Alliance, the Ilan Lael Foundation, the League of Woman Voters of San Diego, Partners for Livable Places of San Diego, the New School of Architecture, the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, the San Diego Council of Design Professionals, and the San Diego-Tijuana chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

Over 100 people attended the workshop and discussed a wide range of waterfront issues, including the port’s 2007 decision to ignore the 1998 North Embarcadero Visionary Plan (NEVP) and build a new permanent cruise ship terminal in the middle of a public view corridor on what was planned to be a public, open Broadway Pier, and the port’s current NEVP phase 1 proposal to create a new esplanade and buildings along the north embarcadero. There were also discussions of building a new public park on the western portion of the Lane Field hotel project site as partial mitigation for the loss of the promised Broadway Landing Park which was lost due to the port’s desire to run buses and trucks though the site at the foot of Broadway to service cruise ships. And they talked about potential ways to mitigate the loss of the public Broadway Pier called for in the original NEVP and the need for interested parties to file scoping comments on the port’s North Embarcadero Port Master Plan Amendment (PMPA) Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

Several themes dominated the presentations and discussion at the workshop. There was general consensus that the decision to undercut the original NEVP by locating a new permanent structure on the Broadway Pier was a profound planning mistake by the port, which further undercut its already minimal credibility with the community. That action created what may be a terminal loss of trust in the port district by downtown residents, local urban planners and public access advocates.

Local retired architect James Frost gave a presentation using to-scale diagrams how a new terminal on the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal (TAMT) site could work to service at least two large cruise ships without disrupting or displacing the existing Dole Fruit and breakbulk freight operations already taking place at the site, while taking fuller advantage of existing secure parking facilities on the site along with the new parking garage just east of the nearby Bayfront Hilton Hotel.

The public dialogue portion of the event included a wide ranging discussion on the need to resurrect the original North Embarcadero Visionary Alliance by bringing the county and the Navy back to the table, the feasibility of moving some or all of the cruise ship traffic from the north embarcadero to a new terminal that could be built on the north portion of the existing Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal, which could free up the B Street Pier to accommodate new public park space and related commercial operations such as restaurants, maritime related retail shops, new public art and other public attractions.

Speakers discussed additional changes to the original NEVP being proposed by the port as part of its PMPA EIR effort, including elimination of the 100,000 square foot crescent public pier at the foot of Grape Street and the conversion of half of the B Street pier from public recreational and commercial use to secured marine terminal uses. Participants were reminded that interested parties must mail or email written PMPA EIR scoping comments to the port staff by November 18, 2010 to make sure their concerns are addressed in the EIR process.

Following the community waterfront planning workshop held on October 23, the port held two PMPA EIR scoping meetings on the evenings of October 27 and 28, the first two nights of the World Series. Public attendance on both nights was only about a dozen people, excluding port staff and consultants. One port staff person tried to downplay the poor meeting turnout, saying that while the October 23 meeting was open to all kinds of ideas for waterfront projects, the port’s EIR scoping meetings were “too technical” in nature.

Here is the slide show used by port staff at those meetings:

During the discussion on October 27, Director of Land Use Planning John Helmer said that the original NEVP called for new restaurants and other public amenities to be built on the south half of the B Street Pier. But, he said that the Department of Homeland Security’s regulations adopted after the original NEVP was adopted and approved by the coastal commission require that the entire B Street Pier be closed to the public whenever cruise ships are using the terminal facility on the pier. He didn’t say anything about how the port proposes to mitigate this elimination of public space on the B Street Pier anywhere else along the embarcadero.

At the October 28 scoping meeting, the port’s Project Asset Manager Shaun Sumner said that the port has done engineering estimates of the size of the crescent shaped pier, and said they estimated that it would be about 100,000 square feet, although he noted that in the text of the NEVP it only refers to a 30,000-square-foot pier.

Port staff currently is proposing that the proposed crescent pier be eliminated from the embarcadero Port Master Plan, and replaced with two far smaller piers near the same location, with one reserved for private harbor excursion craft operations and the other set aside for public use. He didn’t mention any port plans to mitigate the loss of public pier space caused by the elimination of the original crescent pier concept.

Port staff also mentioned that the port had commissioned a study that was done in February of this year to look at alternatives for redevelopment of the Navy Pier. Even though the 2001 Port Master Plan Amendment clearly states that Navy Pier was to be converted into a public park when the port obtained title to the pier from the Navy (which happened in 2003), the February Study looks at a number of alternative uses that pier space could be put to. Port staff agreed to provide that study but later said that it could only be obtained via a federal Public Records Act request, which has been submitted.

Participants at the two PMPA EIR scoping meetings pointed out these problems and asked a lot of pointed questions about the EIR process. Staff said that studies and the development of the PMPA draft EIR would take about a year.

If you’re interested in getting more information or participating in the North Embarcadero PMPA EIR process, contact James Hirsch at the port’s Land Use Planning Department at 619.686.7269 or jhirsch@portofsandiego.org.

In addition to his other affiliations, Don Wood is a member of the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, an alliance of local civic organizations dedicated to preserving and enhancing public access to downtown San Diego’s waterfront, which is currently involved in ongoing litigation with the port over its alleged failure to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act when it approved the proposal to build the new permanent cruise ship terminal structure on the Broadway Pier.

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