The San Diego Unified Port District apparently believes that it has heard enough from the public when it comes to the North Embarcadero. The port district officially disbanded the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) it appointed to advise it on development of a North Embarcadero Port Master Plan Amendment (PMPA) on August 24, before port staff and their consultants even began the actual PMPA Environmental Impact Report (EIR) development process. Port staff handed out thank you certificates and cake to the CAC members.

This marks the end of an interesting five month period in which major differences between what the port of San Diego proposes to do with the North Embarcadero and what members of the public believe should happen there came into clearer focus.

Throughout the five month period, port staff and their consultants carefully controlled the CAC’s meeting agendas and discussions, and meeting schedules did not allow the group to fully discuss specific issues enough to reach any kind of consensus.

No votes were allowed, and no CAC recommendations were formally accepted by port staff. The port and its consultants made it clear that was not what they wanted the CAC to do. Their stated goal was to get a diverse set of comments from different parties on the CAC, which they may or may not take into account as they begin developing a proposed Port Master Plan amendment and required EIR.

Unfortunately, from the first meeting on March 18, 2011, the CAC process was marked by deception on the part of the port. For example, at the first meeting, port staff agreed that the CAC could discuss alternative uses of the B Street Pier other than for servicing cruise ships now that the Broadway Pier cruise ship terminal is operational and much of the cruise line industry has left San Diego.

It wasn’t until July 20 that the port staff revealed to the CAC their plans to continue using the B Street Pier as a cruise ship terminal for decades to come, and announced for the first time that they had been working with the local staff of the California Coastal Commission to gain approval for a Coastal Development Permit waiver allowing the port to build a new dolphin mooring in the harbor west of the pier. This would effectively extend the pier another 170 feet into the bay, which would allow the port to accommodate larger and longer cruise ships in the future.

This back-channel effort was undertaken with no public notice by the port or the Coastal Commission’s staff during the five months the CAC was meeting to discuss alternative uses of the pier. Many members of the CAC came to believe that port staff had lied to them and were keeping them in the dark as to the port’s real intentions. This kind of misleading behavior has been a trademark of the port over the decades.

Having served as a member of the CAC representing the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, I have written previous blog posts outlining the waterfront planning process and the CAC.

I will be writing more posts outlining the specific issues discussed at the CAC meetings, but want to give you an idea of the overall differences between the vision of the port and the public, as illustrated by the CAC process.

While the port proposes to keep the waterfront filled with cars, members of the public asked that the bayfront be a place for people to come and enjoy our harbor. The port wants to build a new multi-story above ground parking garage between Pacific Highway and Harbor Drive off Grape Street. CAC members suggested instead that all new parking west of Pacific Highway be constructed below grade, leaving the ground level waterfront for more public uses.

While the port wants to keep downtown separated from the new bayfront esplanade by a five to six lane wide Harbor Drive, members of the CAC called for Harbor Drive to be narrowed to only three lanes along the North Embarcadero (as required in the current Port Master Plan) and renamed John Nolen Parkway.

While the port wants to keep using the B Street Pier as a cruise ship parking lot, CAC members called for the pier to be redeveloped as our own version of the Fishermen’s Wharf or the Pike Street Market in Seattle, with the nine acre pier converted to public, commercial and recreational uses instead of being fenced off for the benefit of private cruise lines.

While the port proposes to wiggle out of the existing Navy Pier Coastal Development Permit that requires that customer parking for the Midway museum be moved off the pier and replaced with a public memorial park next year, some CAC members want to see the existing requirements implemented, challenging the port to find a way to create a new park on the 5.7 acre pier while working with the Midway to accommodate its customers.

Some members of the CAC have suggested that the port consider moving Harbor Drive inland by 150-200 feet, between Broadway and Ash Street, in order to create new public park space west of Harbor Drive, which is required by the NEVP Phase 1 CDP. The port is currently having SANDAG conduct a Harbor Drive realignment traffic study. They announced preliminary results on August 24, indicating that it will resist any efforts to realign that portion of Harbor Drive. Instead, they prefer to keep it in its current right of way and discard the existing Port Master Plan requirement that it be narrowed to three lanes along the North Embarcadero.

The Holiday Inn on the bayfront has approached the port asking for an extension of the lease for its embarcadero hotel complex. The Navy Broadway Complex and CAC members suggested that this presented an opportunity for the port to convince Holiday Inn to reconfigure its hotel complex, moving some of the massing toward the eastern portion of the site to free up new open public space along the western portion of its site which would be folded into a new linear park. After agreeing to invite Holiday Inn to make a presentation to the CAC on its redevelopment plans, port staff announced that the presentation was cancelled.

The port staff has issued an “Overview of Representative Project Components for Consideration” that they had told the CAC would be addressed as part of the PMPA EIR development process.

One key problem the CAC faced over the last five months was the absence of any PMPA project description. For those not familiar with the California Environmental Quality Act and its Environment Impact Report development requirements, a clear, detailed project description is the first thing needed to begin an EIR. At the final CAC meeting on August 24, the port staff and their consultants said they have not yet begun the EIR process and had no timeline for when an initial PMPA project description would be made available for public review and comment.

Several members of the CAC asked that the port keep the CAC in place in order to review and comment on the initial project description and to provide public input throughout the EIR process, but were rebuffed by port staff. Staff indicated that they would make a room available if individual CAC members wanted to meet after the project description is issued, but that no further formal CAC input was needed or wanted.

I encourage everyone to stay tuned, to see what comes out of the PMPA EIR process. It will be interesting to see if the port simply crashed ahead with its own vision for our downtown waterfront, or if it recognizes the expressed desires of the public for a more publicly accessible, resident friendly bayfront.

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.

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