Untangling the patchwork of residential, commercial and industrial properties in Barrio Logan was never going to be easy.

But with the city’s plan to finally separate those uses up for a City Council vote Tuesday, the remaining areas of disagreement have narrowed.

And yet even as the residential community and businesses have come together to bridge their disagreements, the volume of the maritime industry’s opposition has grown louder as the vote approaches.

The industry now says it can live with the plan if it secures two major concessions.

Councilman David Alvarez, who represents the area and is running for mayor, said he can support one of those concessions.

The issue, then, has been winnowed down to one sticking point over what types of businesses can operate in an eight-block section of the 999-acre community.

So why is the maritime industry investing so much time, money and political capital on a relatively small issue?

For one, the industry doesn’t believe the issue’s all that small.

But more than that, its representatives see Tuesday’s vote as a harbinger of things to come.

They’re making a slippery slope argument: Today, the city puts grocery stores across the street. Tomorrow, the conversation might shift to whether to maintain a shipyard at all.

What’s Left to Fight Over

Barrio Logan’s new community plan, its blueprint for future development, would create a buffer area between Harbor Drive, Newton Avenue, Evans Street and 28th Street.

The shipyard – home to the three major employers in the area, General Dynamics NASSCO, BAE Systems and Continental Maritime – is on the south side of Harbor Drive. North of Newton, the community becomes residential again.

The first strip of blocks just north of Harbor Drive, in the buffer, is set to allow commercial uses like office and retail space, but not residential. The blocks just north of that are also meant for commercial use, but would allow some residential units.

The maritime industry had a press conference this week with Councilman Kevin Faulconer, who’s also running for mayor, urging the Council to allow the concession it’s seeking.

Failing to make the changes would throw the industry, and the 46,000 regional jobs it provides, into doubt, argued Dan Flood, vice president of Continental Maritime of San Diego, and other industry leaders. Four members of the county’s congressional delegation, including all three Democrats, voiced support for their demands.

The first request was to bar residences in any part of the buffer area.

A day earlier, Alvarez, wrote a memo to city planning director Bill Fulton saying he could live with that, and Fulton later said his staff is OK with it too.

So that issue is off the table. That’s settled.

All that’s left, then, is determining what types of maritime suppliers and vendors – companies that serve the manufacturing at the shipyards, but don’t manufacture anything themselves – are allowed to open within the buffer area.

The plan says they can open there with a permit that allows the community to weigh in and eventually would require the approval of the Planning Commission. Few, if any, of those permits are likely to be approved, even if they’re technically available.

The industry’s last request – the only thing standing between an agreement – is to let those businesses open unequivocally on the southern part of the buffer. The northern part would still require community input.

“What they’re proposing means the buffer isn’t a buffer at all,” said Georgette Gomez, a representative with a group fighting for the city’s proposed plan.

That’s where Alvarez has said he draws the line too. Meeting that request defeats the whole purpose, he said.

But the issue is even smaller than that: The eight suppliers already operating there can continue operating well into the future, even with the change.

The businesses can be bought and sold without losing their industrial zoning. The old zoning is essentially grandfathered in, and only goes away if a property is vacant for two years. They also won’t be able to expand.

So you have eight suppliers that can’t expand, and new suppliers that will have to open somewhere else.

The maritime industry agrees there isn’t much separating the parties, but won’t concede that this is a relatively minor issue.

For one, it says the message is clear that suppliers aren’t welcome there, and they’ll eventually be phased out.

“Whether it’s three or five or 10 years, eventually those uses will be gone,” said Chris Wahl, a spokesperson for the industry.

What It’s Really About

Wahl agrees that the main reason the industry is putting up a fight over this last issue is because of an overall fear of encroachment.

“The presidents of the shipyards would all agree that this zoning sends a strong message that the future homes are more important than 46,000 jobs and the economic impact of this industry,” he said.

The new businesses the city wants to put in the buffer are meant to support a residential community, not a major manufacturing industry, after all.

“They’re not being rezoned, but they’re being rezoned right to their front door,” Wahl said. “It’s not what can be allowed today, it’s what can be allowed in the future. It’s about the availability of future land to do business. The city is trying to forever change the land in front of the shipyard.”

The three major shipbuilders say they’ve invested $300 million over the last 10 years on various upgrades. Now they’re wondering whether that was a good long-term investment.

Robert Kilpatrick, president of BAE Systems, points to his experience watching two other shipyards shut down over encroachment.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Wahl said. “You can do business all over the place one day, then the next day you’re a car ride away, and that’s the camel’s nose under the tent.”

To the industry, everything from Harbor Drive to I-5 used to be available for industrial use. Wahl says the industry’s already conceded most of those blocks, but it’s drawing a line in the sand just north of Main Street. That’s the boundary the industry wants, to be assured that its continued operation matters.

Of course, that boundary happens to run right through the middle of the buffer zone.

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Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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