Imagine old jigsaw puzzle pieces, edges worn, that don’t fit together anymore.

That’s how Port Commission Chair Ann Moore views the Unified Port of San Diego’s master plan.

The document is supposed to provide clear guidance about what kinds of commerce, construction and recreation is permitted on waterfront properties and the tidelands off the coast of San Diego Bay.

But the plan hasn’t been fully revised for three decades, Moore said, and “a lot of topics that were important in 1981 aren’t important today.”

Last month, the port embarked on its journey to create a new master plan. The first step is a visioning process that will “shape the future of the port and its various uses” for the next 50 years, Moore said.

Here are five things you need to know about the future of land use around San Diego Bay:

The Port’s Authority


The Unified Port oversees more than 5,400 acres of San Diego Bay property.

In 1962, the California Legislature created the Unified Port of San Diego and made it the landlord of more than 5,400 acres of property in and around San Diego Bay. This includes waterfront property and tidelands just off the coast.

The Unified Port shares control of the bay with federal, state and local government agencies.

The port’s governing board has seven commissioners — three from San Diego and four from the port’s other member cities: Chula Vista, Coronado, Imperial Beach and National City.

The commissioners are appointed by their respective city councils to unpaid, four-year terms.

Moore, a former city attorney for Chula Vista, is that city’s representative and the leader of the commission.

The commission adopts policies for the port’s executive director and workforce to follow. Those policies are supposed to flow from a master plan that clearly explains how the port’s property should be used by hotels, visitors, waterfront businesses and other key stakeholders.

The Old Plan

The port’s current master plan has been amended 35 times in the last three decades to accommodate projects that weren’t anticipated in 1981 – like the $520 million expansion of the San Diego Convention Center that was approved by the California Coastal Commission earlier this month, construction of the Broadway Pier cruise ship terminal or redevelopment of the South Embarcadero — for the second time — in 2001.

“None of those amendments have addressed the overarching policies in the plan,” said Lesley Nishihira, a land-use planning manager for the port. “We haven’t touched the whole of the document in 30-plus years.”

As it stands, Moore said the plan lacks regional unity and doesn’t adequately address concerns about open space preservation, public access to the waterfront and the need for more parking and transportation options.

“It doesn’t fit with what’s being asked of us today,” she said.

Industrial use accounts for the largest share of port-managed land under the old plan.

The port’s land parcels are easier for the public to get to than the water ones. But only about 15 percent of the land property is set aside for recreation.

Industrial use dominates the waterfront by comparison, taking up more than 40 percent of the space.

Moore said the commission wants the new plan to strike a better balance.

The New Plan

The new plan will be developed in six phases, starting with a six-month visioning process that is already under way.

In August, the port commission selected HKS Urban Design Studio to lead that process. The port expects phase 1 to cost $500,000.

That amount, which will come out of the port’s general fund, includes compensation for a team of architects, engineers, economic consultants and community engagement specialists that have signed on to assist HKS director Randy Morton.

The team will review the port’s current assets and reach out to all of the stakeholders who may be affected by changes to the master plan.

At the heart of the process will be the port’s mission to drive economic development and protect the public’s interest “through a balanced approach to maritime industry, tourism, water and land recreation, environmental stewardship, and public safety,” according to the port’s request for phase 1 bidders.

The goal: To draft planning principles that will establish how best to use port-managed land over the next 50 years.

“What encourages me is that this is a new approach to planning at the port,” said former Commissioner Stephen Cushman, who served 12 years on the board. “I think it is the right approach for government. We don’t just look at a plan for each city. We look at the entire tidelands of San Diego.”

Chula Vista as Land-Use Laboratory

Chula Vista’s bayfront master plan gives us insight into where the region may be headed.

Unanimously approved by the state Coastal Commission in August 2012, the plan pledges to balance tourism, job creation, environmental preservation and public access to the coast.

Here’s a snapshot of its projections for the future of the Chula Vista bayfront:

• A resort and conference center with more than 1,600 new hotel rooms

• Nearly 2,200 permanent jobs

• More than 230 acres of parks, open space and protected habitat

Moore calls the plan a model for the region.

Three of the firms that are helping the city carry it out are on board for the port’s visioning process: HKS Urban Design Studio; Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real estate consulting company; and CCI Partners, a financial consulting company.

Next Steps

The port has not set a full timeline for the master plan’s completion. That will be a byproduct of the visioning process.

We don’t know how much the project will cost because the port hasn’t put all of the phases out to bid yet. But the Port has defined what the next steps will be in general terms.

After the port adopts planning principles, it will commission a preliminary draft plan.

A full plan will be released to the public for comment and consideration after the port reviews all of the details, including the possible impact on the environment.

And once the board approves the master plan, the state Coastal Commission will have to sign off.

Still, there’s no guarantee that the plan will make all of the stakeholders happy.

“It’s inevitable that in a year or two someone will probably see something that wasn’t thought of in the plan,” said former Port Commissioner Mike McDade, who stepped down from the commission in 1999. “It’s never going to be an easy process. It will always be debated back and forth.”

Joel Hoffmann was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government, the San Diego Unified School District and the...

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