The soaring success of vehicle importer Pasha Automotive Services has set up a showdown for the Port of San Diego, pitting public officials against one another and resurrecting a longstanding debate: Should a lucrative car business take priority over public amenities?

On one side is, of course, Pasha itself – the company’s business is booming and company executives don’t want to slow the flow of hundreds of thousands of vehicles coming through the National City Marine Terminal annually. Pasha has Port Commissioner Bob Nelson in its corner. He believes the money Pasha brings in – a portion of which flows to the Port – is crucial to maintaining Port operations.

The auto importer-exporter saw nearly 400,000 vehicles roll on and off cargo ships last year before moving on to car dealerships. National City’s terminal is the primary port of entry for cars imported to the United States, including Audi, Bentley, Honda, Isuzu, Mazda, Lotus, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Volkswagen, Hyundai and Kia.

A maritime expert hired by the Port of San Diego estimates that number could double to 800,000 vehicles by 2040 if the right accommodations are made, namely giving Pasha more land and reconfiguring the rail line that runs through the 160-acre National City site.

The Port of San Diego acts as a sort of landlord to the state-owned property surrounding San Diego Bay. Nothing gets built or takes up residence without the Port’s blessing, oversight and payment to the Port.

National City Mayor Ron Morrison believes the Port is wielding its power in a way that shuts out National City residents. He’s advocating for more public access, green space and commercial business near the water.

“We get all the negatives without much of the positives,” Morrison said in an interview. “In other cities, it’s public access. Here it’s behind barbed wire and the guys have 32s on their belts… We’ve never felt that we’re asking for anything special.”

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

“There is no such thing as a member agency. … This is not SANDAG,” Nelson declared at a Port board meeting last month, referring to the region’s planning agency. “I think four of five cities get that.”

Pasha — the Port’s largest tenant moneymaker, and operator of the National City Marine Terminal — wants more space, and Nelson, a San Diego delegate, wants to give it to them. He told his colleagues further delays are “costing a lot of money and jobs.”

Pasha has grown well beyond its meager beginnings in National City in 1990 when it handled 30,000 cars. By 2011, the company had processed a total of 4 million vehicles at the terminal.

The financial incentive for more growth is huge not only for Pasha, but for the Port, which receives payment for every car processed. Nelson told San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez in a July 8 letter that $6 million is at stake annually in the short-term alone if 200,000 more cars can be accommodated. Pasha paid the Port $12 million in 2014 alone for its National City operations.

Though Alvarez doesn’t represent National City, he met with Nelson and National City officials earlier that month to discuss concerns and desires for the area.

“The stakes are very high for the region and will measurably impact the Port’s ability to maintain our 20 public parks, public realm areas, public safety, air and water quality services, greenhouse gas reduction projects, financial aid to adjacent communities, and other critical needs that will increasingly demand support,” Nelson wrote. “If we do not grow revenues in the face of a growing population and public utilization, our service levels will decline and we will become a less attractive asset for the regional community.”

Though the Port has struggled to balance its budget in the past, Port commissioners approved a 2015-16 budget this summer with a $2 million surplus.

Still, Chester Mortacini, president of the Teamsters Local 911 chapter, which represents Pasha employees, agreed with Nelson.

“At the end of the day, the Port needs to have economic growth,” Mortacini told the board.

Port consultant John Vickerman told Port commissioners they “must maximize every square foot for Pasha,” and recommended other tenants in the area be relocated.

But Morrison has other relocations in mind, ones that accommodate residents, not Pasha.

Granger Music Hall — an 1890s era building — could finally be moved from its temporary Fourth Street site to a space near Pepper Park, he envisions. Hotels, restaurants and an already planned luxury RV Park could also be built for National City residents and visitors.

“Realizing, this is some of the most expensive land on the West Coast per square foot, you can’t just treat it all like it’s out in the middle of Imperial Valley and it’s just for parking and parking only,” Morrison said.

He also believes Pasha could use its current leased space more wisely with the help of stacked structures and by relocating vehicle accessory work offsite.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

“Pasha and the port have independently commissioned studies and reviewed the feasibility of parking structures,” John Pasha, senior vice president of Pasha Automotive Services, wrote in an email. “Unfortunately these are not viable for our business in San Diego based on market conditions. If they become economical for the auto industry, you will likely see them constructed first in densified port locations with the highest land costs,” like New York or Los Angeles.

Morrison also wants to see Pasha’s Hawaii transit line relocated to Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal in San Diego, but said the company’s terminal operator agreement, last negotiated with the Port in 2010, makes National City cheaper. Pasha’s shipping service to Hawaiian ports has grown in recent years to include cars and other cargo and military household goods.

“If they went to Tenth Avenue and did the 25 acres there, they’d have to pay the same rates as everyone else,” Morrison said.

“There are many considerations beyond economics that impact the viability of the terminal for our operations,” Pasha said, but Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal “remains of interest to Pasha as a growth opportunity.”

The auto importer is also seeking Port approval to close a half-mile portion of Tidelands Avenue, a key thoroughfare connecting residents to Pepper Park and the Pier 32 Marina, some of the only public and commercial space at the water’s edge in National City. It’s also a stretch currently included in the long-planned 24-mile Bayshore Bikeway route encircling San Diego Bay. More than half of the total path has been built so far.

“That closure would leave only one street, which is a very narrow street, for bicycles and cars and pedestrians,” said Alvarez, who sits on SANDAG’s Bayshore Bikeway working group. “I also believe strongly that the creation of the port by the state Legislature made public access to the Bay a top priority … So that’s a balance that needs to be figured out.”

Longtime National City resident Maria Conception Villanueva told Port commissioners she wants more public space for her kids at the waterfront and wants to see resident input taken into account.

Morrison said National City officials hope to put forth a proposal this week that accommodates Pasha but also provides commercial space and more public amenities.

A dispute also exists between the Port and National City over rights to a parcel called Lot K. According to the Port’s legal counsel and Nelson, “Any jurisdiction was lost when absorbed in the public trust” with the creation of the Port in 1962.

The city attorney in National City, Claudia Silva, however, told Port commissioners, “National City has authority and will continue to exercise that authority.”

The Port plans to host a public workshop to discuss the future of National City’s waterfront in September, but Nelson said he won’t be attending.

“If we are going to go back and revisit the 15 prior plans I’ve read and all the online research I’ve done, I’m going to be sticking pins in my eyes,” he said.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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