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Commissioners for the Unified Port of San Diego will make the final decisions on the future of Harbor Island and the area currently occupied by Seaport Village, but that’ll happen after they already delegated to developers the task of coming up with the ideas for how to use that public land.

On Wednesday, Port commissioners could determine the future of Seaport Village. Six private development teams earlier this year submitted their visions for redeveloping the area. The commission could choose one of those plans, or whittle its options down and make a final call in a few months.

By the end of the summer, they’ll also make a decision on the future of Harbor Island, where two private developers submitted their ideas for the future of the public waterfront land. The Port will likewise determine which of those two ideas is best.

Neither of those decisions will be bound by a long-term master plan for all the land the Port governs. In fact, they will shape that master plan as it goes forward. The California Coastal Act and the Port’s own policies require that it develop a plan for the waterfront that will define it for decades.

Rather than go through that process, though, the Port is going to do it in conjunction with what developers propose for those areas. This approach has touched off a debate and provoked threats of litigation. Some of the visions are quite attractive and have received positive comments.

The debate is about whether the Port should jump on opportunities now to dramatically improve the waterfront or somehow wait to set a collective vision.

But it is private developers, not public officials, who are framing the discussion of the bay’s future. They’re bringing the ideas. The public is choosing among them.

The Port, overseen by a board of seven appointed officials from five coastal cities, is the landlord for the waterfront around San Diego Bay. As such, it is required to ensure public access to the waterfront and to strengthen the regional economy by fostering opportunities that can only take place on the water – like commercial fishing or shipping.

Attorney Cory Briggs – a common foe for the Port – has threatened to sue the agency over Harbor Island and the Central Embarcadero, the area currently home to Seaport Village.

Late Friday, he sent the Port a letter notifying the agency he will sue if the board chooses one of the Central Embarcadero proposals.

His legal challenge would be over a central premise of the Coastal Act – the state law that dictates public treatment of California’s beaches and bays.

Briggs said what is happening is “piecemeal planning,” where an agency makes a series of decisions, rather than drawing up an overarching plan and implementing it with each individual development decision.

It isn’t just the Coastal Act that requires the Port to have a master plan that dictates its decisions. The Port’s own policy says it should have a master plan that it updates every 10 to 20 years.

The Port is confident it’s on strong legal footing against Briggs’ forthcoming lawsuit.

That’s because the Port is working on long-term plan for all of the lands it regulates, and has been for three years. The Port says the selection process for new projects at Harbor Island and the Central Embarcadero is part of that planning process. Port staff will draw up a vision for the waterfront based on what projects the commission chooses.

But Briggs’ lawsuit argues the Port district needs to stop making any major decisions until it has that long-term plan in place.

“The District is already very familiar with my client’s concerns about piecemeal planning,” Briggs wrote to the Port. “Similarly, the District has been upbraided more than once by the California Coastal Commission and judges for not taking a holistic approach when planning the waterfront’s future.”

He asked the Port to, instead of choosing a developer for any major project, create a citizens’ advisory group to identify parts of the waterfront to reserve as parks, and incorporate those suggestions into the master plan it’s writing now.

He also asked the Port to dedicate more staff to the plan update so it can finish quickly, and the agency can get back to choosing developers to remake two of its most crucial assets.

Port Commissioner Bob Nelson said the Port’s process is well within the legal requirements for comprehensive planning.

Since the projects will be consistent with the agency’s long-term vision, and the long-term vision will be the basis of a new master plan, the projects are likewise consistent with the master plan, Nelson said. Once the agency chooses the new projects, he said, Port planners will write their specific proposals into the plan’s vision for those two areas.

He said it’s time for Port critics to recognize it’s doing things differently than it has in previous decades. It’s making decisions as part of a long-term strategy now.

Nelson offered a tongue-in-cheek criticism about Briggs and his plans to raise the hotel-room tax and pave the way for a separate convention center that could be attached to a stadium.

“I think Briggs is way too busy with his stadium, and he isn’t paying attention to what the Port is actually doing in 2016,” Nelson said.

All Part of the Plan

Three years ago, the Port decided to do something it hadn’t done since 1981: draw up a clear blueprint for the future of San Diego’s tidelands, which would guide all of its future decisions.

Port Commissioner Ann Moore drove the effort. The district needed to stop how it had been operating – where it just changed its plan every time it made a new decision – and start demonstrating a clear vision for the region’s waterways.

In an October 2013 op-ed in U-T San DIego Moore laid out the case for why the Port needed a new plan. The old one had been changed 30 times to make way for new projects.

“A new living document will, for the first time, look at the bay as a whole and incorporate both water and land assets, including upland links and their interactions with the Port tidelands,” Moore wrote.

The Port drew up a framework of ideas and principles that would be the basis for the new plan. The long-term Integrated Planning Vision, as it’s called, is the guide Port planners follow while they write up a plan to eventually guide Port officials’ decisions well into the future. It’s a plan for the new plan.

The vision statement itself acknowledges that the district as previously engaged in a piecemeal decision-making process. A comprehensive plan, it says, benefits everyone. A full strategy increases access and recreation on the water, which thereby makes the land value for district development deals.

“Everyone rises with the tide,” the vision says. “This is not happening today because of the ‘piecemeal planning process’ that is occurring which prevents a larger vision from being implemented and often results in litigation.”

You could say they saw this coming.

The vision statement would develop priorities and an overarching theory for protecting the county’s tidelands. The plan would flesh out those ideas, stipulating specifics – this area for shipping and other maritime-based blue collar jobs, this area will be a public park and this area over here is for water-related commercial development.

“The vision statement is the DNA,” Briggs said. “What’s missing is the skeleton, the muscles, the vital organs. How big is the bicep going to be? It doesn’t give you that info.”

He said comprehensive planning is important, aside from it being a legal requirement, because you can best organize all your assets and all the region’s waterfront needs – shipping and manufacturing, Coast Guard, recreational boating, commercial fishing, parks, commercial development – if you start from a 30,000-foot view.

“You can’t discuss those things if you’re deciding the future of Harbor Island in isolation,” he said.

The Port has determined it can address the issue if it makes sure all of the projects it selects are consistent with the vision statement, which is the basis for the eventual master plan. Then, it’ll take those projects and write them into the new, master plan for the entire region.

That’s why the district says Briggs’ lawsuit – which claims it’s engaging in “piecemeal planning” – won’t hold up in court.

Nelson says the Port isn’t doing anything in a piecemeal fashion. In fact, he says it’s doing more and better comprehensive planning than it ever has – just as it promised to do three years ago when Moore pushed it to adopt a new master plan.

The Port has spent two years building its long-term vision, Nelson said, and expects to finish the new master  plan by the end of next year.

In all likelihood, by the time the Port chooses a developer, negotiates a final agreement for the development project and locks it into place with a formal environmental review, the Port might have finished writing the plan in the first place. Nelson doesn’t think there will be any legal basis for Briggs’ challenge, at that point.

“If people were paying attention, they’d realize we’re completing all of these things in the same timeframe,” Nelson said. “There is one commissioner who has been here longer than five and a half years. The rest of us, we’re an entirely new set of directors and we’re part of a new generation.”

The Piecemeal Planning Paradox

This isn’t about the Port not involving the public on this decision. It has. It made a public request for developers to put forward their ideas. All the ideas have been discussed at public hearings, and public workshops. And whatever they build at both locations needs to comply with the Public Trust Doctrine, a statewide mandate that dictates what the Port can do with the public land it governs.

Former county planner and longtime community activist Diane Coombs has joined the fight against the Port continuing to strike real estate deals without a long-term plan.

She says the document the Port sent to developers to describe what it was looking for spells out the problem. The first priority the Port lists for the development of the Central Embarcadero is to increase development so the Port can collect more lease revenue from the area. But all proposals need to be consistent with the Port’s long-term vision statement as well.

“They’re two competing goals,” she said. “You eventually have to sacrifice one or the other. It’s apparent to many of us that the Port is driven not by implementing the Public Trust Doctrine, it’s almost entirely driven by maximizing revenue.”

She doesn’t understand why the Port feels compelled to choose a development vision for Central Embarcadero and Harbor Island now. It’s already writing a new master plan – and whatever projects it chooses will be in place well past the foreseeable future.

“The question that remains unanswered is, ‘Why now?’” she said.

Michael Stepner, a professor at the New School of Architecture & Design and the former urban design coordinator for the city of San Diego, said he sees both sides of the debate.

On one hand, if you’re already writing a comprehensive plan that’ll be done soon, why would you make long-term decisions on two major areas before that’s finished? On the other hand, if you’ve got two fantastic proposals at Harbor Island and Seaport Village, maybe they can set the tone for the rest of the plan.

“My feeling really is, they should make sure whatever project comes along really implements their new master plan, and they shouldn’t make a decision before they’re finished with their master plan,” he said.

Whatever approach the board chooses, it needs to emphasize the public realm, Stepner said. Too often, the Port hasn’t created great public places with the finite urban waterfront space within its jurisdiction. This is the last chance to get it right.

“People are cynical because we haven’t always held to our goals,” he said. “This is the last piece of land downtown that’ll be developed on the waterfront. We are torn between building projects on the waterfront and getting a return on our investment, or building for the public.”

Nelson said there’s no conflict between developing for the public and maximizing revenue.

Partially, he said, that’s because of how the Port differs from cities. Cities approve development proposals from private citizens who have bought property. The Port owns the land it develops and has a responsibility for it into the future.

“A developer might not care about the next-door neighbor, but we are our own next-door neighbor,” Nelson said.

In this year’s budget, of the Port’s $160 million in operating revenue, $90 million comes from real estate development.

Since the Port doesn’t collect taxes, Nelson said people need to keep in mind that everything it offers – Harbor Police, parks and rec management – relies on real estate money.

“If we fail in our fiduciary obligation to finance operations, we’d be shutting down public safety, parks and rec, and these are things I don’t think the public understands,” Nelson said. “It is a substantial undertaking and an absolute legal and ethical requirement to make sure there is sufficient revenue coming in. To say we aren’t concerned about money would be untrue.”

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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