Pechanga Arena / Photo by Megan Wood

The city of San Diego is choosing between flashy proposals to redevelop Pechanga Arena area, but has said little about its very real vulnerability to flooding from rising sea levels.

Though the city’s planning department recently studied how sea level rise will affect its most precious assets, the threat hasn’t featured prominently in public discussion of the redevelopment plan.

Two developers submitted dueling bids for the right to revamp a 48-acre triangular stretch of land off Sports Arena Boulevard in San Diego’s Midway District. Critics are fixated on whether to replace the old, grain bin-looking sports arena. And the project is a flashpoint for a November ballot measure to remove Midway from the 30-foot height limit west of I-5, imposed by city voters in 1972.

But whatever stands there in the end could be up to its ears in seawater in the second half of this century.

The property already sits on low-lying ground in a flood-prone area, according to scientific modeling from the U.S. Geological Service. It’s separated from a marshy section of the ocean-bound San Diego River by a thin strip of land occupied by I-8.

Flood Potential of Sports Arena properties
Red areas are those in the Midway District that the U.S. Geological Service predict would flood with 4.1 feet of sea level rise. / Image courtesy of USGS Flood Mapper

“Flood-prone areas are those that aren’t hydrologically connected to the ocean but (are still) below the flood elevation,” said Patrick Barnard, research geologist with U.S. Geological Service. “It’s like New Orleans. These are areas that are below a levy. So don’t think you’re totally safe because, if something failed, this area will get wet.”

Now add the threat of sea level rise.

An interactive flood map produced by USGS shows most of the land surrounding the sports arena would be inundated if the sea rose just over four feet. That’s without any unseasonably large storms, which cause coastal waters to surge and increase the potential for flooding. Storms like that (often referred to as 20- or 100-year storms or floods) are becoming more frequent with climate change, Barnard said.

USGS used laser-equipped drones to scan San Diego’s land topography paired with ocean measurements to produce these maps. That information helps scientists make “very confident” predictions over how different amounts of sea level rise would creep into areas like the Midway District, Barnard said.

A much tougher mystery to crack is: When?

San Diego probably won’t see four level feet of sea level rise until perhaps well after 2050, according to the city’s Sea Level Rise Vulnerability Assessment, which used the same USGS data plus some other data from the California Coastal Commission.

The amount of sea level rise depends roughly on how much fossil fuels humans burn in the coming decades causing global temperatures to spike, which eventually leads to the melting of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic and swelling of the oceans. All that melted water is what has scientists worried.

“I hope (the city has) considered the fact that that region is prone to flooding, the frequency of which will increase as time passes,” said Helen Fricker, a glaciologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

In all the city’s assessment scenarios – from humans drastically cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions to humans making no changes at all – San Diego would see anywhere from 1.2 feet to 2.8 feet of sea level rise by 2050. After that, the range is huge. San Diego predicts by 2100 the city would see anywhere from 3.6 feet of sea level rise to a whopping 10.2 feet.

“All of the models start to diverge around the middle of the century, depending on what path we set ourselves on,” Barnard said.

No matter what we do now, though, humans have emitted so much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere already that we’ll hit six feet of sea level rise eventually, Barnard said. That’s because it takes a while for all of Earth’s climate systems to react to one another and produce the new normal, what scientists call a lag effect.

“The decisions we make now to adapt to that level will pay off and protect communities,” Barnard said.

So, What’s the Plan?

Despite their redevelopment hopes, city planners agree the area is vulnerable.

The Pechanga Arena has so far weathered 54 years in its current foundation. And the city is looking for another long-term lease, according to bidding documents.

With the city choosing between competing redevelopment bids now, the start of construction could be a ways off, to say nothing of a ribbon-cutting date.

The Midway Community itself was built on top of former tidal wetlands. The neighborhood updated its community plan in 2018 and devoted a whole appendix on planning for sea level rise. But the bidding documents for the project say nothing about sea level rise or climate change impacts, for that matter, aside from noting that the winning bidder must comply with the city’s Climate Action Plan.

“Whoever is the selected developer, it’s their obligation (to address sea level rise,)” said Dike Anyiwo, vice chair of the Midway-Pacific Highway Community Planning Group. “It doesn’t make sense if you put up a wall around your one project but you don’t do anything for your next-door neighbor. You need to take a more holistic approach on all of this.”

The city’s reiterated, as it did when its Sea Level Rise Vulnerability Assessment came out earlier this year, that it doesn’t plan to just sit back and watch the sea rise.

It’s developing over the next year a plan called Climate Resilient SD, which may recommend strategies like adding new shoreline, seawalls or rocky beach armor to defend properties. The plan is part of the city’s Climate Action Plan and a state requirement that cities and counties put climate change adaptation plans into their general plans by Jan. 1, 2022.

San Diego declared a “climate change emergency” earlier this year with a non-binding resolution. State lawmakers and policy analysts have since reissued alarming reports and introduced bills on the imminent threat sea level rise poses, especially to San Diego.

The Pechanga Arena may be one of the most recent developments in which San Diego has to start seriously considering the cost of sea level rise.

Councilwoman Jen Campbell, whose district includes the sports arena area, hopes voters will approve a ballot measure in November removing the 30-foot coastal height limit for Midway. One reason, Campbell told 10News in July, is because “the water table is so close to the ground, where the sports arena is that if you don’t build up in that area, it’s very hard to build anything at a 30-foot limit.”

Her office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Representatives for Toll Brothers and Brookfield Properties – the two developer teams that submitted bids for the project – didn’t respond to questions for this story, but a Brookfield Properties spokesman emailed a short statement: “Sustainable development is a priority for us on every project we engage in,” wrote Andrew Brent.

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