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Regional planners are no longer certain that a Navy-owned facility in Old Town is the top choice for a new central hub for the region’s transit system.
The San Diego Association of Governments is now giving serious consideration to instead building the project downtown. That vision could include all or some of the downtown property that’s home to City Hall, two blocks of state property recently offered up as a development opportunity and a block in between those two that SANDAG has been trying to buy for years.
The alternative “San Diego Grand Central” concept would, like the version announced nearly three years ago that eyed the NAVWAR property along Interstate 5 in Old Town, serve as a hub of existing and future transit and bus services, while connecting the transit system to the San Diego International Airport.
But the downtown option would instead cover roughly 10 acres in and around the city’s existing Civic Center area, with more than 10 million square feet of new development on top of the transit hub, while also facilitating a transit connection to the airport.
The trolley already runs on C Street, in front of City Hall. That line would be built into tunnels under the re-fashioned San Diego Grand Central, while the Coaster line that ends at Santa Fe Depot nearby would also run underground in a tunnel beneath Second Avenue, SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata said in an interview.
SANDAG made several symbolic agreements with the Navy to work on the project since Ikhrata and former Mayor Kevin Faulconer unveiled the plan in early 2019. Necessary environmental reviews are already underway, and SANDAG’s review lists the NAVWAR facility as its preferred option.
“Right now, NAVWAR, that’s how it’s listed, but that could change,” Ikhrata said. “We’re not abandoning the Navy, obviously we want the Navy to thrive and we want to work with them, but whatever location we pick, has to be cleared in maximum two years to cut the ground, and I’m not interested in just fantasy. I want to do things.”
The agency has already spent about $15 million reviewing options for a central transit hub for the region.
In addition to the NAVWAR and downtown options, the agency is also considering the site that’s currently home to the Port of San Diego’s headquarters along Pacific Highway, which could also take advantage of the nearby rental car center. That building is already connected to the airport terminals by a separated roadway. The inclusion of the Port property in SANDAG’s planning is also a new development.
Last month, the state of California asked developers to express their interest in revamping two downtown blocks that it owns. SANDAG anticipates jumping into that competition as part of its downtown concept. The state-owned property is between A Street and Ash Street, and Front Street and Union Street.
Between City Hall and the state property is another block that SANDAG has been trying to fully acquire for years, as a stopover facility for the MTS busses that operate downtown, on top of which SANDAG would build itself a headquarters, rather than renting office space nearby. In the meantime, busses have parked on downtown streets, and locked restrooms on the sidewalks have been available for bus drivers between runs.
That block – bound by A Street, B Street, Union Street and State Street – would also be part of the downtown option, after SANDAG reached an agreement to buy the remainder of the property from the San Diego County Bar Association, Ikhrata said. A representative for the San Diego County Bar Association could not be reached immediately Thursday to confirm that it had agreed to sell the property.
“Downtown has got more attention as we looked at the engineering, and the difficulty of financing NAVWAR,” Ikhrata said.
The agency had considered Santa Fe Depot as a downtown option for a transit hub, but SANDAG always viewed it skeptically because it has limited capacity to handle more trains than already operate there. Ikhrata said the agency had concluded a downtown option there would be nearly impossible, but the acquisition of the Bar Association’s property led them to look more closely at the downtown option that staff plans to unveil at a Friday board meeting. Freight trains would still operate at Santa Fe Depot.
“From downtown, there will be a direct connection to the airport, and maybe to the Sports Arena,” he said. “This becomes the Civic Center of San Diego, and God knows San Diego needs it now.”
The pace of the NAVWAR project, Ikhrata said, has been too slow.
“We’re not ending NAVWAR, but just to be very frank, we’re a proud military town, and we want the military to thrive here, but if the Navy doesn’t move faster – we signed (agreements to work with the Navy) when I started, and obviously COVID has disrupted that,” he said. “But at the same time, we want to move and finish environmental and cut the ground, and they’re still discussing, you know, the value, and it’s just – I think NAVWAR makes a great deal of sense, but the Navy as a partner needs to be willing to move faster.”
He compared the downtown vision to the Moynihan Train Hall, a new transit hub in Midtown Manhattan where the Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak operates that is adjacent to Pennsylvania Station, where the subway and New Jersey Transit trains operate.