Rethinking San Diego’s Waterfront

By Steve Peace and Ron Roberts
San Diego Union-Tribune
January 26, 2007

Opportunity is a funny thing. It cannot be planned. It must be recognized when it chooses to present itself. And when it’s missed, it never seems to return in quite the same form. And then, eventually, it’s simply lost, never to return at all.

Whether we agree with the November airport election results or not, reality now compels us to focus on making Lindbergh as efficient as possible well into the 21st century. But, this is also an opportunity – perhaps our last one – to make our downtown waterfront more accessible, beautiful and prosperous for the people of San Diego. We have a chance to plan a cohesive network of public spaces and transportation options, complemented by commercial development including architectural icons that maximize the enormous potential of our bayfront.

There is ample time to debate specific designs and select the best sites for essential elements. There is, however, only a short window of time to preserve the opportunity to build an enduring waterfront – one designed to serve the public that owns it. Imagine for a moment that we embraced an integrated approach to the airport and the entire bayfront that incorporated these fundamental principles:

Protect and expand waterfront-dependent commerce, and the jobs and revenues associated with it.

Increase public access to the bayfront and public space and amenities for the enjoyment of residents and visitors alike.

Make the airport, the working waterfront and all remaining waterfront parcels as accessible, economically successful and aesthetically pleasing as possible.

Our waterfront could have a park-like ambience that would enhance the best of what is already there and inspire new development with appropriate height, scale and landscape standards that would make our region’s “front porch” truly memorable. Our soaring downtown could be connected to Balboa Park and the waterfront with corridors that provide better visual, vehicular and pedestrian access and signature structures that would identify San Diego as a spectacular waterfront paradise.

We could do all of this and more, but the linchpin is Lindbergh Field’s master plan. The San Diego County Airport Authority must act immediately to move terminal operations to the Pacific Highway side of the airport. In addition to the obvious common-sense advantage of making access to Lindbergh easier and more efficient, this move would reduce traffic along the waterfront and thus allow for the closure of Harbor Drive south of Lindbergh. The new terminals could also anchor a modern, multi-modal transit center at what is now Pacific Highway, serving our immediate needs and preserving innovative transit options for our future.

Plans already exist for a park at the County Administration Building that would enhance that historically significant structure. This could be the benchmark for setbacks and improving access to the waterfront along the North Embarcadero. Rethinking Harbor Drive and the setbacks required of new development would allow for more landscaped promenades and more public space without compromising commercial development densities.

In November, voters respected the Navy’s argument for military exclusivity at Miramar. Is it unreasonable for San Diegans to ask, in turn, that the Navy consider locating its office building on any of the other thousands of acres it controls in the county? Surely the Navy and its development partner could do better, aesthetically and economically, by redeveloping the Navy Broadway Complex without having to shoehorn a fortified office building onto precious waterfront space.

Commercial development can coexist with an expanded working port and more open space. A unified bayfront vision requires that the remaining parcels on the North Embarcadero – including Lane Field, the B Street Pier and the Navy Broadway Complex – be developed as part of a larger statement. Our success will be governed by how boldly we act to embrace the water’s edge as public space that is dedicated to signature public uses, distinctive architecture and vibrant activity.

Imagine a pedestrian-friendly bayfront; perhaps a water-borne transport option connecting Lindbergh Field to bayside hotels; and an innovative tourist transit loop connecting the airport, the bayfront, Balboa Park and Old Town. Imagine a consolidated working waterfront, capable of handling several times the volume of current activity at the 10th Avenue and National City Marine terminals combined. Imagine a visually distinctive cruise ship terminal that could be the biggest, best and most prosperous on the West Coast. Imagine a linked network of green space extending bayfront parkland south of the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge and dovetailing with development currently envisioned for the National City and Chula Vista bayfronts.

Is it possible to have the best of all worlds? Yes, but the best results come from our elected and appointed leaders working with developers, landowners and community groups. There is no reason why our congressional delegation working with the Navy and our city officials can’t produce a better solution than could come out of any litigation.

Lindbergh Field will never be the biggest airport in the world, but it could be the most convenient, efficient and “coolest.” Rather than bemoan its inherent shortcomings, we could market Lindbergh’s proximity to downtown as an asset.

We could consolidate two currently under-utilized marine terminals, take advantage of economies of scale and create more shipping activity and related maritime jobs.

We could expand San Diego’s cruise ship industry beyond currently planned capacities with a mega-terminal that showcases the waterfront. This could even be designed as a joint-use facility with the Convention Center.

We could put an end to piecemeal development.

We could refuse to wall off our precious waterfront.

We could return to a unified vision that balances private development rights with the public interest as our paramount priority.

As a result, we could be viewed by future generations as people who cared enough to build and preserve with hope, energy and vision.

Or, we could allow current plans to go forward without challenge and – in the haze of distant memories of “what could have been” – be remembered, if at all, for having blinked at the moment that opportunity presented itself.

Roberts is chairman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. Peace served in the Legislature for 20 years, authored the bill that created the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, and is now senior adviser at JMI and chairman of the board of directors for the California Independent Voters Project.