Shaping the Future: Fragmented development threatens bayfront

Editorial San Diego Union-Tribune March 2, 2007

Piecemeal development of San Diego’s picturesque waterfront has left a tangle of tourist-related activities interspersed with office towers, gaping parking lots, shipping terminals and other maritime enterprises. San Diego long has lacked a coherent vision for its bayfront, which many simply take for granted as they speed along Harbor Drive and glimpse the scene of sailboats bobbing at anchor.

Now, however, this laissez faire approach threatens to desecrate the bayfront by walling off view corridors and restricting public access along the water’s edge. The most prominent menace is the Navy’s ruinous proposal to erect massive, 400-foot-tall buildings within a few yards of the shore.

The Navy project, on nearly 15 acres of extraordinary waterfront property south of Broadway, is itself a bitter lesson in what can happen when there is no overarching vision to guide development. Fifteen years ago the City Council acted in a vacuum when it granted the Navy legal entitlements to this oversized project. Now, virtually every civic leader in San Diego is shaking his head in disappointment at the prospect that this prime parcel will be transformed into a steel and concrete behemoth, darkening a huge swath of the embarcadero.

Just in time, two veteran San Diego elected officials, Supervisor Ron Roberts and former state Sen. Steve Peace, have launched a bipartisan effort to save the bayfront. Their idea is to enlist all of the Governmental entities in San Diego – the City Council, the Board of Supervisors, the Navy, the Port Commission, the Airport Authority – to devise a comprehensive master plan for the entire waterfront, from Lindbergh Field to National City.

This is not a new idea. Nor is it a simple idea. In fact, it is a daring challenge to San Diego to strive toward a bigger dream, to realize at last the enormous potential of our unique setting on the bay. It also is a historic opportunity that must not be lost.

Apart from overhauling the Navy’s proposal by working out a deal to relocate its headquarters building to another location, Roberts and Peace have a long list of other promising ideas to enhance the waterfront. A broader public process, involving not only government agencies but also ordinary citizens, would doubtless generate many more good ideas.

The overall aim is to push development back a bit to make room for a wide public promenade along the bay. Harbor Drive, now a traffic-clogged artery, would give way to pedestrians and related activities, allowing people open access to the water.

Another looming threat to this grand vision is the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority’s imminent plans to build 10 additional gates at Lindbergh Field. This would essentially preclude the idea of moving the airport’s terminal operations to the Interstate 5 side of the airport, freeing up valuable acreage on the Harbor Island side of the airport for public access to the bay.

At the very least, airport commissioners should delay the gate expansion and join in the comprehensive planning process envisioned by Roberts and Peace. So should San Diego’s other governmental players. This rare chance to reshape the future must not be missed.