When you’re playing against a stacked deck, compete even harder.
A funny thing happened on the way to a monumental July 13 San Diego Unified Port District meeting: The public got an early preview of six wildly divergent proposals to redevelop downtown’s run-down Seaport Village.
Last week, the port hosted a two-day open house in a cramped, stuffy, top-floor suite at the San Diego Convention Center so the public could peruse the plans, grill proponents about the details and fill out comment cards that port staff would compile for port commissioners.
“The goal of these events,” a port press release boasted, “is to provide multiple opportunities for public comments ahead of a decision by the Board of Port Commissioners on selecting a proposal.”
Strangely, nowhere in the release does it mention the 36-year-old Seaport Village by name. Instead, it is referred to as the “Central Embarcadero Waterfront Development Opportunity.”
And what an opportunity it will be for whomever is chosen to rehab those 70 acres of public tidelands and water south of the USS Midway Museum to the fringes of the convention center. Barkers last week pitched hotels, parkland, a Ferris wheel, a charter school, shops, “blue tech” offices, aquariums, urban beaches, even a state-of-the-art wave machine.
“For the South Embarcadero, it’s the last piece of land to play with,” explained former city architect Mike Stepner, now a professor at the NewSchool of Architecture & Design in East Village. “The port needs to find a balance between the public realm and what they need for revenue generation. Because typically we get into the revenue-generating side, and that doesn’t leave the public in the best situation.”
And the public seems to be watching. Port Chairman Marshall Merrifield, in an interview following the two-day open house, said roughly 1,200 people attended and filled out nearly 500 comment cards. “We were humbled and honored,” he said.
Yet back in May, port officials seemed uninterested in giving the public an early look at the six proposals that were submitted in response to the port’s worldwide call for redevelopment ideas.
“Per your request dated May 11, 2016, our solicitation responses are not public until we present them to the Board, which will happen in July,” the port responded when Spin Cycle requested details on the proposals.
At the time, Commissioner Bob Nelson agreed with the decision to withhold details. “It’s going to be very competitive,” he told Spin, “apples will need to be compared to oranges, lots of complicated issues to help staff and consultants analyze everything from green space and other public realm, tourist traffic, financial wherewithal, revenue projections, Tidelands Trust Doctrine and Coastal Act.”
But earlier this month, the tenor changed. “Decisions we make on this will reshape what is arguably the most important land the port manages for several decades, so we’re working hard to get this right,” Nelson said after the open house was announced. “We want total transparency and to give the public the opportunity to simultaneously see what we are seeing. Über message is this: no back room deals at the Port of San Diego.”
Chairman Merrifield said he made the call. “We were thinking about it, and I said why don’t we just open this up to the public? So we said to the six developers, would you be OK with being interviewed by all of us but by the public at the same time? And they kind of said, well yeah, that would be great!”
The port posted the proposals on its website, with financial details redacted, and the rest is history.
“I think it’s great, especially when you’re talking about billions of dollars worth of private money,” said Michael Kitchen, president of Orlando-based US Thrill Rides LLC, who was on hand at the open house to pitch the signature design feature of one proposal, a 480-foot “Spire” observation tower complete with swirling gondola rides. “Politically, they [port officials] want a lot of eyes on this. When they accelerated the whole schedule and said, ‘We’re going to make this public,’ I was personally surprised. But this keeps it fair, balanced and open.”
Back in May, hotelier Bill Evans—who also serves as chairman of the San Diego Tourism Marketing District, which faces a looming public trial over how it collects hotel tax dollars to promote tourism— was silent when asked whether he had joined one of the six Seaport Village redevelopment teams.
But last Tuesday, there he was, the Ultimate Pitchman, making the case for plans put forth by the politically connected development firm OliverMcMillan. Those plans include a 1,000-room hotel, two 350-room hotels and an 18,000-seat bayside sports and entertainment venue called Seaport Pavilion that would be operated by mega-firm AEG.
In between sales pitches—he continually noted a proposed dog park and seemed disheartened when people panned his hotel plans—Evans wouldn’t offer details about the evolution of his involvement in the development team. Evans Hotels is also in the running with OliverMcMillan for yet another massive port project, the redesign of Harbor Island.
Evans was asked whether his involvement was tied to his repeated efforts to help resolve the city’s long-standing feud over the TMD’s legitimacy with activist attorney Cory Briggs. Evans only said that “Briggs says a lot of things, some really out there, some right on.”
The TMD board this week voted to spend $30,000 to study anticipated revenues from a noncontiguous stadium/convention center expansion, as proposed by the San Diego Chargers for the November ballot.
“My forecast,” Briggs quickly tweeted about the study. “It will come back supporting a non-contiguous WATERFRONT expansion like AEG’s proposal, will crap on convadium.”
Briggs didn’t attend the open house but, not surprisingly, had an opinion: “The simultaneous showand-tell was the result of heavy criticism of the port’s secrecy rather than the commissioners’ embrace of a new ethos. It’s the same ol’ port with new window dressing.”