Dec. 15 2010 10:20 AM

Next Port chair Scott Peters represents politicos who are tired of obstruction

The Broadway Pier terminal was recently jeered by the San Diego Architectural Foundation as bad use of a great location.
Photo by Kelly Davis
For the past seven months, politicos and planners with the Port of San Diego have been negotiating with three activists and their lawyer, hammering out a deal to break an impasse that has kept the Port from beginning a waterfront-beautification project 12 years in the making.

Scott Peters, the former San Diego City Council president and now one of three appointees representing the city of San Diego on the Port's Board of Commissioners, has remained quiet throughout. A lawyer who's developed a reputation for bringing warring factions together and forging consensus behind closed doors, Peters has preferred to sit back while fellow Commissioners Steve Cushman and Robert "Dukie" Valderrama presided over talks with the activists.

A breakthrough occurred last month, when port commissioners signed an agreement proposed by the activists that spelled out conditions for how the first phase of the beautification project would proceed. It appeared to have solved the major issue—what to do about a large public park at the intersection of Harbor Drive and Broadway that the activists insist the Port promised and then eliminated from the project, the so-called North Embarcadero Visionary Plan (NEVP), which covers the waterfront from Laurel Street south to Market Street. Under the agreement, the park would be replaced partly by a smaller one slightly inland and to the north, on land known as Lane Field, which will also be home to two new hotels.

"I thought that that was a really… nice piece of success," Peters told CityBeat, "because it's not the way a government agency would typically work."

But last week, the tumultuous affair between the activists and the agency hit another rocky patch, and Peters, who'll take over as chair of the Board of Port Commissioners in January and is sometimes mentioned as a possible candidate for mayor in 2012, has had enough.

At a hearing last Tuesday, port commissioners were slated to vote on a development permit allowing the first phase of the NEVP to proceed. But the activists—the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition (NBCC), made up of Diane Coombs, Don Wood and Ian Trowbridge and represented by attorney Cory Briggs—announced that they couldn't support the permit; it didn't match up well enough with the agreement signed in November.

The Port would like to go hand and hand with the activists to the California Coastal Commission, which oversees development up and down the state's shoreline and whose blessing the Port needs to do the NEVP. The activists didn't like a previous attempt at a permit, and the Coastal Commission agreed with them, narrowly voting it down last April.

Five port commissioners voted to delay action on the permit last Tuesday. Peters cast one of two dissenting votes. Two days later, in an interview, he assailed the activists for letting their resentment over construction of a cruise-ship terminal on Broadway Pier imperil a golden opportunity to finally make the waterfront a special public place.

"The shame is that if we don't get started, a very good project that we all agree on is just not going to get done," Peters said. "I'm at the point now where I think it's in the interest of the Port and people of the state of California for us to make a decision and move on."

The plan had been to take the permit to the Coastal Commission in February; now it'll be at least May before that happens.

"I think what we're doing is killing the excitement," Peters said. "We're giving people the sense that this will never happen."

The latest snag culminated a frenzied couple of weeks during which Port staff created three different versions of the development permit. The permit went back and forth between Port lawyer Celia Brewer and Briggs, with a final version reaching Briggs' inbox less than 24 hours before port commissioners were set to vote. The version that irritated Briggs the most was the second one, which he said included contradictory language regarding cruise-ship operations at the terminal on Broadway Pier. Broadway Pier has become a lightning rod of controversy. Not long ago, there was no plan to have a permanent passenger terminal on the pier, but thanks to a complicated string of events, such a terminal is there now, ready for operation. As it happens, the Port will hold an opening ceremony for the terminal on Saturday, Dec. 18. Because trucks need to access the terminal, there can be no grand park at the foot of the pier. The activists wanted that park; the Coastal Commission told the Port to replace it with public space elsewhere near the water, and that led to the negotiations with the activists.

Briggs maintains that the Port has been unwilling to unequivocally state, for the Coastal Commission, that it will not increase use of the Broadway terminal beyond what's necessary as an auxiliary facility to the main terminal on the B Street Pier just to the north. That leads Briggs, who's had trouble trusting Port officials in the past, to speculate that the agreement between the two sides is a bait-and-switch: The Port promises public access to Broadway Pier—to convince the Coastal Commission that it's part of the make-good for the loss of the park at Broadway and Harbor—but then restricts that access by increasing cruise-ship activities. Under that scenario, the new terminal on Broadway Pier becomes the main port for cruise-ship companies, and the public gets less access closer to the water than the Coastal Commission wants.

Peters, meanwhile, counter-speculates that Briggs is stalling the development-permit process to gain leverage as he tries to settle a lawsuit he's filed against the Port over the terminal on Broadway Pier."I'm not supposed to say stuff like that," Peters said, "but I'm really at my wit's end."

For his part, Briggs said that makes no sense, given that his side proposed a deal to break the NEVP impasse and expressly left the terminal issue out of the pact because it's the subject of litigation.

Peters says he understands the activists' anger over the terminal and the lost park, but he'd like them to let all of that go so they can see the opportunities that lay ahead. There's $28 million in redevelopment money set aside for the first phase of NEVP. Once those initial improvements are made, public enthusiasm for subsequent work will build, he predicted.

Peters is buoyed by the recent extension of the life of redevelopment in Downtown, which paved the way for billions of dollars worth of spending. "Redevelopment is one of the only ways to generate money without raising taxes," he said. "I think we got the message last month that no one wants to raise taxes."

Much of that money can be spent on the waterfront, Peters said. He supports a vision by developer David Malmuth, who wants San Diego to turn the waterfront into a first-class arts-and-culture district.

"There's such an opportunity if we would think about this Downtown funding as something other than a Chargers stadium that everyone seems to be focused on," Peters said. "We could do arts districts, we could do major waterfront stuff, we could do a Millennium Park," he added, referring to the widely admired public space in Chicago.

Additional redevelopment revenue isn't free. It grabs property-tax revenue that would otherwise go to the county, local schools and special districts, although through tax-sharing agreements, the city's Redevelopment Agency hands over a percentage of redevelopment revenue to those entities that grows year by year. Peters is among those who argue that new redevelopment benefits neighborhoods across the city through increased sales and hotel taxes and—further down the road— increased property taxes. (Critics say it siphons money from neglected neighborhoods.)

Redevelopment, Peters said, "presents a huge opportunity to think big about making this a public-space arts center on the West Coast, and we can't figure out a way to spend $28 million that's in the bank today to do a set of tasks on which every single person agrees. That's just amazing to me."

It may yet happen. "Everybody's putting their head together right now to see whether there's a way of making it work by the time we get to the January [Port] meeting," Briggs said. "I'm not certain that we can do it; I'm certain that we're going to do our best to do it and that we're going to do our best to put personality issues aside and just focus on the merits."

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