The San Diego Port District last month announced the winning design team in the Downtown Historic Harborfront Site Design Competition, a contest to elicit the best and brightest ideas for redeveloping the waterfront from the intersection of Harbor Drive and Market Street south through Seaport Village.
Complete with hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space, a beach, a park, an amphitheater situated across from a stage floating in the harbor and a circular floating walkway that extends out into San Diego Bay, the design by Sasaki Associates and Quigley Architects is the one the port will bring to its Board of Port Commissioners and request permission to build.
Too bad it's totally infeasible for about 50 small businesses that operate in the area-the vessels of the San Diego commercial fishing fleet that have docked in Tuna Harbor for nearly the last 100 years.
Because the original area the port asked teams to redesign didn't include Tuna Harbor-depending on whom you ask-the fishermen and their lawyers paid the competition little mind. It wasn't until the port was within days of making a decision on the submissions that the fishermen realized one design in particular-indeed, the one port commissioners tapped-made their $1,200-per-year boat slips inaccessible to their commercial fishing vessels.
Tuna Harbor has been dedicated to commercial fishing since 1911, and the Port of San Diego is required to support commercial fishing activities by the laws that gave it the authority to administer the tidelands in San Diego Bay.
Furthermore, the area is a historic one many would like to see preserved and perhaps revitalized to bring commercial fishing activities closer to the people who enjoy San Diego's waterfront.
"We're blessed with a significant lobster fishery, a significant sea urchin fishery, a significant albacore fishery, a significant bluefin fishery. For us to ignore that is sort of dumb," said August Felando, who managed the operations of the American Tunaboat Association from 1961 until 1990 and remains involved with the group today.
All the parties involved say they're willing to work together to ensure everyone gets at least a little of what they want. But is that even possible, considering that the design's hallmark circular arc and the fishing vessels likely cannot co-exist?
Whatever the ultimate plan, this area of the waterfront could use some TLC. The design study area, which roughly encompasses the land from Seaport Village north to Market Street and from Kettner Boulevard west to the water, holds several vacant buildings. One of them is the Old Police Headquarters, which is on the national register of historic places.
"It was time to make something out of the area," said Irene McCormack, a spokesperson for the Port of San Diego. "You have the hotels already developed on one side and the Midway [aircraft carrier museum] coming in on the other side. This was a piece of property-a lot of people called it the elbow of the waterfront-that really hadn't been developed to its potential, and this was one way of doing it."
To that end, the port sought designs for specific projects from several parties, but didn't get many that enough people really liked-for example, a plan was proposed to build a Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum. So, back to the drawing board the Port District people went, and, ultimately, they decided to let designers come to them, this time through a design competition.
The eye-catching plan the port finally chose was created by the team of Sasaki Associates Inc. of San Francisco and Quigley Architects of San Diego. The Sasaki/Quigley plan, as it's now known, features a six-and-a-half acre public park, a downtown beach, a children's play area, a volleyball court, an amphitheater complete with a stage that floats in the harbor, a pedestrian bridge from the ground to the deck of the Midway, parking for 1,855 vehicles, 470,000 square feet of commercial development and the hallmark Paseo Pacifico, a 3,600-foot walkway that arcs out over the bay and is built on floating pontoons.
To accomplish this, the plan calls for the demolition of a city block north of Seaport Village from Harbor Drive to Pacific Highway that would make Harbor Drive, Market Street, and Pacific Highway the new roadways running adjacent to the water. To facilitate the floating arc, the plan would remove the existing 900-foot-long concrete pier at the G Street Mole area, roughly next door to The Fish Market restaurant. (A mole is a massive wall that extends into the sea to enclose or protect a harbor.)
The point of the design was to allow people to walk out over the water and continue all the way around to land again, explained Owen Lang, a principal of Sasaki Associates Inc.
"Our idea was, what the hell, let's try to push this idea of an arc walk," he said. "We wanted to achieve a better connection of the city to the water and... create real streets. And we have streets that you can park on, walk on, close off and have festivals, just like they have in the Gaslamp when the have Street Scene, so that the streets become part of programming of activities. We have created the opportunity for small block development, instead of one big box. We wanted to create a community, not a project."
"It's a great design-from 20,000 feet," Felando said. "How practical it is, I don't know."
The problem the commercial fishermen of Tuna Harbor have with the plan is it completely changes their turf. Some say it makes it impossible for them to use Tuna Harbor at all.
Although McCormack says Tuna Harbor was indeed included in the port's original design study area, there are signs that point otherwise, or at least that point in confusing directions.
For example, the picture of the design study area posted on the port's own website does not include Tuna Harbor. Several fishermen and their representatives vehemently stress that they would have watched this process much more closely had they known Tuna Harbor was part of the study area.
Furthermore, before port officials chose the final design, a stakeholders' group was formed by those affected by the design study area. It included everyone-Seaport Village representatives, leaseholder association representatives, port tenant association representatives, those representing the interests of the historic police headquarters-except the fishermen. By the time Peter Flournoy, an attorney representing the American Tunaboat Association, and Felando got wind of the group, there was only one meeting left that they could attend to voice their concerns about the proposals and their effects on Tuna Harbor.
When Flournoy reviewed the proposals submitted to the port in the design competition, he didn't think the port would even consider the Sasaki/Quigley plan because it went outside the design study area, as he understood it, and eliminated Tuna Harbor as it is currently now.
"Lo and behold, the jury picks the Sasaki design," he said.
The fishermen weren't happy.
It's the arc walkway extending out into the bay-and enclosing the new and improved Tuna Harbor inside it-that's causing the most problems. Fishermen need to be able to come and go day and night, said Chris Barnett, captain of the Jan Lin. The current plan would need to employ some kind of gate or drawbridge system to let vessels into the harbor through the floating pontoon walkway, and it's unclear whether 24-hour-a-day staffing would be provided to facilitate that.
As it is, fishermen have problems with currents, winds, tides and wake from passing boats damaging their vessels while docked at Tuna Harbor, Felando said. He thinks the Sasaki/Quigley plan, which calls for the removal of a 900-foot concrete pier that now provides a modicum of protection for the vessels, would make the situation worse.
Fishermen also need ample space to repair their nets, dispose of hazardous materials such as motor oil, and need places to buy and store fuel and ice. The current design for the area doesn't include space for these things.
After the port chose the plan last month, Todd Holt, who fishes aboard Sea Haven, wondered where the larger vessels would dock under the Sasaki/Quigley plan. When told that a proposal had been made to move the larger vessels to America's Cup Harbor in Point Loma, specifically to Driscoll's Wharf, he complained, "That place is a rat hole."
Other fishermen noted that Driscoll's Wharf is already full of vessels and that there have been rumblings that three of the five docks there are being taken out of service for repairs. That's not to mention the drug activity they say goes on at the wharf.
Moving to Driscoll's Wharf, which Lang claims was his suggestion, has been pulled off the table now that the designers understand why it would never work. "Part of the Point Loma issue is the facilities there have not been upgraded, so it's not a desirable relocation point, and I can understand that," he said. "It was my misconception that it was easy to transfer the use."
Bill Barnes, who also fishes aboard Sea Haven, has a bigger fear: "If they screw with this harbor, I'm out of a job," he said.
Although the San Diego tuna fleet ain't what it used to be, the area of Tuna Harbor is rich with a history that many would like to see preserved.
"This is where the tuna industry started in California," Flournoy said.
F Street is the site of the first tuna cannery in San Diego. Owned by Pacific Tuna Canning Company, it was built in 1911. One block away, the G Street Mole area was developed in the early 1920s for the fishermen to store and repair their gear, Felando explained. The mole area also became home to the American Tunaboat Association, which remains there today.
Tuna fishing flourished in San Diego for several decades until the industry slid into decline in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many blame the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which passed with much momentum from the dolphin-safe tuna movement.
In 1970, San Diego fishermen brought in 71.2 million pounds of fish, and sales totaled $12.8 million. But in the 1980s, the canneries began shuttering their San Diego operations and shifting them to cheaper overseas locales. Vessel owners who couldn't afford traveling between San Diego and other points in the Pacific where their vessels were based began doing the same.
"If there's no place to unload, why base in California?" Felando said.
The final blow to the local fleet, according to a 1999 article in the Journal of San Diego History, came when the three largest American tuna canners-Star-Kist, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea-agreed in April 1990 to purchase only dolphin-safe tuna. The following two years saw the local tuna fleet's numbers drop from 30 to eight because it was cheaper to catch and can tuna in foreign countries and export it to the United States, rather than catch it here.
By 1995, only 4 million pounds of tuna were recorded as caught by the local fleet, totaling sales of a little less than $7 million.
The current commercial fishing fleet in San Diego consists of about 50 vessels, Flournoy said. In addition to those larger vessels still pursuing tuna, several smaller boats fish for roughly 40 species of fish, including bonito, albacore tuna, sea urchin, rockfish, white sea bass, shark, yellowtail, swordfish, abalone and spiny lobster. These fishermen often sell to restaurants or to wholesale fish operations such as Chesapeake Fish Co.
"The character [of the fleet] has changed, but it's been an essential change," Felando said. "Clearly there is no demand for the big seiners [large fishing vessels], but the small boat fishermen do exist."
The Port of San Diego has a fiduciary duty under the law that created it to provide commercial fishing facilities, Felando pointed out.
"So what do they do for commercial fisheries in San Diego?" he asked.
It's a question he has a tough time answering for himself, but lately he's felt encouraged. The last meeting he attended with the Sasaki/Quigley designers and the port people was a constructive one where many new ideas were presented, he thought, and he's hopeful the team will indeed make good on their promise to work with the fishermen.
Flournoy is less optimistic. He allows that Rob Quigley and Owen Lang took the initiative to contact him-a move he appreciated and took to mean they were serious about discussing the fishermen's concerns. However, he clearly remembers the fishermen balking at the arc walkway and someone from the design team responding, "If it's out, I'm out."
"I don't know if he was saying that as an artiste, or whether we really need to be concerned," Flournoy said.
For his part, Lang confirmed that he and the design team are committed to working with the fishermen.
"We showed [the fishermen] what we were thinking, they contributed ideas about how, in fact, if we go about this idea, they'd see how their fish and commercial retail fish market [please see side story] could also be enhanced by bringing more people to the edge to see the boats and the repair of fishing nets," Lang said.
He stressed that although their design was chosen by the port, it is not final in any way and still must undergo regulatory review in addition to taking into account the needs and concerns of area stakeholders.
"There's a whole lot of due diligence," Lang said. "This was a design competition for an idea. We're not going to get everything we want, but we'd like to keep the integrity of the design.... So, as we develop, we're further refining and incorporating and modifying the scheme to adjust to their requirements."
Part of a compromise might see the disappearance of the arc walk, he conceded.
"It's probably going to be tested based on the practicality of being able to bring in and out large vessels and have a bridge or liftgate or some kind of gate system. It's probably not going to be as practical. We may have to accept that," Lang said.
For the port's part, spokesperson McCormack said officials there are well aware of their fiduciary duties.
"Commercial fishing is very important to the Port of San Diego. As the overseer of the tidelands... commercial fishing is one of our primary charges," she said. "Now, that doesn't mean we have to go out and ask commercial fishermen to come and stay in our ports. It's a tough business-it's not an easy business with the demise of the tuna industry in San Diego."
She explained that one of the primary functions of the port is to ensure deepwater berthing for cargo, maritime and commercial enterprises, and that includes commercial fishing activities.
"We're cognizant of the fact that if something happens to Tuna Harbor, we have to find someplace for them to berth," she said. The port doesn't have a preference for where the fishermen dock. It would all depend on what the fishermen themselves need and want, she said, "but the place where they are works for them pretty well."
Despite the overtures and his feelings of encouragement, Felando still worries that this unique opportunity to make San Diego's commercial fishing fleet more accessible to the public will be squandered. More people now live in the downtown area and they might like to see fishermen working their vessels, unloading fish and mending nets in their historic harbor area, he said.
"Maybe we needed an infusion of new residents to give rise to this area. It's an opportunity, but you could lose it," Felando said. "It's stupid to ignore or eliminate this.... If you have an obligation to promote fisheries, shouldn't you be thinking like that?"
Port officials and the design team hope all parties involved in the plan will be willing to work with them, will be patient and won't jump to conclusions too early in the process. "This plan is going to take a while to get hammered out," McCormack said. "Right now, we're trying to see what's feasible in building it. We're going to go out for requests for proposals from developers to come in and look at it, then we have to try to shape how you pay for it."
It will be at least three more months before the Board of Port Commissioners considers sending out a request for proposals to developers, and likely two to four years before construction would begin, McCormack said. During that time, many things may change, she said.
"I'm sure the design that will come out of this will be better than what we thought we had today," Lang said.