The freighter Devon Strait has been berthed at the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal since early morning. Port workers operate a 200-foot mobile crane, picking up one of the yachts lashed to the Devon Strait's deck, lifting it and slowly lowering it into San Diego Bay. A worker in a kayak paddles over to the yacht, inspects it and powers up the engines for its trip to a nearby marina.
In 2006, the port's 45,000 workers moved 38.5 million tons of freight, most of it traditional heavy-industry goods like cement, or food like Dole's fruits and vegetables. But during the last decade, the cargo the port receives has changed much as the region has changed. Yachts, parts for electricity-generating windmills and other oddly shaped cargo have become a specialty for the port, especially at Tenth Avenue, the northernmost part of the port's working waterfront.
The change in cargo reflects the broader change in San Diego, one that is instantly visible in nearby neighborhoods. The port is feeling the pressure.
“I'm talking about gentrification,” said Ed Plant, an executive with San Diego Refrigerated Services, a port tenant. “We see more and more developers who want to take this water away from us to build condos and things like that that won't produce those high-paying jobs. We can't park our ships in Santee.”
Developers have tried repeatedly during the last decade to get access to the 96 acres of terminal land, most recently in 2004 amid talk of building a new football stadium there. These days, the property is valued at $1 billion.
Developers have tried to work through the Port of San Diego, and they've been repeatedly rebuffed by the Port's Board of Commissioners.
But the latest move to develop the port comes from developers Richard and Nancy Chase, who have a grand vision to build a giant roof deck above the terminal. Their spokesperson, Scott Maloni, argues that there's room for both an industrial hub and an entertainment complex. The group figures the port could continue to unload heavy freight from a lower level while the developers build hotels and parks on an upper level. They wouldn't ask government for any subsidies, either, since the project would pay for itself, they say.
And the Chases have developed a clever way around the port commissioners: How about putting it to a vote of the people? Why not amend the port's master plan, a document that guides land use in the Port District, to include a “multi-use district,” in which they might build a giant deck? It's an idea so novel that no one interviewed for this story, people with decades of port and ballot-initiative experience, could remember anyone having tried it before. At their last meeting, the Board of Commissioners voted to have lawyers assess whether such a thing is even legal. Port spokesperson John Gilmore said port officials have asked repeatedly for the initiative's proposed language but hadn't received anything as of CityBeat's deadline. They've read a version of it only because an employee of one of the port's tenant businesses gave a signature gatherer (the Chases need 75,000 to get on the November ballot) $50 for a copy, Gilmore said.
Assuming it qualifies for the ballot, the Chases are prepared to spend $1 million to get the initiative passed, in addition to the money already spent studying the architectural feasibility of a deck. Maloni explained to CityBeat the pitch they'll make to the voters: First, the initiative would add greater protection for maritime industrial uses on port land. After all, if the people vote and approve a law, only another vote of the people can repeal it. Second, the initiative opens up the area above the terminal, not the land of the terminal itself. A roof deck, for example, would allow for a hotel on the upper level while freight would be unloaded below. The terminal would become a “dual use” property, Maloni said. Third, the initiative doesn't actually call for construction of a specific project; instead, it “creates the process for redevelopment,” which would still give the port the opportunity to influence what actually gets built. He said polling suggests that the message will succeed with the voters of the five cities that make up the Port of San Diego (Chula Vista, Coronado, Imperial Beach, National City and San Diego).
But the initiative's proposed language, which Maloni provided to CityBeat, tells a different story than the sales pitch. The paragraph protecting marine uses says, “Redevelopment of the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal shall give priority to the following marine-related industrial uses: preserving existing marine freight activities and employment.”
But just one paragraph later, it continues: “Priority shall also be given to the following uses in the Multi-Use Maritime District: creation of a new off-street parking facility… and establishing additional public recreational facilities, including pedestrian walkways, bicycle paths, parks and other open space adjacent to the waterfront.”So, priority shall be given both to hauling freight and also to public recreation, it seems.
Maloni's “process for redevelopment” appears later in the document. Sixty days after the initiative passes, the port would be required to enter into an exclusive negotiating agreement with “a private development entity.” That entity would be responsible for writing a redevelopment plan for the terminal that includes “design themes, building footprints, elevations, location of parking facilities, vehicular and pedestrian access ways, and other factors fully descriptive of the proposed redevelopment project.”
Maloni says that the Chases are indeed planning to apply to be that entity, though, he insisted, “anyone else could apply.” But the Chases have been working with the design firm CH2M Hill for more than a year already, giving them a clear advantage.
While competition may be scarce, opposition is abundant.
Port Commissioner Steve Cushman has always preferred an industrial port. He detailed for CityBeat the problems he sees with the proposal: How would it deal with port security? Would the roof be higher than the port's 200-foot mobile crane? Why would they want to replace the middle-class jobs at the port with lower-paying service jobs? Don't they realize that the state law that formed the port in the first place already guarantees maritime uses?
“I just don't see how it's going to work,” he said.
Meanwhile, many of the port tenants have joined to form the Save the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal Coalition, which hired the PR firm The Monger Company last month to counter-spin Maloni. The San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council has not yet met to discuss the issue, but it opposed the football-stadium idea. The National City-based Environmental Health Coalition, which counts many residents of Barrio Logan in its membership, hasn't taken a formal position, but it's not happy.
“The way the proponents are going about this, the lack of any acknowledgement of the community, puts the writing on the wall,” said Laura Benson, an EHC organizer.
When CityBeat told him EHC was likely to oppose him, he said he was “a little surprised.”
“That seems,” he said, pausing, “premature.”
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