Conventional wisdom makes the Doug Manchester-led development of the Navy Broadway Complex seem like a runaway train, a boulder rolling downhill or any other irresistible force metaphor one can imagine. Even San Diego City Council members believe they have no power to stand in the way beyond raising such a huge public ruckus that Manchester radically revises the plans. The Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC) might decide to vote down the design at their Sept. 27 meeting, but, then again, they might not.
Maybe San Diegans need to reread the fine print on their deal with the Navy, and with CCDC. Because the 1992 development agreement says only CCDC can vote down the design submitted to them. And CCDC's contract with the San Diego Redevelopment Agency says they have to do what the agency says. And the Redevelopment Agency board of directors is-brace yourself-the City Council. So, then, does the City Council have a genuine say after all, or are they merely reduced to the role of populist noisemakers so many seem to think?
Two threads of history intertwined to bring the Navy, Manchester and San Diego to this precipice. Begin with the background of the complex itself, going back to 1919, when the city beckoned the Navy with a “Hey, sailor” and the offer of 15 acres of prime real estate for a supply depot and pier. San Diegans back then hoped a steady flow of military spending might even out the city's notorious boom-or-bust cycles. The Navy came, and San Diego thrived. Skip ahead to 1987, when the Navy decided it wanted to renovate the World War II-era buildings on the site and bring in a private developer to do it. With authorization from Congress, the Navy put on its best uniform, went to the city and offered a deal: In exchange for a 1.9-acre park, some access to the water and the right to have CCDC review designs for consistency with the agreement, the city wouldn't raise a fuss when the Navy leased the land to a developer. At the time, downtown had sunk into poverty and crime, and San Diego still suffered in the tail end of the Bush-era recession. Few people wanted to live downtown and the resurrection of the Gaslamp Quarter had only just begun. The City Council took the deal.
The process languished for a decade or so as the economy rebounded and other priorities intervened. In 2005, the Pentagon's Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) determined the site was obsolete and no longer needed. Commissioners wanted to close it down. The Navy didn't like that idea, maybe because with beautiful views and offshore breezes, the complex is a great place to go to work every morning. If the land went to BRAC, any federal agency would have a chance to claim the land for itself, though they would have to pay the Navy market rates to take over. Some observers believe the price would be too high, and the land would revert back to the city, leaving the Navy with nothing, but that ground is a little too shaky for anyone's comfort.
Whether or not that's an accurate analysis, the Navy put out a request for proposals (RFP) to develop the land. The RFP, obtained by CityBeat, made only minimum demands on the developer: build a free HQ for the Navy of at least 327,000 square feet, include the park and get approval from CCDC. In exchange, the developer would get the exclusive right to negotiate the exact nature of those other buildings with the Navy until Dec. 1 of this year. That deadline allowed about a month of leeway before the BRAC deadline of Jan. 1, 2007. The Navy became particularly motivated to make this process work because, as the Navy's Southwest Regional Commander, Rear Admiral Leendert Hering, told KPBS radio last month, the Navy didn't ask Congress for money to build a new headquarters. If the Manchester deal falls through, Hering may be working from a rented houseboat in the A-8 anchorage. In March, the Navy selected Manchester Financial Group.
Now, on to the other thread. The notion of a redevelopment agency is complex. For this purpose, understand that it's a public entity devoted to reinvigorating blighted neighborhoods and whose board of directors happens to be the City Council. At the same time, there is the CCDC, a nonprofit corporation created by the City Council, whose own board members are appointed to three-year terms by the Redevelopment Agency (read: City Council). The CCDC is charged with managing the improvement of downtown San Diego, an area represented by the space between I-5 and the bay from east to west and between Laurel Street and Commercial Street from north to south. The quasi-independent CCDC signed a contract with the Redevelopment Agency (remember, that's the City Council) to act as its agent downtown.
And here are the crucial words in that contract: “In the performance of its duties hereunder, Corporation shall be under the direction of Agency, and shall abide by actions taken, directives given, and policies adopted to Project by Agency.” A glossary from the legalese would indicate that “Corporation” means CCDC, “Agency” means City Council and “Project” is the Centre City redevelopment area. In other words, although the CCDC takes a lot of actions independently, if the City Council tells it to jump, CCDC should ask, “How high?” What we have here is a whole new means to communicate.
To check this analysis, CityBeat contacted a representative from the City Attorney's office, but she didn't respond with an answer by press time. CCDC president Nancy Graham called it “an interesting question.”
“I don't want to speculate because I don't think that's going to happen,” she said.
City Councilmember Toni Atkins was less shy. “We have the ability to override the CCDC vote,” she told CityBeat. “But we're under the same constraints as the CCDC.”
Suddenly, the opinion of elected officials should matter a whole lot more to the Manchester Financial Group. State Assemblymember Lori Saldaña and Congressmember Susan Davis have questioned the Manchester proposal since March. And, recently, state Senator Christine Kehoe added her dissenting voice. And after all the public outcry and newspaper editorials of the last few months, the members of the City Council have begun to form opinions of their own.
“It's certainly a lot of density. How's the public going to interact with that space?” asked Kevin Faulconer, whose District 2 contains the project. “We only get one chance to do this right.”
“There should be more public access, more open space,” said District 8's Ben Hueso.
“It's a little short on open space, and it could use more recreational area,” said District 6's Donna Frye.
“I definitely would not support any monstrosity that would benefit just the bottom line, the dollar,” said District 4's Tony Young.
“When I look at it, I still think the density and the walling off and the degree that it is, it wouldn't be my personal preference. It would be better to have more green space and more public-use space,” said Atkins of District 3.
Council President Scott Peters, who represeents District 1, and District 5's Brian Maienschein are on vacation, but statements from their spokespeople suggest they have not yet formed a judgment. Manchester can at least take some comfort from District 7's Jim Madaffer.
“What I saw looked like a new, modern San Diego,” he said. “My initial impression is that it looks like the finishing touch to a very prime piece of property.”
“I'm looking at the footprint, not the design. We want to reduce the size of the footprint,” Mayor Jerry Sanders said. “We continue to work with the Manchester Group and the Navy.” Sanders said he believes Manchester is being cooperative in these discussions.
For anyone keeping tally, those quotes hint at a 5-1 defeat for the Manchester plan.
No one from the Manchester Group returned CityBeat's calls placed during the last two weeks. Undoubtedly, the notion that the City Council has any say in the matter would come as a surprise. In fact, Manchester Group President Perry Dealy told the Voice of San Diego that only CCDC, and not the City Council, has any say in the plan.
This is not to say the project is dead, or that a suddenly empowered council would boot Manchester from the site. Among other things, the 1992 agreement binds the council as much as it does CCDC, and the agreement says that CCDC “shall not unreasonably withhold consent.” And everyone knows that Manchester has no fear of courtrooms-he won $2.3 million over a collapsed development deal in Oceanside in 2003, and another $5 million from the Port of San Diego in 2005. So odds are good that if the City Council forces CCDC to reject the project or causes delays that lead to Pentagon seizure of the land, the lawsuit will come.
In the byways of power, the conversations have begun about whether there is some way to buy Manchester out of the project.
“The mayor's office and CCDC are considering a Plan B, but I don't know how serious those discussions are,” one highly placed City Hall source said.
The decision now rests in the hands of elected officials who may be more responsive to the will of San Diegans. As Faulconer says, “We only get the chance to do this once.”