Shoulders slumped, leaning back, eyes a little glazed over: When the City Council last had a hearing on the Navy Broadway Complex, the council members' body language telegraphed their feelings on the subject. Enough already, some of them seemed to be saying. We've heard it all before. Go away. They'd been listening to arguments about the proposed seven-building complex slated for Downtown's bayfront for literally years at that point, and this was the third appeal from project opponents. The council rejected the appeal, fully expecting to hear more as the project moved forward. But then last Friday, Judge Ronald Prager changed all that. In altering the way decisions will be made for this project, he may have taken Navy Broadway away from the City Council for good.
Redevelopment of the Navy Broadway Complex started to take form and substance in 2005 when the Navy selected hotelier Doug Manchester to develop the 16 acres of land it controlled on the bay. Manchester would build the Navy a new headquarters at no cost, and he would get to construct office and hotel towers next door to the HQ. Opponents have argued that the project represents a giveaway to Manchester, and that such large buildings on the site will block public access to the water. They feel it doesn't reflect the potential for civic uses of what many call "San Diego's front porch." They have fought the proposal along every legal avenue almost from the moment Manchester's plan was unveiled.
Prager's ruling (PDF) was the culmination of the opposition's lawsuit over the City Council's failure to uphold its appeal. The opponents, known as the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, contend that the world has changed dramatically since 1992, when the last environmental assessment was done on the site. The judge disagreed and handed them a stinging defeat on all fronts.
But among discussion of the environmental issues was a clause in which Prager changed how decisions would be made on the project going forward. According to an agreement signed by the city in 1992 (and then extended in 2003 and 2005), the city delegated its ability to approve any development of that land to the Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), the agency that handles Downtown redevelopment on the city's behalf. Typically, CCDC decisions can be appealed to the City Council, serving in its role as the Redevelopment Agency. But the development agreement muddies the waters on whether the council can hear appeals on this project. Prager ruled that the decisions would no longer be considered "discretionary," meaning open to an appeal, but would now be "ministerial," which would close that avenue of appeal. Ministerial decisions are analogous to getting a business certificate or a driver's license: Meet minimum requirements and you get the license. The upshot of the change is that the council may not be able to review CCDC decisions on Manchester's project ever again. Certainly that's how project opponents see it.
"The City Council will never get to weigh in on Navy Broadway again," said attorney Cory Briggs, who represents the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition. "Before the trial, they had three more bites of the apple. Now, they'll never get to do it again."
City officials are trying to figure out exactly what the decision means. Deputy City Attorney Don Worley told CityBeat he supported the judge's ruling because it upholds the City Council's rejection of the appeal, but he characterized his support as short-term legal tactics. He noted that he's new to the case and that he doesn't know what the ruling means for future reviews.
Eli Sanchez, project manager for CCDC on the Navy Broadway Complex, seems to agree with Briggs.
"There could be an argument made that they could be handled ministerially, based on the ruling," Sanchez told CityBeat. "Not to say we couldn't have public meetings about it. But a ministerial action-as long as the applicant is meeting the development standard, they get the building permit."
For project opponents, this couldn't come at a worse time. Since their last appeal to the City Council, there was an election. The city attorney went from Democrat and Navy Broadway Complex project opponent Mike Aguirre to Republican Jan Goldsmith (who has not opined on the project). The City Council lost two project supporters in Jim Madaffer and Brian Maienschein, as well as Scott Peters, who said he didn't like the project but felt he had to vote for it on the appeals.
They've been replaced by a decidedly different group. City Councilmember Todd Gloria is increasingly investing himself in finding a way to use the property differenty. He recently expressed interest in making the Navy a partner in the new City Hall project. He told CityBeat that he's "very concerned" about the judge's decision but is still looking into it. City Councilmember Marti Emerald, though, made the Navy Broadway Complex one of her crusades (PDF) when she was "The Troubleshooter" for Channel 10. She hired a seismologist to review the geological studies, and the scientist found reason to worry about the possibility of an earthquake beneath a future complex on the site.
"We found that using techniques that weren't available in 1992, there were potential problems," Emerald told CityBeat. She also worries about not getting another chance to consider the project. "I certainly hope we have the opportunity to review it again," she said. "It's too important an issue to leave us out of the decision."
City Councilmember Donna Frye, along with former City Councilmember Toni Atkins, has long hoped for a new environmental review of the project and a reconsideration of what gets built there. Frye told CityBeat that she always thought the council would get a new opportunity to review the project. She's furious that she may have cast her last vote on the subject.
"The issue is not whether the council gets to participate, but whether the public gets to participate," she said. "If we don't get to participate, then the public gets shut out."
City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer seemed less sure that the decision would have such far-reaching implications. He said through his spokesperson, Tony Manolatos, that he's pleased that the ruling supports the council's decision on the environmental study, and he's glad to be moving forward.
Perry Dealy, who is working with Manchester to arrange financing for the complex, is pleased with all aspects of the judge's decision.
"He was unequivocal about it," he said. "Between this and how things are going behind the scenes, we're very positive about the project going into implementation phase by the first of the year."