The North Embarcadero has been called the “front porch” of downtown San Diego. But to hear current talk about plans to revitalize the run-down bayfront stretching between Lindbergh Field and Seaport Village, “storm cellar” might be a more appropriate analogy these days.
While some see it simply as the nature of San Diego's typical one-step-forward-two-steps-back political legacy, others say efforts to spruce up the scenic downtown bayfront may have been just too pie-in-the-sky, some six years and millions of planning dollars later.
“It just seems to be a little bogged down right now in issues, egos and money,” reports new City Councilman Michael Zucchet, who is following through on his inaugural-speech promise to meet with the numerous parties involved in the so-called North Embarcadero Alliance Visionary Plan. The plan calls for an estimated $100 million conversion of some 260 acres from asphalt parking strip to strolling parklands, commercial shops and public art.
The alliance brought together factions that previously had rarely worked well in tandem-the city and county governments, the Port District, the Navy and the city's downtown redevelopment arm, the Centre City Development Corporation. Attorney Mike McDade, a former port chairman, had introduced the revitalization plan along with the support of county Supervisor Greg Cox, whose district includes downtown San Diego.
“I continue to be enthralled by the idea,” says McDade, who is nothing if not consistently diplomatic on all things political. “They've made some nice steps over the last year toward refining the idea from vague, pretty concept to the realities of how it will fit on the ground.”
Those steps, however, have not come all too nimbly. After the initial fuzzy feelings of cooperation wore off, the port found itself embroiled with the Navy over its downtown complex of buildings. A legal battle ensued over the future of the Navy's massive, World-War-II-era building at 1220 Pacific Highway. That structure severs B Street from the waterfront and makes moot any plans for accommodating an expanded cruise-ship terminal and the anticipated traffic it and the remodeled waterfront will generate. The Navy, in turn, walked away from the alliance.
As one observer put it, “The port sued the Navy, and the Navy said, ‘To hell with you,' or whatever the nautical equivalent of that phrase is, and took their ball and went home.”
Then, the city of San Diego decided against funding any part of the North Embarcadero plan, choosing instead to drop that ball into the lap of its financially healthier brethren at CCDC. The departure of McDade from the port and a perceived dwindling interest from the city lead to only sporadic meetings of the alliance between 1999 and 2000, one observer noted.
Line-up card changes by the port didn't help matters, as their alliance representative bounced from then-commissioner Peter Janopaul, who opposed the choice of Gafcon Inc. as the project consultant, to “commissioner emeritus” Frank Urtasun of Imperial Beach, an ex-port member whose low-status choice was seen by some as a snub to the project.
The wheels on the project began to fall off, some observers suggest, when Supervisor Ron Roberts, as chairman of the Board of Supervisors, began attending alliance meetings. Some observers said progress was being made until, as McDade puts it, “the county made its request for additional green space almost all the way to the water's edge.” While he supports the county's efforts to increase parkland on the bayfront, McDade says he hopes the alliance won't falter over what is no doubt a hornet's nest of political interests.
“Some people might say it's ego, but I just say it's a different concept of reality,” McDade says with a laugh. “It's a situation where I haven't seen any strong rationale why the park has to extend farther to the west and eliminate the parking that is at issue.”
There is grumbling that Roberts, perhaps eyeing yet another run for mayor in 2004, is looking at the North Embarcadero as his soapbox. He has not shied away from grandstanding in the past, but with government budgets tight everywhere, some political observers wonder if the Port District's decision last month to call a “time out” on the waterfront plans is simply an opportunity for Roberts to park his ego at the door-but bring his checkbook inside.
Meanwhile, McDade says he is pleased that Zucchet seems ready to use some of his political capital in the fight for a beautified North Embarcadero. Adds Zucchet of the plans: “I think it's very much alive, and I think the issues that seem to be getting everybody off the same page can be overcome.”