Tourists line the rails of cruise ships as they sail into San Diego Bay and dock at the pier at the end of B Street. Their faces shine with excitement as they look out over a shiny cityscape backed by desert mountains. As they stroll down the platform to the pier, their expressions quickly shift to perplexity at the sight that greets them: An asphalt plain extends across the pier, festooned with rope lines and stacks of baggage from passengers waiting to board; barred gates separate the pier from the mainland; through those bars, cars speed along the five-lane expanse of Harbor Drive. This is what they've traveled all these miles for?
The Port of San Diego, which manages the pier, has been pained by the inadequacies of the dock for years, but there always seemed to be other, more pressing, priorities. Port spokesman John Gilmore told CityBeat that each visit by a cruise ship represents $2 million in revenue to the region, and in 2007 there were 238 visits. In 2008, they expect that number to reach 260, with an increase to 860,000 from 810,000 passengers.
Carnival Corp., which operates Holland America, Princess and Carnival cruise lines, is the port's biggest cruise ship customer. When Carnival announced in November 2006 that San Diego would become the home port for the 2,052-passenger Elation, the Port's Board of Commissioners immediately began plotting a $75-million renovation of the B Street Pier.
But doing so would require alternately closing each of B Street's berths, and Carnival says it needs two available at all times. To make up for lost capacity, the Port looked to the Broadway Pier immediately next door. The aging dock already serves as the stopover point for ships dropping off tourists making quick forays into the city, but it's not equipped for the massive supply infusions required for ships making a homeport stop.
Renovating the Broadway Pier, Port officials hoped, would be a simple matter of reinforcing the supports so it could handle the heavy trucks and installing a tent for receiving passengers. Quick, and easy, right? Not so fast.
Before long, Port officials decided to make the Broadway Pier a permanent third berth, which meant building a permanent receiving facility. The tent was replaced by a gray metal edifice, to be finished in October for $6 million. But the community rallied against the slapdash design, and soon, under additional pressure from Mayor Jerry Sanders, the Port did a complete redesign. The new terminal building will have a jagged rooftop and a snappy modern reception facility. Sure, it'll cost $23 million, and it won't be finished until spring 2009, but everyone seemed satisfied. The Port hired contractors, closed the Broadway Pier for construction, issued the necessary permits and got to work. The pier today is blocked by orange and white construction barriers that keep it closed to the public.
But the Port must get approval from the California Coastal Commission, which regulates construction along the state's entire coastline. In a March 4 letter to the Port, Coastal Commission District Manager Deborah Lee pointed out that the new building was not contemplated in the Port Master Plan, a legal document that lists all planned development on Port property.
The Broadway Pier is considered open space for the public, the letter said, intended to compensate for the space lost when the U.S.S. Midway made a nearby pier its permanent home. Building a new terminal would eliminate any opportunity for new public space along that pier, the letter went on, and the Port must amend its master plan and get an OK from the Coastal Commission before it can build a new terminal.
“Any work that occurs prior to Commission approval would be a violation of the Coastal Act,” the letter said, referring to the 1976 law that made the Coastal Commission permanent and established land-use regulations along the shore.An amendment to the master plan would set the project back roughly three more months, and if an additional environmental study is required, at least three months more than that.
Port officials, peeved because the redesign already cost them half a year, beg to differ.
“It's been in the works for years now,” Gilmore said.
The Port might be feeling the heat from Carnival, which loaned it $13 million of the $23-million cost for the improvements.
The agreement between the Port and Carnival “says that Carnival needs a facility to be operational by a certain timeline,” said Adrian Kwiatkowski, a spokesperson and lobbyist for the company. “It was supposed to be the end of October.”
Carnival agreed to the revised timeline for the spring, but it's not thrilled at the prospect of waiting longer than that. Kwiatkowski wouldn't outline any consequences of more lost time, but he did say that Carnival wants to know the “contingency plans if there are further delays.”
Meantime, the Port has asked the city and the Centre City Development Corporation, which administers redevelopment Downtown on the city's behalf, for the $10 million it still needs for the project. CCDC didn't respond to calls for comment, but Sanders spokesman George Biagi told CityBeat that the city won't be contributing.
Staff from the Port and the Coastal Commission will meet next week. Neither Lee nor Gilmore sounded to CityBeat like they'd be finding common ground.
“The proper way to evaluate this is a plan amendment,” Lee said, “and let a judgment be made openly.”