Photo illustration by John R. Lamb
Port commissioners opt to split the East Harbor Island makeover baby.
Tell the truth, and so puzzle and confound your adversaries.
—Henry Wotton, Sr.
San Diego Unified Port District commissioners have been an unpredictable bunch the past couple of months, and last week was no different.
On a wish-list spree of late to redesign much of the tidelands it governs along San Diego Bay, the commission two months ago surprised many when it wrapped up competition early for the negotiating rights to redevelop 70 acres in the Central Embarcadero area that includes Seaport Village, choosing from six competitors a development team headed by the son of Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs.
Last Thursday, commissioners convened again to choose between two visions proposed for the 57 acres that comprise the eastern portion of Harbor Island and the emptying car-rental property across from Lindbergh Field.
But instead of selecting between the divergent proposals from local heavyweights OliverMcMillan and Sunroad Enterprises, port leaders opted to ìsplit the baby,î as several commissioners deemed it. Team members from both sides seemed stunned by the decision.
The biggest loser of the day might well have been Tourism Marketing District board Chairman Bill Evans, whose hotelier family was in line with the OliverMcMillan plan to operate three hotel sites on the property, including a proposed 800- to 1,100-room convention hotel on the so-called "elbow," presently a massive parking lot just east of the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina.
That 9-acre segment, however, was granted to the Sunroad team, which argued that it had spent $2 million over 11 years to procure the development rights to that site, despite strong criticism of its previous high-rise hotel proposals from city officials and the state Coastal Commission.
What may have tilted that decision was a rare appearance by Aaron Feldman, the intensely private but feisty patriarch of the Sunroad empire, which includes millions of square feet of commercial real estate, car dealerships, a Poway country club and a San Diego Bay marina just east of the "elbow."
While Feldman's son, Uri, did most of the talking while trying to convince port commissioners—save for Rafael Castellanos, who recused himself because his law firm represents Sunroadóto reject a staff recommendation to select OliverMcMillan, it was the father's comments that delivered, as one commissioner described it, the "gut punch."
"It's going to be...unfair for the port now to take that elbow and give it to somebody else after we have worked on this for so many years," the elder Feldman said. Over the years, Sunroad's proposal for the site has ranged from high-rise hotels that former mayor Jerry Sanders once called "galling" for their proximity to Lindbergh Field to now two smaller hotels with 325 rooms.
With the Coastal Commissionís previous objection to those high-rise hotels, Commissioner Bob Nelson wondered aloud why staff was backing an OliverMcMillan plan with a similar large hotel proposed for the "elbow."
One staff member explained that the Coastal Commission objection came a decade ago and that the new plan includes many things the state agency was seeking, including public access and "promenades and connections that we do feel this proposal does achieve."
In the end, however, the question will be what exactly can be achieved on a stretch of land and water that will present some significant environmental challenges, including an earthquake fault line that runs through the property and some toxic hotspots that date back to its use by military contractors.
Just last month, the port district sued Lockheed Martin, accusing the aerospace behemoth of leaving behind an environmental nightmare at its Marine Terminal Railway Facility near the entrance to the man-made peninsula on Harbor Island Drive. Used to test submersibles beginning in 1966, the sediment in the marina next to the shuttered facility now contains 2,000 pounds of mercury that was used as ballast, leaving "some of the highest concentrations of mercury contamination found in San Diego Bay," according to the lawsuit, which aims to force the company to clean up the site.
And on the east side of the development site sits Convair Lagoon, which features a sand cap intended to contain what the Los Angeles Times in the 1990s described as "the highest recorded levels on the West Coast of cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs" that were discharged from the former neighboring Teledyne Ryan.
OliverMcMillan has proposed urban beaches near both sites, although for the Convair Lagoon location the firm's president, Paul Buss, acknowledged to commissioners that "you probably want to do a wall and actually make it feel like a beach but not actually right down into the water..."
The firm's plan also includes new headquarters for the port and Harbor Police overlooking the lagoon, including what appears to be a dock for police boats jutting into the lagoon. OliverMcMillan also wants to cut canals into the northern portion of the site, but Buss suggested they might not be connected directly to the bay to hasten environmental approvals.
Buss said he envisioned concrete channels that would not "go down that deep. We know that there is World War II contamination underneath all of this."
"We know less about the land than we do about the water," Commissioner Nelson told Spin Cycle later. "Obviously, a lot of investigation remains."
After the decision, representatives from both teams huddled in groups to talk about their newly invoked forced alliance. To say the gatherings appeared tense would be an understatement. While commissioners urged the parties to come up with an integrated plan that they hope will become a regional attraction, that will likely be as daunting a task as the necessary environmental cleanup required.
But at least Thursday, port Chairman Marshall Merrifield seemed optimistic about the billion-dollar dream. ìYeah, thereís a challenge in lots of ways, whether it be in entitlements or regulations or infrastructure,î he said. ìBut we donít want those parking lots to stay there. The alternative of not doing anything is not an option.î