Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on his first visit to San Diego as President in 1935, waggled his ivory cigarette holder and proclaimed in sonorous tones that the city needed a backdoor to its bay.
F.D.R.'s remark made headlines locally because it was followed by a promise from the President to support a $20-million bay project, in the interests of national security. After all, the former Navy secretary pointed out, the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet could be bottled up and destroyed if the San Diego harbor entrance were blocked by well-aimed bombs or well-placed mines.
Though San Diego got its share of the Roosevelt-era Works Projects Administration programs, a second entrance to the bay was not among them. The promise became a popular one for generations of politicians during the decades that followed. One veteran waterfront observer noted that the idea of cutting another entrance into the harbor seems to flourish around election time, perhaps because it's the sort of project that even the most energetic politician could not be expected to deliver within his or her political lifetime.
Now, more than 50 years after Roosevelt's promise, the crusade for a second bay entrance is back, buoyed by Stars & Stripes' capture of the America's Cup yachting trophy and the prospect of future America's Cup racing in San Diego.
M. Larry Lawrence, a maverick millionaire Democrat who owns the Hotel del Coronado, believes the America's Cup could be the catalyst needed to get the entrance channel project out of dry dock.
A South Bay harbor channel to the ocean, cut through the narrow waist of the Silver Strand near the Coronado Cays, "would be a great benefit to 80% of the bayfront," turning the South Bay backwater into prime real estate for commercial and residential development, he said. A second bay entrance "is the ultimate answer to a lot of the economic problems of South Bay communities," and promises to alleviate the growing congestion in the northern third of the bay.
Not that the main entrance to the bay isn't wide and deep enough to accommodate freighters from the Orient and the Navy's behemoths, Lawrence said, but traffic is building up in the main harbor channel as it is on coastal freeways. Waits for weekend boaters heading for the ocean are as long as, or longer than, those for homebound motorists caught in the northbound commuter crunch where Interstates 5 and 805 merge. An alternative bay entrance must be opened or there will be the nautical equivalent of gridlock, experts agree.
Lawrence questions, however, whether San Diego Unified Port District officials will buckle down to the task of ramrodding a second entrance, or, for that matter, enticing the America's Cup defense to San Diego. In his opinion, port commissioners are "nothing more than a bunch of guys who like to travel a lot."
Don Nay, Port District director, said that a second harbor channel in South Bay has been on the Port District's planning list for a long time, but not in its budget. Even the affluent port can't afford a project that could cost anywhere from $100 million to $1 billion, Nay said, unless the federal government pays a good chunk of the tab.
Nay, who has been at the helm of the autonomous Port District for more years than he cares to admit, recalls that the biggest push for the South Bay ocean channel began in the early 1960s and still simmers on the back burner.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched an intensive study of the channel project, even building a huge, 2,500-square-foot model of the bay to test out the consequences of changing tidal currents by opening up the South Bay to the ocean.
Nay recalls a 1968 trip to Vicksburg, Miss., to view the mechanical bay replica in operation. There, inside a huge warehouse, engineers manipulated nature, causing the tides to ebb and surge every 13 minutes while time photography documented the pace and direction that Styrofoam chips and dyes traveled. The verdict: the second entrance would improve the tidal flushing action of the bay without eroding the deep-water channels used by commercial and military ships.
A less satisfactory answer arose from the Corps' economic study of the project. A draft report released in the 1970s found that only about 60 cents benefit would be gained from each $1 of investment in the entrance channel--a death-dealing "negative cost-benefit ratio" that threatened to sink any chance San Diego would have to gain 90% federal financing for the project.
Nay contends that the cards were stacked against San Diego Bay in the Corps' study because "benefits" did not include the miles of bay frontage that would be turned from vacant mud flats to bustling terminals with the advent of the South Bay entrance. Nor did the Corps consider the benefits that would accrue if recreational boaters could sail directly from South Bay anchorages into the ocean without making the 14-mile trip up the bay.