It is hard to imagine that San Diego could have come this deep into the 20th Century without having fully developed, for better or for worse, its central downtown bayfront.
In many ways, we are blessed that this area, which is so important to both the viability of downtown and the attractiveness of the waterfront, was not covered years ago by a hodgepodge of hotels and other buildings that might have forever foreclosed the opportunity for coordinated, sensitive development.
But now the major landowners between Seaport Village and Hawthorn Street believe the time has come to realize the potential of their holdings, and decisions are starting to be made that not only will frame the western side of downtown but also will literally determine how those who live and visit here will look at San Diego Bay. This has created a situation pregnant with opportunity yet fraught with peril.
As the first large developments there are planned in earnest, two facts dominate the current reality of the central bayfront. The first is that the U.S. Navy will be one of the two major developers in the area. The Navy wants to form a partnership with the private sector to develop its 16-acre site just south of Broadway with a combination of Navy headquarters, private office space and hotels. The goal is for private developers to pay 75% of the cost of building new Navy offices.
Those who remember the bitter struggle that accompanied the Navy's building of a new hospital in Balboa Park are well aware of the power the Navy exercises--and how little control local authorities have over it. We can only hope the Navy wants to avoid a repeat of the fight that resulted from its arrogance over the hospital issue. So far, it has shown a cooperative attitude.
The second key part of the bayfront equation is that no one agency has land-use authority throughout. In addition to the Navy, the City of San Diego, the San Diego Unified Port District, the Centre City Development Corp. and San Diego County all have some ownership or jurisdiction. This means interagency cooperation of a possibly unprecedented degree will be necessary if development along the waterfront is to reflect a consistent vision.
The San Diego Assn. of Governments has formed a group including the involved agencies, the Santa Fe Pacific Realty Corp.--the other large landowner--and other interested organizations to brainstorm on the broad goals and strategies of a bayfront plan.
But now comes the really difficult part. Some type of ad hoc committee, joint-powers authority or existing agency must be designated to guide the coming development. No one knows yet what this might involve. It could require a relinquishing by some or all of the agencies of certain powers they now hold. It might mean the naming of a bayfront development czar charged with coordinating the plans of agencies and landowners, jawboning them into cooperation and building a community consensus on the course that development should take.
What is certain is that this will be an important test of this community's leadership.
It is imperative that the key decision-makers in all the involved public entities commit themselves to participating in joint planning. With these people working together, attractive development that serves residents and tourists and maintains adequate view corridors to the bay can occur.
But if cooperation gives way to jealous protection of turf, and if developers are allowed to go their own way, today's leaders will have done tomorrow's San Diego a huge disservice.