SAN DIEGO — For eight years, business owner and civic activist Alan Uke has been pushing to bring the retired aircraft carrier Midway to San Diego Bay as a floating museum to honor naval aviation.
Recently it looked like smooth sailing at last. The major power blocs in San Diego were falling nicely into place: the Navy, most of the major politicians, the newspaper, the business community, the county taxpayers association.
But now the ambitious project is encountering opposition and is in danger of running aground.
"It's a view-buster. It's in the wrong place," said Councilwoman Christine Kehoe, who also believes that the big ship could be an environmental hazard and a drain on the city's budget.
Kehoe is on the California Coastal Commission, which would have to approve the project.
Commission staff members have already put Uke on notice that they are not satisfied with his pledge to do penance for any environmental damage caused by the Midway by paying to restore wildlife habitat along a river several miles away.
"The first least tern I saw this year was right where the Midway would go," said James Peugh, coastal and wetlands conservation chairman of the San Diego Audubon Society. "It's a very popular spot with ducks, pelicans and grebes."
Uke, 47, who struck it rich 25 years ago in the diving equipment business, is not overly bothered by the environmental concerns. He remains convinced that he can satisfy the Coastal Commission by tweaking his promise to rehabilitate 14.5 acres in the channel of the Sweetwater River in nearby National City.
So-called off-site mitigation is common in big projects like the Midway proposal, which would use four acres of San Diego Bay. Besides, as a man of commerce, Uke understands the need to occasionally sweeten the terms of a deal to reach closure.
What vexes him considerably, however, is the suggestion that the Midway is too big and that the proposed site is wrong.
Uke noted that the Midway is smaller than the modern carriers moored across the bay at North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado. Besides, he said, what's wrong with big?
"This is not a building, it's an icon, a public monument," Uke said. "Monuments are supposed to be big, like the ideas they represent. Look at the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. Our idea is a big one: a monument to show how proud we are of what the U.S. Navy has done for this country."
The proposed site is the old Navy Pier along Harbor Drive, just south of the cruise ship terminal and just north of the G-Street Mole, a spit of land that protrudes into the bay and is the location of two of downtown's better seafood restaurants.
For half a century, the Navy Pier was a major embarkation point for troops heading overseas.
It has been made obsolete by better docking facilities at North Island and the 32nd Street Naval Station in San Diego, but from World War I through the early involvement in the Vietnam War, Navy Pier was a busy location.
The pier has a view of the carriers at North Island and of what is called the birthplace of naval aviation, the site on North Island where the U.S. military opened its first pilots school in 1911.
However, a waterfront area once known for its tuna canneries, Navy ships and industrial uses is rapidly being transformed into a tourist-friendly zone of marinas, restaurants, shopping complexes, high-rise hotels and mini-parks.
Whether a 900-foot-long, five-story-high aircraft carrier fits into that motif is an issue for the Coastal Commission.
"I think Mr. Uke would be better off thinking of National City or Chula Vista," said Kehoe, naming two suburbs that front the southern reaches of the bay.
The San Diego Unified Port Commission last week gave Uke until Aug. 8 to satisfy the concerns of Coastal Commission staff members about "visual impacts and natural resources."
If the staff remains unmoved, the Port Commission will drop the Midway from its waterfront plan, which is being submitted to the Coastal Commission. That could mean the end of Uke's dream.
Leaving his San Marcos-based company, Underwater Kinetics, in the hands of others, Uke has been working to get the Midway to San Diego under the auspices of a nonprofit corporation since 1992.
The Midway was decommissioned that year and towed to the Navy base at Bremerton, Wash. Built in 1945, the Midway saw action in the Korean War, Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm.
Uke envisions a flight deck of classic airplanes, exhibits below decks showing the Navy past and present, dining facilities and docents explaining Navy life.
He has raised $1.5 million in donations and gotten a $3.5-million line of credit from a bank, secured by pledges from a group of supporters. That should be enough to get the Midway to San Diego and the museum ready to open, he said, after which he believes it will be self-supporting.
Critics worry that the Midway will become a white elephant, requiring public money for upkeep.