Since the CCDC approached him in late 1997, Plant repeatedly informed the agency he would need at least a year and $15 million to rebuild his freezers elsewhere. That estimate did not include land costs. Finding a site with similar access to the harbor, railroad tracks, and highways would be no small task. Plant claims the city reassured him his needs would be met.
When pressed about Plant's requests, Allsbrook said, "I'm not sure a year is what he requires. I can't get into a debate about that." Allsbrook said the CCDC offers fair market value versus potential value that accounts for future development. However, the affected landowners say the offers fall woefully short of not only what is fair, but also what it takes to replace their property or business. The CCDC offered Plant $8 million.
With less than three months to defrost his big fridge and hand the keys to the city, Plant is scrambling to find alternative storage for 15 million pounds of frozen food: beef, chicken, strawberries, oranges, tomatoes, pizza, other packaged goods. "I have about 3 million pounds of fish that I don't know what to do with." On a daily operating basis much of the inventory ends up with customers, recognizable names such as Nabisco and General Mills. The stash includes 40,000 pounds of fish consumed weekly by Sea World's wildlife.
The smell of fish is so intense at San Diego Refrigerated Services, it creates an invisible wall around the building and permeates Plant's office. The company's inability to relocate on short notice may seem obvious to a visitor, but apparently not to CCDC. San Diego Refrigerated Services' cavernous storerooms require temperatures as low as 10 degrees below zero, racking up a monthly electricity bill of $30,000.
"I couldn't tell Ed to move nine months ago," Allsbrook said. "I couldn't tell him until I was authorized to make an offer."
Meanwhile, Plant says San Diego Refrigerated Services has lost some customers, 13 million pounds of strawberries, and a few employees to Innovative Cold Storage Enterprises Inc., which opened near Otay Mesa in April. One of those employees, Doug Gadker, is the new competitor's general manager. "This was built to take advantage of a growing need for cold storage in San Diego and compete with Los Angeles," Gadker said. "We're not out to hurt Ed."
Because San Diego Refrigerated Services is the only operation in San Diego to process fish and store it in frozen blocks of ice without packaging, that business is likely to migrate to Los Angeles or overseas once the city pulls the plug. "That's a unique part of Ed's company," Gadker said, referring to what cold storage operators call "nude block freezing." "Part of me will go down with that building."
A few of the 100 customers dependent on San Diego Refrigerated Services, such as Rob Van Riter, are likely to fold. And, like Tom Hom's 200 mini-storage clients, they aren't on the CCDC's lists of displaced businesses and residents. Van Riter started Raven Foods Corp. in November to catch and export sardines, mackerel, and squid. Without the crucial middle step of freezing, Van Riter said, his plan to build a $1 million enterprise is ruined.
"The whole damn thing is illegal if you ask me," Van Riter groused. "The Padres and the ballpark aren't even a publicly run deal, and they're pushing the little guys out."
But pushing out the little guys is an inevitable consequence of eminent domain laws, which give government broad powers to set aside the interests of a few to serve "the greater good." Goebel likens redevelopment to a fast-moving train that is rarely derailed. Unfairness is inherent in the process, the lawyer said, and the plight of merchants in the ballpark's path is typical.
In a strategy applied throughout East Village, the CCDC tried to persuade tenants who lease space from Hom and Plant to move even before the property was condemned. If successful, that tactic could deprive the landlord of precious cash flow and would seem to devalue the real estate, but it's legal. It could also hamper renters' chances of pursuing a claim for "good will" losses later. Allsbrook says the departure of tenants would not result in lower real estate prices. And, he says, the CCDC would reimburse landlords for rent lost between the time the agency moves a tenant and takes possession of property. "There are two separate tracks: land acquisition and relocation. They coincide," Allsbrook said, so both property owners and their tenants vacate the premises simultaneously.
At the same time, the CCDC makes sure property owners prepare environmental assessments of their parcels and remove any contamination. The reports alone cost thousands of dollars and seem punitive -- suddenly required just as landlords must grapple with lost rent, the logistics of moving, and what they perceive to be low offers.
The CCDC has identified three underground storage tanks at San Diego Refrigerated Services. If Plant doesn't excavate them by June 15, the agency will impose fines ranging from $500 to $5000 a day for each tank.
The demand for clean-up is legal under the Polanco Act, which the CCDC supported ten years ago after getting stuck with a $2 million bill to decontaminate marina property. "We probably use this tool more than any other redevelopment agency in California," Allsbrook said, noting the CCDC has sent Polanco Act notices to about 55 property owners in the East Village.
Few are spared as the CCDC advances its ambitious timetable. To be preserved are four buildings listed on the San Diego Historical Site Board's registry of landmarks, including the Carnation building in which the CCDC has invested money. But six other structures on the registry remain in the wrecking ball's shadow.
While San Diego Refrigerated Services' two large warehouses lack the architectural style to make the registry, they represent a bit of local history about to be swept away by bulldozers.
One warehouse, built in 1890, was the original San Diego Ice & Cold Storage. It now houses the company's six tenants, mostly food and produce vendors. The other warehouse, built in 1922, contains the huge, 20,000-square-foot freezers; refrigeration compartments; machinery for quick freezing; and compressors the size of tree trunks. It is a work environment like no other, where Plant's 25 employees must don the company uniform of parkas, woolen hats, and gloves to enter storerooms lined with ice crystals.