Is the proposal to build a 40-foot-high, 100-acre concrete deck over the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal so far-fetched from an engineering and economic viewpoint that it is really a hoax? Is the envisioned project, which citizens will vote on in November, essentially a ruse to get the public’s okay to utilize the facility for nonmaritime purposes and then use that vote as a crowbar to oust the port altogether? In short: a bait and switch?
Engineering experts, scratching their heads over a proposal they consider preposterous, say it may be a subterfuge to accomplish a takeover. Experts in initiative wording see potential loopholes that could accomplish such an objective.
It’s called “The Port of San Diego Marine Freight Preservation and Bayfront Redevelopment Initiative.” The disingenuousness of the name suggests that humbuggery lurks. “The title is so misleading,” says Sharon Bernie-Cloward, president of the San Diego Port Tenants Association. “This is about taking the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal over.”
Ray Carpenter, president of National City’s R.E. Staite Engineering, snorts, “That area is on dredged fill. You would have to penetrate the dredged soils 40 to 50 feet, and probably another 20 or 30 feet to go down to San Diego formational material.” His company has driven piles for foundations for the San Diego Convention Center and nearby waterfront hotels. He notes, “It is in an earthquake fault zone. Just the safety issues alone are enough to stop the project.” So many columns would be required that it would be impossible to do port business, says Carpenter.
He thinks it would cost a billion dollars just to put up the deck. Any buildings on top of the deck — football stadium, sports arena, convention center expansion, hotel, shopping center — would be a huge add-on cost. A football stadium would be another billion bucks.
“It doesn’t make any sense financially,” says Carpenter. Once the people vote for it in principle, the promoters will say it is not cost-effective to build a deck after all. “They will say they will build on the terminal [ground] level and adhere to the will of the people,” says Carpenter. “It is a hoax. A landgrab.”
Steve Erie, political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, who has studied how initiatives can be worded misleadingly, thinks he has found the loophole. In one section, the proposal talks of “flexibility for consideration of a wide array of development options” and later, more ominously, says, “grade level acreage need not be used exclusively for the existing marine-related industrial activities.” In football, that’s called encroachment.
“This is the money shot,” says Erie. “This gives them leeway to rezone and reuse the existing terminal-facilities space. It is a sneaker clause — what we call a killer clause.”
Adds Erie, “This is a con job.” The promoters say they will only use air rights above the port and it will cost the taxpayers nothing. “But this gives them $2 billion worth of development rights for nothing.”
“Once you use the ground level for other purposes, you displace the businesses down there doing maritime work and create congestion problems,” says Irene McCormack, port spokesperson. She is wary of the same loopholes that bother Erie and Carpenter.
Jim Mills, former president pro tem of the California Senate, notes that while there have been similar facilities built over rail yards, there has been nothing like this constructed over a working port. He notes that near the port are yards of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, as well as trolley yards. But if the promoters went to either, “They would say, ‘Sure, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about price,’ ” says Mills. By building over port land, there would be no such discussion. They would try to walk away with it for free. When he was in the state assembly in the 1960s, Mills coauthored the bill that created the port. From then to the present, “The first priority is the handling of maritime trade,” he says.
Mills also notes that if the initiative passes, the port’s board must within 60 days enter into an exclusive negotiating agreement with a private developer to work out the details of the new plan. The San Diego–based promoters, developers Richard Chase and Frank Gallagher, have been working on this for a year and a half. “No [other] firm could analyze the possibilities and problems in 60 days,” says Mills. Chase and Gallagher would not only be in the driver’s seat, they would be sitting there alone.
While Chase and Gallagher claim that the air rights could be used for all kinds of structures, it is clear that a Chargers stadium is what’s on the establishment’s mind. Gallagher, for example, claims that if a football stadium and/or sports arena would occupy the space above the port, the City could use the Qualcomm and Sports Arena spaces for residential and commercial purposes, and — shazam! — the tax revenue could pay off the pension deficit and keep the Chargers in San Diego to boot.
Mark Fabiani, Chargers lawyer/mouthpiece, says the team remains “exclusively focused” on two possible Chula Vista locations, but if “the Tenth Avenue site does become potentially viable, the Chargers would of course consider the site.” Just about every knowledgeable person in the county knows that Chula Vista ain’t gonna happen. But the Chargers are in great shape: they pay extremely low rent at Qualcomm. They complain that the Q doesn’t produce enough revenue, but the team’s net profit is excellent because costs are so low. The Chargers can afford to wait. “Four years ago we evaluated the cost of building a deck,” says Fabiani, but a key port official said not to bother, and “we have done no cost estimates of a deck since.”
Padres majority owner John Moores — who has been out of town for some time — once cast a covetous eye at the terminal, but Gallagher says he hasn’t even talked to Moores and doesn’t intend to do so. Bernie-Cloward says she learned from a close associate of Moores that he thinks it’s a dubious idea.