I started thinking about the waterfront one morning maybe ten years ago, when I went down to the bayside beach on Coronado with my friend Joe Ditler. He was carrying his lightweight dinghy on his head, intending to row across to “the other side.” Not even half a mile, but from the island it always looks like another city, another land.
He jumped in. I helped push him off. He started sculling away, facing backward, toward me. “Let me know if anything’s coming,” he said.
The waters were slick, metallic blue, and looked peaceful enough that I felt I could swim after him. But as he grew smaller, I looked to the west, and there was this ginormous Navy assault ship, inward-bound, heading for the bridge — and Joe.
I waved and pointed. Joe waved back and kept rowing. It was the classic “drowning not waving” situation. I yelled. I jumped up and down. Joe waved back.
Then, BAARRPP! The ship blared its horn. Joe leapt three feet in the air. He turned around, saw, and started rowing like Wile E. Coyote, trying to return to the cliff’s edge. He missed the water with his flailing oars, fell back, disappeared. But, thank goodness, the ship missed him. I next saw him bailing furiously in its chop, in between waving his fist at me.
He’s never let me forget that day. “It could have killed me!” he says, as if I had been in charge of the ship.
What I thought, though, after calming down, was how little any of us know about this waterfront. How little this fantastic, sheltered body of water in our back yard is a part of our lives. And how empty it feels, apart from those Navy ships.
Yet if you read down the Port of San Diego’s “Fast Facts” sheet, it’s clear that this could be one vital, active bay. For instance:
The bay is 22 square miles in size, with 34 miles of waterfront and five cities sharing it: San Diego, Coronado, Chula Vista, National City, and Imperial Beach.
It has three “islands” (all actually joined to the mainland): Coronado, Shelter, and Harbor.
It has ten miles of pathways, good for walking and riding.
It has 16 parks with 10 playgrounds.
It has 250 acres of visitable open space.
It has 16 marinas with 6000 boat slips.
It has three museums: the Maritime, the Midway and the National City Railcar Museum.
It has 15 hotels with 512 rooms.
Cruise ships come into the port 200 times a year; 275 cargo ships visit; and 75 Navy ships homeport in the bay.
There are 69 restaurants on the waterfront.
Then why does so much of this land seem so desolate?
I decide to investigate.
I head south from Coronado on my bike, ride five, six miles, to the Coronado Cays. The guard at the gate lets me through, and I continue on till I find the Calypso Café. It’s a little deli with a beautiful patio that looks down on one of the yacht-filled channels.
Beautiful, but all, all alone.
Turns out, Calypso is the last waterside café, the last human presence on the bayfront for about seven miles. Not till you scoop down and past Imperial Beach and back up to Chula Vista on the mainland side do you find signs of human waterside life — and that’s another isolated café, mainly for boaters.
What all this tells me is: the most beautiful part of San Diego — its bay — is way underdeveloped.
What should we do with it?
Let’s start with the main port area, where Broadway meets the water downtown. It isn’t the climax of this Pacific port city; it’s the raggedy edge. Yes, there’s the Star of India, the Midway, and Seaport Village. But the place is for daylight tourism. These sites apart, there is no “there” there.
Imagine being a cruise passenger, coming off the ship. You land in a semi-wasteland, rather than the pumping heart of a city. Instead of the city reaching out to you, you have to head across parking lots to find the city, somewhere inland.
Cries to “do something” — to bring downtown’s waterfront more into our lives, to integrate it with the city — have been heard for a long time, but they came into real focus earlier this year when, under the U-T’s new owner, developer Doug Manchester, the paper published a front-page editorial titled “Think Big.” The editorial outlined a Manchester-style plan for downtown’s waterfront: put in a football stadium, sports arena, and park where the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal now sits.
“After weeks of interviews and other reporting,” read the January 22 editorial, “U-T San Diego has come to believe in a new vision. It is a vision that would not just integrate a new stadium with an expanded convention center, but, in phases, would include a sports/entertainment district with a new sports arena, new public parkland, public beach and promenades — all in an area that today is unsightly industrial property inaccessible to the public.”
That’s in addition to the Navy property Manchester wants to turn into a hotel-retail complex at the bottom of Broadway, and another piece of land across Broadway that developer Rob Langford plans to develop, where Lane Field (the Padres’ first home) used to be.
This is what’s likely so far: for the North Embarcadero, prettier walkways, some trees; at the bottom of Broadway, Manchester and Langford hotels and retail. But there won’t be any East Village–type development where people come to live by the water. Or over it; the only waterfront beds on offer will be hotel beds, reserved for affluent out-of-towners.
South of the wall of convention centers and hotels, and just north of the Coronado bridge, Manchester and the U-T want to bulldoze the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal (where Dole banana boats come to unload 185 million bananas each month), and build a new football stadium for the Chargers, plus another sports center, and parks and beaches.