Besides a smart piece here and there by Neil Morgan, the last interesting story to appear in the Union-Tribune about the redevelopment of the Naval Training Center ran last August. It reported on the mysterious killings of six feral cats on the former Navy property. A colony of the animals had been living on the compound for decades, and last summer some were found mutilated — one had been sliced in half, another decapitated. Jeff Hickox, a property manager for McMillin Companies — which was awarded a controversial contract to develop the area — said at the time, “Were not killing cats. We’ve got no reason to kill cats.” Hickox suggested that birds of prey were the evildoers. “I’d say owls are the culprits,” he said.
But Barbara Caliri, a member of a coalition that looked after the cats, had had clashes with members of the McMillin team over the cats’ well-being, and she insisted that they’d been killed by human hands.
Since that story, a cursory piece about the redevelopment project has run in the U-T about once every two months. One, from last October, outlined a lawsuit filed by John McNab’s citizens group, Save Our NTC, seeking to enforce a 30-foot height limit on buildings on the property. Another piece, from this past January, reported on the inevitable rejection of that suit by Superior Court judge E. Mac Amos, Jr. He maintained that the injunction against buildings exceeding 30 feet did not apply to federally owned property. Other recent articles have focused on arcane recommendations by the California Coastal Commission regarding the redevelopment plan. The coastal commission fine-tuned the plan but demanded no radical changes. They merely insisted that certain buildings and areas on the property remain open to the public, which was the understanding to begin with, McMillin Companies hailed the recommendations, and the city council happily adopted them.
If the U-T’s reporting is any indication, San Diegans have pretty much given up opposing the NTC redevelopment plan. Or maybe the paper’s editors only realized what is now obvious — that McMillin Companies’ plan for the property, which will be called Liberty Station, is a fait accompli. Grading and construction on the property have already begun. To be sure, Corky McMillin faced obstacles and varying degrees of opposition before he ordered the first clod of earth to be moved on the site; what’s extraordinary, however, is how McMillin has bobbed and weaved around the hurdles he’s encountered. The opposing forces, it turns out, were not extraordinary, for they’ve failed to stop the project. This is McMillin’s game, and he played it with savvy.
But before he could flex his muscles, McMillin needed an all-important assist from a pliant city council.
Corky McMillins massive enterprise, McMillin Companies, has been based in National City for more than 40 years. Really a conglomerate of homebuilding and commercial development businesses, McMillin Companies has constructed more than 15,000 housing units, mostly in the San Diego region, stretching from Carlsbad to Otay Ranch. Though he’s undoubtedly a real estate tycoon, Corky McMillin banks heavily on his reputation as a neighborly sort who simply wants to create jobs in San Diego. He’s received numerous accolades, ranging from a “Spirit of Life Award” (given by the San Diego Construction Industries Alliance for the City of Hope) to the 1990 “Man of the Year Award” (bestowed by the Mexican and American Foundation).
Members of the San Diego City Council cited Corky McMillin’s local ties when they voted on May 18, 1999, to delay considering bids for the redevelopment project, even though a citizens committee headed by the reputable attorney Milton “Micky” Fredman had recommended that Lennar Communities receive the contract. City Council-woman Barbara Warden said then, “Obviously many of us have worked with Corky McMillin’s company. We’ve seen those projects come to fruition. He happens to have the largest project in my district, Miramar Ranch North, and my history with him — and I say it quite honestly — has been very public and very good.”
City Councilwoman Christine Kehoe added, “In my personal experience in my neighborhoods... I’ve seen case after case where redevelopment goes forward most successfully usually when there’s a strong local base and a real familiarity with the communities.”
At the beginning of the May-delay hearing, City Manager Michael Uberuaga reported to the city council that the citizens committee recommended Lennar Communities for the contract. “The Manager’s office does recommend that you enter into negotiations ... with Lennar Communities,” he said “That’s the preferred alternative.”
But City Councilman Byron Wear thwarted that recommendation. “I realize that the manager and staff as well as a talented group of citizen volunteers have spent a lot of time and energy to come up with a recommendation today,” Wear said. “However, I think this issue is too critical of a decision to San Diego to not give this council the opportunity to hear from both finalists, and so [I ask for a] continuance for two weeks to allow full presentations from both Lennar and McMillin.”
Another point of contention at the delay hearing was whether councilmembers could talk directly with McMillin Companies and Lennar Communities regarding their plans for the project. Barbara Warden asked Mayor Susan Golding whether there was a legal prohibition against such communications. Golding deferred to Rick Duvernay, a city attorney, who said, “I don’t think that there’s a legal reason why you couldn’t do that. But the reason why staff incorporated that into the selection process with the selection committee was... [to have] some degree of control on the amount of information, the timing of receipt of information, and how that information gets to those making a decision.”
But Mayor Golding had the last word on the subject. “I think any councilmember who wants to meet with the applicants as long as there is no legal prohibition should do his or her utmost to find out as much about this project as possible to cast the most fully informed vote as possible,” she said.