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Seaport San Diego mega project faces milestone votes

Port of San Diego commissioners will soon vote to start environmental review of 1HWY1’s project, an action that would act as a green light after years of mixed signals.

Seaport San Diego proposes to construct an urban beach at the southern boundary of the project on the peninsula known today as Embarcadero Marina Park North. The view looks northward toward the project, with a relocated Ruocco Park separating the beach from the tower and hotels in the background.

Jennifer Van Grove

San Diego Union Tribune

November 4, 2022, 4:07pm PST

After six years of deliberation, the developer proposing to redo downtown’s Central Embarcadero with hotels, attractions and new marinas is on the cusp of receiving confirmation that its $3.6 billion plan is ready to graduate beyond the realm of the conceptual.

Tuesday, Port of San Diego Commissioners will vote to start an environmental review of 1HWY1’s mega project, called Seaport San Diego. The action, which is recommended by staff and does not constitute project approval, would be an official green light after years of mixed signals, propelling the project into a new era of formal consideration.

With approval from the board, port staff will start the detailed environmental analysis required by the California Environmental Quality Act, studying a long list of potential impacts associated with the proposed development plan. Staff may also be required to conduct a review under the National Environmental Policy Act for portions of the site that fall within federal jurisdiction. The environmental process is expected to take at least two years.

“This meeting is the culmination of six years of collaborating with the port, studying the site and listening to the community,” said Yehudi “Gaf” Gaffen, who runs 1HWY1. “We have worked tirelessly to get here — and we couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to create something so meaningful for San Diego.

Seaport San Diego is designed to keep the best of what we have and reflect the community’s wants and needs, with greater public access to the waterfront for everyone.” Seaport San Diego currently proposes to demolish the existing Seaport Village and remake 105 acres of land and water area on San Diego Bay with 2.7 million square feet of mixed-use development.

The program, as described in a revised project description submitted to the port in October, envisions a total of 2,050 hotel rooms spread across seven properties, including a 500-foot observation tower at the start of Pacific Highway.

In addition, the project calls for 215,764 square feet of retail and restaurant space, 561,400 square feet of floating docks and fixed piers, 220,071 square feet of office space reserved for ocean research-related enterprises, a school, a commercial fishing facility, an urban beach, a large event center, 158 boat slips, and 16.2 acres of parks and open space. Other amenities include an aquarium, yacht club and elevated walkway.

Backed in part by San Diego’s famed Jacobs family, 1HWY1 is headed by Gaffen, Jeff “JJ” Jacobs (son of Irwin Jacobs) and Jeff Essakow.

In November 2016, the port selected 1HWY1 to redevelop the expansive, waterfront area, and the parties have been negotiating lease and development terms since October 2017. Over the years, the project has morphed in size and scale.

In recent months, the developer has reduced by a significant number the proposed slip count, heeding objections from commissioners and members of the public.

The current proposal, for instance, now calls for just 32 slips that could accommodate yachts and other transient big boats in what the developer is calling Corner Marina. Corner Marina doesn’t exist today; it would be located in front of the observation tower, hotels and event center. A previous version included space for 103 slips in the marina, drawing a strong reaction from people fearing an influx of parked boats and obstructed water views.

Slip counts have been reduced in other areas as well, and berthing is now reserved for commercial fishing vessels — at the expense of dock-and-dine facilities and whalewatching boats — in the G Street Mole Marina.

“I really felt that the use of the waterside for recreational boating was an important piece of our project because water is the main differentiator here,” Gaffen said. “For me, personally, I feel (the changes take) away something that was beneficial. But again, that was not the consensus of the commission, and that’s our partner so we’ve listened and adjusted.”

Whereas earlier this year port commissioners appeared to balk at the enormity of Seaport San Diego, they have in more recent months seemed to soften to the project. Some have even signaled a willingness to let the developer pursue up to $550 million in public subsidies to pay for public infrastructure.

Commissioners may also be further swayed by what appears to be a truce between local commercial fishermen and 1HWY1.

At the agency’s July board meeting, fishermen aired a number of grievances with the developer’s treatment of the G Street Mole and Tuna Harbor, which they said would negatively impact their operations. The developer has since revised substantially its plan, eliminating for instance a restaurant that was to go atop a new fish processing building. 1HWY1 has also amended its parking configuration and changed the traffic circulation on the mole, as well as created a more open fairway into Tuna Harbor.

Taken together, the changes may appease board members who are anxious to test the project’s viability through the environmental process — as opposed to continuing to debate conceptual ideas. They will no doubt be nudged to move Seaport San Diego forward by a litany of elected leaders and labor representatives who have expressed support at past meetings.

Still, members of the public are expected to object to the magnitude of the project, which some believe is wholly unnecessary, particularly in light of major improvements to the existing Seaport Village.

Their objections are buoyed by a recent letter from the California Coastal Commission, which is the higher-ranking agency and will eventually need to sign off on the development.

“There are larger, more fundamental concerns with the overall concept that will need to be addressed before the project could be found consistent with the Coastal Act, and we, therefore, recommend that the project be redesigned to retain the existing mix of lower cost visitor and recreational facilities at Seaport Village and substantially reduce the bulk and scale of the overall proposal,” Melody Lasiter, a coastal program analyst, wrote in the agency’s Oct. 31 letter to the Board of Port Commissioners.

The letter, which goes on to celebrate Seaport Village’s charm and renaissance, takes issue with other elements of the project.

Specifically, Coastal Commission staff object to the height of the observation tower and other skyscrapers, take issue with the relocation of Ruocco Park and don’t support cantilevering the promenade over shoreline riprap. The letter also notes concerns with land uses that are inconsistent with the Public Trust Doctrine and presses the port once again to incorporate the project in the Port Master Plan Update. As it stands, the port has said it will instead pursue a Port Master Plan Amendment.

Should the board move the project onto the environmental review stage, it will do so without receiving some of the submission requirements that were asked of the developer, as dictated in its negotiation agreement with the port.

Last month, port staff granted a waiver for certain documents that are said to be needed before the parties can begin negotiating a term sheet, and were a condition of the project advancing to environmental review. 1HWY1 is still required to provide the submittals either prior to the issuance of the notice of preparation for the CEQA process or prior to the preparation of the draft environmental impact report, a staff report prepared for Tuesday’s board meeting states.

Missing items include exact specifications for the project’s water area, a public access and activation plan, a relocation plan for public art and bus stops, information on utility needs and a plan for stormwater treatment facilities, among other things.

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