By Pat Flannery / Blog of San Diego / April 15, 2010
One of the biggest mistakes Jerry Sanders made in his two mayoral terms was to fall for whatever slick sales talk Steve Cushman used to cajole him into backing this used-car salesman for a third term as Port Commissioner, despite term limits. Sanders’ strange fascination with Cushman raised eyebrows at the time. It may now have cost him his legacy – the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan (NEVP). It lies in ruins because of the cruise ships.
But I have a suggestion for Jerry: adopt what was the real “visionary” plan all along – move the cruise ships to the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal and give the people back their gateway park. That is not only a win-win political strategy, it is also a win-win economic strategy. We would not only get a world-class hospitality, gathering-place as a centerpiece to our beautiful embarcadero, we would also get a world-class cruise ship destination at 10th Avenue, next to the Hilton, within walking distance of the Convention Center, with military-class security against any possible terrorist attack.
Now that would put us back in contention for America’s Finest City!
Are we up to it? Of course we are. The Cushman cruise ship plan was crass and demeaning. Our world-renowned Embarcadero, with its famous “Star of India”, deserves better than that. Cruise ships are the “used-cars” of the tourist industry. They turned our Embarcadero into a working dockside. Shame on those who supported Cushman’s “used-car” plan.
I journeyed to Ventura on Wednesday to cover the fateful Coastal Commission’s meeting that would decide the NEVP’s fate. It was a long and tiring day.
Not a single other San Diego media person turned up all day. Steve Schmidt, a staff reporter for the Union-Tribune, wrote this article.. But he relied on a remote video stream, missing the lobbying and strategizing buzz that occurs around such a meeting. There was a lot of that on Wednesday. Everybody knew the project was in trouble.
In order to understand exactly what happened throughout, read this flow chart showing the entire coastal development permitting process. First, the Port District as the appropriately empowered local agency, issued itself a coastal development permit. There were immediate and multiple appeals to the State Coastal Commission. Every effort was subsequently made to craft conditions that would allow its approval. All failed, resulting in final denial on Wednesday. The powerful cruise ship interest had achieved a bridgehead on our waterfront and would not budge. It was going for broke and the Port was its obedient messenger.
There is now no process by which this permit can be resuscitated. The entire North Embarcadero Visionary Project (NEVP) is dead – no coastal development permit, no project. I could almost hear San Diego’s Planning Director, Bill Anderson, who had driven up to represent the Mayor, thinking: “what am I going to tell the boss”. I could almost hear Port Chairman “Dukie” Valderrama and Port CEO Charles Wurster, thinking “what are we going to tell the Carnival Cruise boys?”
From its inception, the public improvements content of this project were mere cover for providing two private cruise ship terminals for the Carnival Corporation, on the finest stretch of waterfront in the world. To paraphrase Joe Biden “this was a big f***ing deal”. Obviously there was big influence peddling going on. Appropriate “down payments” were made. A full inquiry is needed.
Contrary to this Union-Tribune report, the vote did not hinge on the “Oval Park” issue. Ian Trowbridge’s appellant group, the “Navy Broadway Complex Coalition” (NBCC) had bent over backwards to accommodate the Port in crafting an alternative “Destination Park”. Trowbridge went so far as to propose another continuance until June, to allow for even more appeasement. But not even Neville Chamberlain could have appeased this Port District because it was shilling for Carnival who wanted it all, without any residual liability in the form of indemnification for the Commission. That proved to be its downfall.
Another appellant group, “Save Everyone’s Access” (SEA), led by long-time park activist Scott Andrews, was less accommodating. This group’s legal counsel, Doug Carstens, a well known environmental and land use attorney from Santa Monica, called for nothing less than total denial of the permit. That clear up or down stance struck a chord with the Commissioners and precipitated the meltdown of the Port’s game plan. The SEA group then played played this video. It showed that the reality on the Embarcadero was very different from the Port’s promo. There were too many unanswered questions, security for instance.
Attorney Carstens had read the Commission correctly. He knew that its focus would be on the indemnification issue because the permit, if granted, was certain to be challenged in court. The Port desperately tried to argue that the Commission could not require such an indemnity.
Ron Saathoff’s wife Stephanie, a lobbyist for the Port, stepped up with a letter from Senator Kehoe supporting the Port’s argument against the State. What was that all about? I’m sure there is a interesting tale behind that little piece of melodrama. Kehoe and Saathoff? I called Kehoe’s office for an explanation of her position. They will get back to me.
We know that Carnival had already indemnified the Port (which it obviously can control). It was not about to see that indemnity extended to the Coastal Commission (which it obviously cannot control). No doubt the Port team was on a performance bonus. They and the Mayor’s team were confident that at least six Commissioners would put a private interest, the Carnival Corp., above that of the Coastal Commission. Five did exactly that. They put the Commission at mortal risk, as staff had earlier explained it would. It demonstrates how totally compromised these five pro-developer Commissioners are. They represent developer interests, not the public.
Staff had stressed that this was an existential issue for the Commission. Some years ago the California legislature had foreclosed on any “deep pockets” recourse to the State Treasury in the event of a successful lawsuit against the Coastal Commission. Any adverse award must now come out of the Commission’s own budget. That made the indemnification issue existential.
It is not certain that Commissioner Kruer, who had recused himself from Wednesday’s vote following a recent revelation that his brother was a sub-contractor on the NEVP project, would have voted for the Port and put the Commission in financial jeopardy. But it is clear that the Port and City had bet the farm that he would. His “Yes” vote would have changed San Diego history. His friend, Commissioner Burke, who is normally developer-friendly, mysteriously went AOL after lunch. It is possible, but not likely, that these two decided to dodge the indemnity bullet. We may never know the truth of that one. Politics is a black art.
Several Commissioners expressed concerns at the heightened security risk associated with cruise ships. What if their presence induced a terrorist attack? Would the Commission be sued for permitting these cruise ship terminals? Earlier, the Port had tried to portray cruise ship calls as “special events”. Anybody familiar with reality on the embarcadero knows that a cruise ship presence is now almost continuous.
SEA’s attorney Doug Carstens, had expressed concern not only for the safety of nearby condo owners but for their property values. As an ex-Navy officer he had also wondered whether the terrorist risk to nearby Navy installations was heightened by the proximity of cruise ships. He cited this US Coastguard regulation. He told how it requires a 100 yard security zone around all cruise ships while in port.
The Commissioners had plenty to worry about while casting their votes. The wonder is that it was not unanimous against this ill-advised project.