Open Letter to San Diego Port Commission About ‘World Class Waterfront’ Development Proposals

by on August 1, 2016 · 1 comment

in Culture, Environment, History, Politics, San Diego

san diego waterfront proposal

Proposal by Protea Waterfront Development (PWD) to RFP 16-04ME, May 2, 2016

Provided by Bill Adams / San Diego UrbDeZine

Dear Chairman Merrifield and Commissioners:

On behalf of the San Diego Environment + Design Council, we are submitting the following comments.

The San Diego Environment + Design Council is a coalition of organizations whose primary interest is to promote environmentally-sustainable land use policies that create healthy, green neighborhoods and great public spaces in the San Diego-Tijuana region. We provide an open venue for diverse organizations and interests to come together and develop recommendations to improve how our communities live, work and play.

We have reviewed the six development proposals regarding the subject 17-acre site occupied by Seaport Village. In keeping with our mission, we offer the following comments organized according to the “Programmatic Components” you included in your original February 2016 RFP. We are also aware that on July 14, you chose the Protea submission among the six finalists. The Protea concept addresses some of our concerns, and we will be commenting later regarding specific approaches and components. For now, we offer our comments below as guideposts for your final analysis process, should you choose to proceed.

We have also included a closing statement regarding the planning process, which addresses several significant concerns.


CONNECT TO THE CORE – Any “district” should have obvious and functional physical and programmatic links to the downtown. The inward-focused “Headquarters” retail complex should be modified to be less a barrier between the subject site and downtown. Similarly, continuation of the grid network to the water could enhance both the physical and visual connection to the Bay from the core, which is largely missing.

SERVE THE LOCALS – Any district should include an array of tenants serving practical needs for downtown residents and displaying works of local artists.
EMPHASIZE THE BAY – The primary “draw” should be San Diego Bay, and not shops and restaurants proximate to it.


DON’T OVERPOWER – Proposed structures should not overwhelm the site with excessive bulk, excessive mass, excessive height, or crowding the waterfront by being too close to the edge.

In this vein, proposals for an arena, aquariums, opera houses, and single-mass indoor retail buildings are inappropriate. The site is too small for these uses, and these uses neither require, nor enhance, a waterfront location.

DISTINCTIVE, BUT NOT DISTRACTIVE – Architecture should be authentic to our climate and character, neither a depiction of false history, nor something so trendy as to risk aging poorly. The water, the aromas, the sounds, the views, and the peace and repose of San Diego Bay should be the dominant element, not architectural statements.

  1. “HOTEL”

SET BACK – As a rule, downtown hotels should not be in a waterfront park, but adjacent to it. We recommend that any hotel here be at the edge of the property on Harbor Drive or across Harbor Drive.


SAN DIEGO BAY – Any retail or restaurant uses should assume a secondary position to the primary focus and purpose of the project site – free public access to, and the enjoyment of, San Diego Bay.


PRIMARY MISSION – The primary mission of this process must be a public realm that enshrines free and open public access and enjoyment to San Diego Bay. This means that the bulk of the use of this site should be a public plazas that emphasize unprogrammed free play, quiet enjoyment, and San Diego Bay views, aromas, and sounds.

PUBLIC ART – The public realm should have permanent fixed art of international prominence, and opportunities for outdoor performing arts.
DYNAMIC EXPERIENCES – The public spaces should offer opportunities for an ever changing array of colorful outdoor building-free street vendors with carts, crafts, foods, and performances.

TIMELESS DESIGN – This critical 70-acre property should be developed with elevated standards with high quality durability, flexibility, functionality, and material finish. Fine grain details that add a distinctive San Diego flavor should be emphasized.


RECONNECT – If water quality allows, a free downtown public beach somewhere within the subject property could be a welcome element. Piers, overlooks, and wharves, free and open to the public, can make the interaction with San Diego Bay more intimate.


AUTHENTIC – The functioning tuna boat fleet is a fortunate authentic element that provides valuable jobs, and a link to San Diego’s maritime history. It should be retained.


PARK AND RIDE/WALK – As much as possible, waterfront land should not be devoted to vehicle storage. Users should access the project site by boat, on foot, bike, or public transit (and limited private pedicabs). The development of this site should include refined, obvious, and enhanced access corridors, signs, and other improvements that promote alternatives to motorized vehicles. This can be best achieved if large uses that require vehicle access for drop-offs, or service deliveries, are positioned away from the waterside, and back along Harbor Drive.


Finally, it cannot be overstated how important, and consequential, your decision will be. Waterfront land is rare enough; but these 70 acres, at the key location on the downtown waterfront of San Diego California, only come under consideration once in a lifetime. What is decided here will define a legacy, and be experienced and studied by generations to come. Therefore, an open and comprehensive planning and development process is essential.

We recommend that no action on this particular parcel proceed until the Port District completes and adopts a Comprehensive Master Plan Update. The proposed project is an unacceptable, “piecemeal” development, instead of a component of an adopted update to the Comprehensive Master Plan.

The decisions regarding a property this valuable, this crucial, and this unique, demand an open, measured, and completed public planning process. Good planning is needed to functionally meld this site into the rest of Downtown San Diego. More has to happen to assure that it serves nearby residents as well as the region. It must also be shown how the redevelopment of this property fits into the larger context of the Port’s proposed “Green Necklace”.

As a public agency, it is incumbent upon you to keep the interests of the local residents paramount in this decision. The best way to do this is by updating the Comprehensive Master Plan in an open process. Unfortunately, by moving forward now, the Port District appears to be taking an approach that minimizes meaningful public input. A properly conducted process assures that the future of these precious public lands is entrusted to the public, and not developers, whose interests lie outside those of San Diego residents and communities.

In addition, recent experience tells us that the most time-efficient and smooth development strategy resides in updating the Master Plan. Because failure to update the Comprehensive Master Plan puts all parties and timelines in jeopardy as the Port District will find itself at odds with its mission statement, the disenfranchised public, feeling left out and ignored, will oppose the decision, and thus developers will face a far more difficult, time-consuming, and uncertain entitlement process.

The public interest must supersede concerns for revenue generation, or self-preservation. It cannot be the primary mission of the Port District to monetize the bay front.

An open and comprehensive process will likely result in a transition of this site into a place of civic pride and international regard. That does not mean it must be bold to be outstanding. It does not have to be loud to be heard. And that isn’t likely to happen if decisions are made absent a comprehensive planning process.

These 70 acres must to be developed by means of an inclusive, comprehensive master plan, which is the only proven way to create a special place – refined, cultivated, simple, and delicately designed to grace all who are attracted to it with an elevated, casual, and fulfilling waterfront experience.

A process, open and welcoming. A product, elegant and revered. That’s what “world class” truly is.

Vicki Estrada, FASLA

Michael J. Young

About San Diego Environment + Design Council

The San Diego Environment + Design Council is a coalition of organizations whose primary interest is to promote environmentally-sustainable land use policies that create healthy, green neighborhoods and great public spaces in the San Diego-Tijuana region. We provide an open venue for diverse organizations and interests to come together and develop recommendations to improve how our communities live, work and play.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gregg August 1, 2016 at 11:38 am

A very good article. I agree with everything the author has to say but I would like to add another component if it’s possible. Fit in to the master plan an affordable housing component for low to moderate income households. After all who else is going be working these new service jobs the development is going to create; as well for the other low to moderate income people that work downtown. I’ve always believed you should live as close as you can to your work for a healthier you and your environment!


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