Navy Presented Plans for Former SPAWARS Property at Midway Planners’ Meeting

by on December 3, 2019 · 2 comments

in Ocean Beach

By Geoff Page

The final 2019 meeting of the Midway-Pacific Planning Group was supposed to have been the one on Wednesday, November 20 at the Bay City brewery on Hancock Street.  But, the prospect of a special meeting came up when discussion focused on 31 recently recommended Draconian changes to the planning board system.

Possible Future Special Board Meeting on City’s “Improvements” to Community Planning Committees

A special Task Force was assembled by the city to make recommendations for improvements to the planning board system.  These recommendations were reviewed by the Ocean Beach Planning Board at their regular monthly meeting November 7, which was detailed in the OB Rag’s November 11 account of the discussion.  It did not appear that the Midway group had focused on these 31 recommendations.

When it was pointed out to the Midway group that some of the 31 were very onerous, such as requiring board member to provide private financial information, a definite interest was sparked.  The board decided tentatively on a special meeting in December to look at these recommendations and perhaps to have a holiday party too.  If this is to occur, chair Cathy Kenton will send out information by email.  The Midway group is building its first ever web page but it is not active yet.  Anyone interested may contact Kenton at, the email she uses for the group.

Future of SPAWARS Property

The main agenda item was a presentation by Naval Base Point Loma Commanding Officer Captain Ryan Dickson regarding plans for the old SPAWARS facility on Pacific Highway.  The properties include the huge buildings between I-5 and Pacific Highway near Barnett St. that once were used to make the largest aircraft in World War II.  There is additional property across Pacific Highway and along Midway that are part of the package. The space has been underutilized for years because it is vastly more room than what is actually needed for the work being done at that site.

The plan is for a Public Private Partnership or a PPP, or Triple P agreement.  A very well spoken Capt. Dickson explained the idea for those unfamiliar with a PPP by comparing it to what is happening downtown on Broadway and Harbor.  The old Navy supply depot property was also underutilized.  In a development deal with Doug Manchester, the Navy gets a new building on part of the site for its current needs and the developer gets to build hotels, condos, office space whatever they wish on the rest of the property.  This kind of agreement has been gaining in popularity for years.

When asked who retained ownership of the land, Dickson said the Navy probably would.  These deals would include something like a 99-year lease or a land swap.  He said it would probably be a lease because land swaps were very rare. The military is well known for hanging on to real estate.

Captain Dickson began his remarks by describing the economic benefit the Navy brings to San Diego citing a figure of $1.5 billion a year. And that also translated into jobs for the Navy.  There seems to be little reason to “sell” the Navy to a city full of people who seem to love the Navy.  But, after that Dickson provided information about why the changes are taking place.  It looks like security played the biggest role.

Because of the kind of work being done there and elsewhere in the Navy, Dickson explained, security has become a big priority.  The current SPAWARS site that the Navy renamed NAVFAC is simply too big and too expensive to secure as it needs to be today. The buildings were constructed in 1940-1941 to build B-24 bombers for the war effort. These are very old buildings  constructed for another use entirely.

Captain Dickson said that the Navy had learned a lot about how to properly do a PPP after its 20-year experience on Broadway and is putting what it learned into this new project.  This included keeping the community informed and taking community input.

Dickson explained that the Navy issued a public Request For Information seeking ideas for what to do with the site and received 70 responses. The proposal that is of the most interest to the Midway group is one to make the site a “Grand Central Station” transportation hub.

This idea came up some time ago with the Midway group only hearing about it first on the news like everyone else.  SANDAG and the out-going, finally, mayor announced a plan to create this transportation hub as one of the proposals for using the site.  It seems this idea has legs despite two glaring problems.  In a PPP, one “P” stands for “private” and the private entity finances the new building for the Navy.  The city has no money, SANDAG has no money, and neither are private entities.

What was interesting in Dickson’s remarks, was his description of a speeded up process.  He explained that the Secretary of the Navy likes this project and wants it to move quickly.  In the past, Dickson said, they started with a National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, report that took about two years. Then, the project would move on taking about four years total before real change began.  The Secretary wants this sped up by doing the NEPA work and the following work at the same time to save two years.

In a further effort to hurry the process, the Navy is cutting the standard NEPA review time allowed for public agencies from 30 days to one week, which is significant considering how slowly public agencies move.

Captain Dickson emphasized a number of times that the Navy wants to hear from the community.  He said “The NEPA process is community focused.” But, the community will also have to understand the process is going to move quickly.

When the NEPA report comes out for public comment, the Navy will alert the Midway group’s chair.  The group expects to hear more at its January meeting. Kenton reiterated something she feels strongly about and that is making sure the community is on the process all along not just left to be told what will happen with no input.

In response to questions about Navy traffic, Dickson said the Navy will be providing employees incentives to use mass transit, van share, or car pool.

The Midway-Pacific Planning Group will not have it regular monthly meeting in December.  Notice of a possible special meeting will be provided if one is scheduled.

In conclusion, here is some history of the SPAWAR buildings.

In 1933, Consolidated Aircraft signed a long term lease with the city of San Diego for use of a portion of what was then called Lindbergh Field. In October 1935, Reuben H. Fleet dedicated a manufacturing plant on the west side of Pacific Highway that housed Fleet’s Consolidated Aircraft Corporation. Sometime later the property located on the east side of Pacific Highway was acquired by the Air Force. Construction of Air Force Plant, or AFP, #19 began November 1940, and the plant opened in 1941. It was built as an assembly plant for the B-24 Liberator bomber, to augment primary design and assembly at the Lindbergh Field Plant.

Operated by General Dynamics, the plant had a high bay area for aircraft assembly and specially configured areas for Atlas/ Centaur tank assembly. Employment at the plant peaked at 45,000 in 1942.

In 1943, Consolidated Aircraft merged with Vultee Aircraft and became Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, or more familiarly, Convair.

After WWII, in 1947, Air Force Plant #19 was sold by the War Assets Administration. The property was used as an industrial complex during this period of time. The facilities were conveyed to General Dynamics Corporation and leased to the government. The plant was used throughout the Korean war under contract to the Air Force for aircraft production. An aerial photograph of the plant taken in 1952 showed the current pedestrian bridge. In 1953, the Air Force condemned the property.

The plant was thus reacquired by the Air Force and operated by General Dynamics for aircraft production.

During the 1980s the plant performed fabrication, minor assembly, and subassembly work for the Ground Launched Tomahawk Cruise Missile, Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL), and Launcher Control Center.

The plant was transferred to the Department of the Navy in late 1992.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Webb December 3, 2019 at 3:53 pm

I know it’s early in the process, but I would be willing to wager that there will be three things that come out of this beyond the NAVFAC new facilities and the “grand central station.” Like every other big development we will likely see more hotels, more office space and more “mixed use” developments that will have a large residential component.

Looking at the most recent mixed use developments in the peninsula area, I’m not convinced that there is a market. The Famosa development sold all its residential units, but the ground floor commercial has been vacant for, what, a couple of years? The development across Voltaire had only sold six or seven units when I last checked (which, admittedly, was a couple of months ago), and the ground floor retail is empty and there does not seem to be any indications of any new tenants any time soon.

I’m also skeptical of the transportation hub concept for the NAVFAC site. People don’t want to take transit to the airport, they want to either drive their personal cars and park, get dropped off or take Uber. One of the things that transportation planning history has shown us is that mode splits (changing the mode of transportation, i.e., trolley to shuttle, bus to trolley, etc.) really extend trip duration and make transit very much more unappealing. The idea that a traveler will take a bus to a trolley station, switch to a trolley then at the Grand Central switch to a shuttle or people mover is just not going to work. When we look at the airports in California that have rapid transit or rapid transit plus people mover (i.e., San Francisco and Oakland, where propensity to use transit is far greater than in SoCal) transit ridership to the airports is declining.

Before we commit to a grand transportation scheme that will likely cost in the billions of dollars, why not experiment with a service of frequent shuttles from the existing Old Town Transit Center and see if there is any kind of demand? This could be done very cheaply. It might even prove me wrong about the propensity of people to use transit to the airport. LAX people mover is budgeted at $4.9 billion. A people mover at SAN could be cheaper, but not by an order of magnitude.


Geoff Page December 3, 2019 at 4:55 pm

Well said, Paul. Definitely on point about mixed use projects. There is a proposed ordinance allowing conversion of the unused business spaces to residential.


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