San Diego's Front Porch Looking Spiffy

A new park at the County Administration Center will bring even more luster to the waterfront

August 1, 2013

For years, it seemed like nothing could get done when it came to improving San Diego’s waterfront. Our city’s so-called “front porch?” It seemed perfectly suitable for a dingy couch. One port board chairman even called it a “dump.” 

While a number of improvements were floated during the years, roadblocks always got in the way, including funding shortages, lawsuits and the lack of approval from the California Coastal Commission.

Suddenly, though, there’s a flurry of activity. The Unified Port of San Diego and the city of San Diego have begun the first phase of the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan, a $29.6 million project, which we wrote about in a recent issue, 

And San Diego County is busy building a 12-acre waterfront park at the iconic County Administration Center. That $40 million project will include a 830-foot Fountain as well as gardens, picnic spots and a children’s play area. An underground parking garage is under construction.

“When you dream about something for a long time and it happens, it’s very satisfying to finally see the progress,” said San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, the major force behind the park.

One of the ironies concerning this spurt of construction is that it is happening separately by agencies that had once teamed up to improve the waterfront. In 1997, the county, the city of San Diego, the port, the Centre City Development Corp. and the U.S. Navy had joined forces to create the North Embarcadero Alliance.

But in 2003, four years after it adopted the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan, the coalition splintered. Both the Navy and the county opted not to join a joint-powers agreement to implement the plan, which included the county park. Roberts said the county wanted to move forward on its own because the coalition wasn’t running as smoothly as hoped.

It took time, but in January 2011, the county took the first step toward building the park when it tore down a County Administration Center annex structure, the J. W. Askew Building, to make way for part of it. It also moved forward to complete architectural plans for the new park.

“We may have stimulated things a little bit,” Roberts said, noting that the city and the port — the remaining partners from the original alliance — launched their effort soon after reaching compromises with waterfront activists and receiving approval from the Coastal Commission. Groundbreaking for that took place in January 2012.

“Sometimes, when one project gets going, it becomes a competition,” Roberts said.

Indeed, when the county moved forward with the Askew demolition, Roberts was quoted as saying, “I hope that the completion of this really influences — beyond our boundaries — the things that happen to the north and south of us.” 

But Tanya Castaneda, a port spokeswoman, said the county project did not impact the port’s timeline. The two projects are simply moving along parallel tracks. She also stressed that both projects are consistent with the original North Embarcadero Visionary Plan. In fact, the port likes the park, she said. And the port meets with the county regularly to keep the it abreast of the port’s progress and work plans.

The funding sources are separate. The cost for the first phase of the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan is being shared by the port and CCDC, San Diego’s former downtown redevelopment agency, which was disbanded in 2012 along with all other state redevelopment agencies. (The funding for this project was allowed to remain, however.)

The money for the county park is coming from the county’s general fund and low-interest bonds.

One can understand how frustrating it was to get things going. Take the park, for example. The county headquarters facility was built as part of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration program, which bolstered employment by building public works projects. A waterfront park was part of the original 1930s plan. But it was never built.

Instead, parking lots sprouted.

“An architectural nightmare,” Roberts said. “There was not a stitch of landscape, not a blade of grass. People stopped seeing any possibilities. They got desensitized.” 

At one time, plans called to build private commercial buildings and hotels on the parking lots, with the revenue going to the county. Roberts was no fan of the idea.

“It ran counter to what I wanted,” he said.

He wanted a park. That’s because the waterfront land is publicly owned and should be developed for public use, he said.

On Roberts’ website, he quotes President Theodore Roosevelt: “I hope that you of San Diego keep your waterfront and develop it so it may add beauty to your city. Do not let a number of private individuals make it hideous with buildings, and then force your children to play an exorbitant sum to get rid of the ugliness they have created.” 

The public seems happy with the direction the county is going.

“It’s the kind of thing we need to see more of along the waterfront,” said Diane Coombs, co-chair of the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, a waterfront activist group. “I think the fountain is incredible. It’s a stunning, stunning feature.” 

And — amazingly — it’s actually going to be built. The county expects to complete the park in spring 2014.