|By Roger Showley, The San Diego
Union-TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
October 06, 2010 --The San Diego Port District reached agreement Tuesday with hotel developers to provide more park space at their downtown waterfront site and hoped this would pave the way for launching the long-awaited North Embarcadero Visionary Plan.
While port opponents welcomed the concession that will set the hotel on Lane Field back 150 feet from Harbor Drive, they withheld their endorsement until they see the language of a complicated three-way agreement that specifies the details by next month.
"Today was a good day," said Ian Trowbridge, a member of a key group that has been pressing the port for waterfront concessions. "Tomorrow could be miserable."
He was referring to a proposed approval next month by the seven port board members of a coastal development permit for the $28 million first phase of the visionary plan. As currently worded, it would improve the waterfront's look but not add as much open space west of Harbor Drive, now that the parkland for the hotel has been conceptually approved to the east. The California Coastal Commission had rejected the first phase in April, partly because the staff said more public open space was needed.
"It's difficult to get it started until you get it started," said commissioner Scott Peters.
If the hotel agreement and public improvements go forward without any legal challenge or appeals, officials believe the beautification could be completed in 2013, and the hotel could be opened in 2014.
Plans call for widening the existing waterfront esplanade to 105 feet, about three times the present width; realigning Harbor Drive from B Street Pier to Navy Pier; and, between the two piers, adding landscaping, cafe and ticketing pavilions and a public restroom.
The waterfront improvements have been in the works for 12 years, following decades of proposals to make San Diego's "front porch" a world-class attraction for both residents and visitors.
Most recently, plans have been stalled by the California Coastal Commission, which denied approval for the public improvements because of the lack of sufficient public open space, and the tough economy that has made hotel development almost impossible.
Two breakthroughs made the deal possible.
The Lane Field developers, led by Rob Lankford, agreed to redesign their hotel towers and reached agreement with the local hotel labor union to pay prevailing wages at the development.
Developer spokesman Jerry Trammer said the redesign will reduce the hotels to 17 or 18 stories, five less than planned, reduce the size of the 800 hotel rooms and make other changes to reduce the cost from $425 million to a projected $250 million. Most importantly, the development will occupy less space at the northeast corner of Broadway and Harbor Drive, thereby making more public space available.
"In this economy, it's not an easy thing to do," he said, referring to financing the hotel.
He predicted the labor agreement, while it might raise costs 10 to 20 percent, will please members of the California Coastal Commission, which has to approve the hotel changes, and perhaps guarantee that any appeal on the public improvements will fail.
However, port commissioner Mike Bixler said downscaling the hotel was a "shame" and could cost the port and city millions of dollars in unrealized income.
Commissioner Lee Burdick expressed frustration with staff plans to proceed with beautification but without additional public space that the state commission had recommended and the public had reviewed at four public workshops in August. "I am coming to understand the public's frustration," she said, adding that she would like to see a major fountain in the plan.
In other action, the port appointed Wayne Darbeau as interim president and CEO to replace Charles D. Wurster, who resigned without explanation last month. Darbeau, 57, currently vice president of administration, will serve during a planned nationwide search for a permanent replacement.
Roger Showley, (619) 293-1286, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @rmshowley
To see more of the San Diego Union-Tribune or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.signonsandiego.com/.
Copyright (c) 2010, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit www.mctinfoservices.com, e-mail email@example.com, or call 866-280-5210 (outside the United States, call +1 312-222-4544).