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An interview with waterfront activists’ attorney Cory Briggs

August 6, 2010 - 4:58 pm

When I asked Cory Briggs to comment for my story on behind-the-scenes meetings between Port of San Diego officials and the developers of a two-hotel project at Lane Field (a property near the Downtown waterfront where the Padres used to play minor league baseball), Briggs was shy.

But Briggs, the attorney representing the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition—a group of activists fighting for public open space on the waterfront—broke his silence this week after a Port Commission meeting during which commissioners were receptive to the Coalition’s recommendations for the embattled North Embarcadero Visionary Plan. The NEVP is a waterfront-beautification project that has been in the works for many years but was stymied in April, when the state Coastal Commission rejected phase 1 because it didn’t include a large public park that was envisioned, in the Port’s Master Plan, for the foot of Broadway Pier.

When I chatted with Briggs after the Tuesday meeting, he was a happy camper, which is big news, because Port happenings usually have the opposite effect on his mood. Here’s a subsequent e-mail interview I did with Briggs:

David Rolland: How would you summarize what happened on Tuesday, and why were you so pleased about it?

Cory Briggs: The port commissioners directed staff to begin the process for re-designing Lane Field to accommodate more public park space and creating vehicle access to Broadway Pier.  Since the vehicle access will eliminate the long-promised oval park at the foot of Broadway Pier, the port will have to make up for the loss of that park space.  The commissioners expressed enthusiasm for the Coalition’s proposal to have a “setback park” created along the east side of Harbor Drive from Hawthorne to Broadway.  I expect that proposal will be incorporated into the port’s current master plan amendment process and environmental impact report for Phase II of the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan.  Staff has indicated that that will indeed happen. And all of this will be done transparently, with the public given a full opportunity to review the proposals, submit their comments, and express their views at public hearings before the board.

I am pleased not only because of the prospects for the waterfront based on what I’ve just described, but also because it was the first time in nearly a decade that port staff and commissioners were completely honest with the public about the situation on the waterfront.  Most everyone seemed very sincere in their willingness to play it straight this time and work toward a result that all San Diegans can be proud of.  That is a real sea change at the port.

Can you describe what a “setback park” is?

The Coalition would like to see a park along Harbor Drive, between Hawthorne and Broadway, that will be as wide as the current setback at the County Administration Center, measured from the western property line to the middle of the western face of the CAC.  “Setback park” is the Coalition’s term for the proposed park based on that width.

Any idea how wide that is?

I haven’t been out there with a measuring tape, but I’d guess that it’s in the 175- to 225-foot range.

Can you characterize how the meetings between the Coalition, port staff, port commissioners and the Lane Field developers played out after the Coastal Commission rejected NEVP Phase 1?

Several commissioners reached out to the Coalition and asked whether there was any interest in beginning a dialogue to break the impasse.  We began the process by talking about how the impasse came to be and made sure that the “spin” was gone and that everyone was talking about facts.  We then started brainstorming substantive ideas.  It soon became clear that the Lane Field project would have to play a role.  The developer was willing to consider revisions to its project that would ease its efforts in obtaining financing and add to the amount of park space on the waterfront.  At that point, we began sharing ideas that we believed would be worthy of being vetted by the public through appropriate proceedings conducted by the Port and the Coastal Commission.  Those views were shared with the Port commissioners last Tuesday and were received well.

The key was building trust, identifying and remaining focused on common goals, and refusing to give up when discussions seemed to get bogged down.

Can you describe how the developers would benefit, in terms of financing, from a project redesign?

You’ll have to ask the developers or a professional in the project-financing world for a specific answer.  My limited understanding—as someone who doesn’t work on the financing side of projects and is not involved in Lane Field’s financing particulars—is that lenders/investors are more inclined to support a problem that isn’t bogged down by controversy and stands to benefit competitively by having highly desirable public amenities surrounding it.

When it comes time for the port to go back to the Coastal Commission, do you believe that the commissioners who voted “no” in April will be satisfied?

I do not think anyone knows how members of the Coastal Commission are going to vote.  They work very hard to study every issue, and they make up their own minds.  Speculating about how they’re likely to vote presupposes that they have nothing to add to the dialogue about making the various proposals better.

What we can legitimately do is look at the guidance they provided when they rejected the Port’s proposal last April.  Essentially they are looking for a large, high-quality, easily accessible, signature public open space on the waterfront that will draw San Diegans as much as (if not more than) it will draw tourists.  The Coalition’s proposal put forward at last Tuesday’s Port meeting aims to achieve that goal.  Port commissioners and staff expressed a lot of enthusiasm, so the Coalition is hopeful that its proposal will get thoughtful, extensive consideration not only by the Port but by the public.  While the Coalition believes the proposal is already pretty good, everyone is interested in how the proposal can be made even better.  Securing for the public a meaningful opportunity to improve what has been put forward is very exciting.  And if the Port manages the process just right–as it appears it will do this time around–the opportunity holds a lot of promise for a truly magnificent waterfront.

That, of course, is the Coastal Commission’s ultimate goal.  If we can meet it, then I suspect that the proposal will be received very well by the Commission.

How do Lane Field and the NEVP dovetail with other waterfront issues you’re involved in: Navy Broadway Complex and Broadway Pier?

The Coalition believes that the Navy Broadway Complex should not be the Navy’s west-coast headquarters or hotel/office buildings, which is what it is currently planned for.  The property belonged to the City of San Diego around the time of World War II and was state land even before that.  The federal government acquired title only after filing a lawsuit to have everyone else’s interest erased (no money was paid).  It is unsafe and irresponsible to have a major terrorist target—namely, the Navy headquarters—in a downtown metropolitan area, not far from an intentional airport and a train station; and downtown does not need more hotels and offices, especially ones built on the water’s edge and cutting off the public’s use and enjoyment of the waterfront.  The Coalition believes that the Navy should move its headquarters to the nearby base and give the land back to the City, not only as a matter of national security but as a good-faith gesture to the San Diego community.  That would open up the site to be an extension of the setback park (south of Broadway).

In 1998, the Port (after years of input from other government agencies and the public) adopted the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan designating Broadway Pier as a “civic pier.”  The NEVP describes the “civic pier” as a huge public park,  with only an occasional cruise ship tying up (as overflow those few times a year when the B Street terminal is full) and needing no more than a small, temporary structure to accommodate port-of-call (non-homeport) passenger activity.  Not long after that, the Port made the NEVP a legally mandatory element of its Port Master Plan, which represents the “constitution” governing the Port’s land use and development.  Within the last couple of years, the Port changed its mind and decided—without holding a single public hearing—that Broadway Pier should be used for a homeport facility (primarily to support Carnival Cruises), should be designed to serve more than 100 cruise ships per year, and should not have any public park amenities on it; homeporting involves comprehensive ship-support services and requires longer closures of the pier, extensive big-rig access, and total exclusion of the public.  The Coalition has sued to stop the terminal’s construction and bring Broadway Pier’s development into compliance with the Port Master Plan.  If the lawsuit succeeds, Broadway Pier will provide additional public space on the waterfront and stand out as a key attraction for locals and tourists alike.  If the Port gets its way, Broadway Pier will be a year-round stain on our waterfront, drastically worsening downtown’s traffic and air pollution and cutting off public access from even more of the bay.

And are you in settlement talks with the Port on that lawsuit?

No. Trial is currently set for December.

So, at least for now, you can bask in warm, fuzzy feelings about the Port District

We credit their good work and challenge their bad work. What they appear willing to do with the setback park is worthy of praise. What they are doing on Broadway Pier requires legal action. It would be nice if they decided to do the right thing on their own, but that is not likely at this point.

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