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New waterfront park came with years of obstacles, changing needs

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With 31 water jets accenting its centerpiece fountain, the 12-acre waterfront park occupying space north, south and west of the County Administration Center was unveiled to the public on May 10.

For the first time in about two years, people were able to freely walk its expanse from Grape Street on the north to Ash Street on the south. Sod was laid onsite in April — about 4.5 acres of a low-growing hybrid Bermuda grass.

"I've always felt like all of this area that's public ownership, that we could have one of the most beautiful stretches of waterfront anywhere in the world," County Supervisor Ron Roberts said. "Really, I felt that. I harbored that for years."

While Roberts had tried when he was on the San Diego City Council to get an entirely different waterfront park idea moving forward, it wasn't until he was elected to the County Board of Supervisors that his general idea would get traction.

Construction began on making the park in 2012, but work toward clearing space for it began earlier, when the old J.B Askew Building that previously housed the county's Health and Human Services Agency was demolished. It had been there since 1958 in the middle of the administration center's old north parking lot.

A lot of things led the way to that old building coming down, and much of it ties into how the park came to be. In the late 1990s, the area now enjoyed on the waterfront as park space was envisioned to have an entirely different destiny: office buildings and maybe hotels.

When Roberts — an architect — was serving his first term on the Board of Supervisors at that time, he looked at the location with his architect's eye and another idea, one that would give San Diego a public destination along its downtown waterfront instead of another bunch of buildings, came to mind.

"We had inherited a plan that was approved by an earlier Board of Supervisors, where they really did a pretty good job of showing how they would develop the site out," Roberts said. "When I first locked on to the thought that those were good plans but I thought we should do something different, the first thing I encountered among my colleagues was the feeling (that) the county's gone through all this planning."

It was viewed as office space that the county would really need, and the reaction was that the supervisors shouldn't be thinking of a park instead.

But then a couple of things happened as Roberts kept bringing it up.

"Our financial situation was improving," Roberts said. "And about that time, I had gotten them to approve an architectural study of our Kearny Mesa properties, also, because I was thinking we could develop our Kearny Mesa property with office space, and we wouldn't need the office space here."

Roberts never made the direct connection to his colleagues between the Kearny Mesa study and his vision for the waterfront park, but he said the study alleviated concerns that office space was needed next to the County Administration Center.

"Our basic economics at the county had improved quite a bit from the mid-'90s to the year 2000, so they weren't as hostile to the idea," Roberts said. "It just meant I had to do a better job at explaining what this place could be.

"It's awful hard when you have something — you actually have a development plan with renderings in front of you, and you have a former architect telling you why it should be a park instead. I had a pretty good image in my mind, but I had to convey that verbally. I didn't have any drawings or anything to show them early on."

Supervisor Bill Horn was among the first to support the idea. Within a couple of years, Roberts said, the other supervisors got behind it. By 2005, the feasibility study was underway on the Kearny Mesa campus, and ground broke on the new County Operations Center in 2010. There began the snowball of progress toward the park.

The county then came to realize the number of square feet it needed per 1,000 employees was shrinking, mainly for technological reasons. The decrease leaves two more buildings undeveloped in the Kearny Mesa campus's earlier-drafted master plan. If they are ever needed, though, the plan is already in place, as are the utilities that would feed them.

With abundant office space in Kearny Mesa on its way, the county had new flexibility with the Askew Building; its Health and Human Services operations were moved to other locations. The supervisors approved the demolition of the Askew Building in January 2011, which reduced the amount of parking needed at the administrative center site, and made feasible the fewer parking spaces provided by the combination of the new below-grade parking structure under the southern block of the park and a second structure in Little Italy that's now being developed.

By May 2011, the board gave its final approval on the design of the park.

Along the way, some challenges came from an unexpectedly scrutinous group, the California Coastal Commission.

The coast-focused regulatory agency wasn't expected to create any obstacles for a proposed park development. But the commission initially came forward with a number of conditions it wanted the county to meet before going forward.

"Here we were, taking out 1,100 parking spaces, and I thought we'd be welcomed by them," Roberts said.

While there was no big controversy, as Roberts put it, the Coastal Commission targeted such things as what could be charged for parking and the park's hours of operation. Eventually, the commission stepped back from its conditions when the county pushed to be its own park manager.

There were also funding issues that had to be overcome.

Walt Ekard, the former chief administrative officer for the county who left his post in 2012, was according to Roberts, instrumental in helping to secure a financial plan for the park that would keep the county in line with its building reputation of creating balanced budgets.

The $49.4 million total cost for the park was financed through a combination of $29.98 million in bond sale proceeds from the San Diego County Capital Asset Leasing Corp., $13.38 million from the county's general fund, $5.14 million from a revenue-sharing agreement with the city of San Diego that funneled in protected redevelopment money, and $900,000 from parking revenue.

Though the public wasn't "clamoring" for this, Roberts said, he sees it as a value-driven use of public money.

"I think there was a confidence that — while there wasn't a public outcry — that when we were done … yes, they were going to spend money, but they were going to have something that exceeded that in value, as far as the public was concerned."

It's not too different, he added, than when looking at the Kearny Mesa Operations Center, where money was spent on public art in the process of making "probably one of the finest operational centers, as a campus, that you'll find in any government entity anywhere in this country."

The county, Roberts said, is still is a conservative, fiscally well-managed organization.

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