An arresting Sasaki Associates and Rob Wellington Quigley bayfront design with a signature 3,600-foot-long circular pier was approved by a 5-2 margin of the Board of Port Commissioners Tuesday.
However, paying for a more than $200 million project that would eventually include Seaport Village may not be possible without a major public subsidy.
Commission Chairman Peter Q. Davis argued that to deny what he and a majority of commissioners felt is the grandest vision for the site, would be to deny what he called "the greatest gift to ourselves even if not everybody agrees what that gift should be."
"Our guiding principle has to be the grandest design," said Commissioner Robert "Rocky" Spane.
The dissenters on the vote, Commissioners Stephen Cushman and Mike Bixler, appeared most concerned with the cost of the Sasaki proposal.
Cushman said he took no stock in a recent San Diego Union-Tribune public opinion survey that overwhelmingly picked the Sasaki plan over four other designs. "Public opinion polls that have no financial data are meaningless to me," Cushman said. "The Sasaki plan is a magnificent plan, but I'm not going to move for us to become a taxing authority once again. I don't think we can afford over $200 million."
Area resident Dick Brown said, "The one thing missing here is economic viability. I would urge you to reject all the proposals as non-responsive. It is better doing this now than getting requests for $50 million or $100 million when you're in the middle of a project."
Cushman, Bixler and Brown were not alone in their concerns. Port staff warned that regardless of whether the port chose Sasaki, or teams led by Frederic Schwartz Architects, EDAW Architects, Hargreaves & Associates or the Chong/Olin Partnership, getting a project to make economic sense will be a problem.
In fact, the port said all of the teams fell well short of the estimated 12 percent to 15 percent annual returns deemed necessary to attract a developer.
The Sasaki plan fared the worst of the five proposals in terms of return on investment over the life of the project with 6.26 percent to 8.15 percent annual revenue return based on the $213.3 million estimated development cost. While the percentage returns are less, the actual amount of projected revenues in the Sasaki plan are more than any other proposal with about a $13.36 million to $17.37 million revenue range.
It should be noted here, however, if the projected $42 million first phase is taken alone without including Seaport Village, then the Sasaki/Quigley plan comes out on top. Looking at the first phase alone, Sasaki/Quigley has a projected 9.03 to 11.75 percent revenue return, still short of the estimated ideal of 12 percent to 15 percent.
Concerns also have been raised about the bulk of the Sasaki plan, which at 350,000 square feet, has the most density.
Cushman said he wanted to see more of that space for park land. In theory, Sasaki could place as much as 600,000 square feet of building on the combined bayfront/Seaport sites. Sasaki has 12.8 acres of park in both phases, versus about 20.4 acres for the Hargreaves proposal. The Hargreaves plan actually came closest to what the port had asked for in terms of park and development, but the majority of the port commissioners wanted a plan that was "outside the box."
EDAW's plan had just 5.5 acres of proposed parkland, which may have been a factor in its dismissal.
Although the Sasaki plan may be too dense for some, port staff said it could have one important advantage. More density should mean more revenue, and more revenue could mean the public subsidy wouldn't have to be so large.
Commissioner Sylvia Rios suggested the port also could maximize its revenues by showcasing the commanding views from second stories, and particularly rooftop spaces that might otherwise be underutilized.
Others were concerned with preserving as much of the former Police Station as possible, even though the port has conceded that it will be necessary to at least demolish the garage, if not more of the structure to keep the plan economically viable.
"If you go with demolishing 45 percent of this project, you will not only lose the building, but the historical designation," said Steve Willard of the San Diego Police Historical Association. "Don't kill the legacy. We would love to partner with you (the port) if given the chance."
The other major concern is what to do with Tuna Harbor. Although the original Sasaki proposal deleted the harbor, tuna industry officials have met with Quigley and Sasaki and may be close to reaching an accord that would allow what's left of San Diego's once mighty tuna fleet to stay put.
"Quigley was most gracious to accept our communication," said tuna fisherman Scott Bridenhall, who said tuna representatives and Quigley have been working on computer models in order to satisfy the fleet.
Commissioner Davis said it was necessary to take a bold initiative on an overwhelmingly favored plan, even though nobody knows how they will see the dream realized.
"To limit ourselves with small dreams is a mistake," Davis said. "We do have grand dreams, but let's make it happen."
The port will now issue a request for proposals for a developer.