Special Studies

by Carolyn Chase


he latest round in the ongoing saga of both the privatization and the commercialization of public park lands is set to unfold before City Council today and tomorrow - evidently mostly behind closed doors. The City Council is scheduled to hear "Item 200, in the matter of authorizing the City Manager to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the redevelopment of De Anza Harbor Resort with De Anza Mobile Estates. Monday, February 1 at 2:30pm Time Certain." They are planning to take public testimony and then refer the item to closed session on Tuesday, February 2.

Is there anyone who seriously believes that if the Brown Act didn't require them to open the matter for public testimony, that the y would be doing so? Or that they will be engaging in any meaningful public dialogue on the matter when they already know they are going to close the hearing? A review of the highlights of the history of the city's management -- some might say mismanagement -- of this particular leasehold is instructive.

Mission Bay Park consists of 4,600 acres, approximately half land and half water. Mission Bay was originally named False Bay by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who came upon it in 1542. In those days, it was a vast tidal marsh that could confuse mariners into believing it was the larger bay just to the south, San Diego Bay. In 1944, civic leaders began a series of steps to dredge the marsh and create an aquatic recreation facility. In 1945, the Mission Bay Tidelands were conveyed in trust to the City by the State to be used for "tidelands purposes."

Today, you will find that Mission Bay is used by sailboaters, kayakers, rowers, waterskiers, motorboaters, picnickers, joggers, and swimmers in addition to the remaining species of birds, fish, and other animals attempting to share uses. It is also home to several lucrative private/public leaseholds including Sea World, Hilton Hotels, Hyatt Islandia, the Bahia and on the northeast side, a number of operations managed by Beverly Hills-based De Anza Corporation. It is the management of uses on those properties which provides one of the more archetypal land use conflict case studies available in California today.

The De Anza leasehold saga began in 1953 when the City entered into a lease with De Anza's predecessor for "tourist and travel trailer purposes" which are allowed as "tidelands purposes." As time passed, however, trailers became less for travel and tourists and more for permanent residences. Since then, some 510 mobile homes have taken root. Permanent residential housing is most decidedly not a "tidelands purpose." Seeing a conflict looming, in 1978 the City Attorney informed the City Council that the mobile-home use violated state law against residential use of state tidelands.

In 1982, the City dodged the illegality of allowing homes in tidelands with passage of state legislation acknowledging and permitting the existing residential uses. That legislation permitted what was essentially an illegal use -- permanent residences on tidelands -- but also required residents to vacate their homes by November of 2003, upon the expiration of the 50-year lease on that property. In addition, the city charter requires two-thirds voter approval to allow continued residential use of dedicated parkland.

When the Mission Bay master plan was approved in 1994, the divisiveness of the debate over the future use of the De Anza leaseholds caused the Council to classify the sites as a "Special Study Area," in essence postponing the public debate over the future use into the indefinite future. From today's agenda item, it appears the future is now here. But where is the public process?

According to the Mission Bay Park Master Plan Update, the De Anza Special Study Area "is envisioned as a flexible planning area is which a number of potential uses, both public and private, can be accommodated under varying intensities and configurations.....specific criteria should govern the conception, preparation, evaluation and approval of development proposals in the SSA. Furthermore, the final development proposal shall be incorporated into the certified Master Plan as an amendment to the City of San Diego Local Coastal Program."

The City Real Estate Assets Department of course, wants a hotel for the revenue stream. But this is not necessarily the 'best use' when balanced against needs for the range of users. The ugly ducking at the ball in this case is RV campers. Campland is scheduled to close in 2017 (18 years from now) and there is not another appropriate location for that use other than at De Anza Point. There are, moreover, six hotels and two more in the planning stage for Quivira Basin, an appropriate location for any additional hotels in the park.

It may be that yet another hotel is what Mission Bay needs. There is reason to believe that De Anza will agree to an economically and ecologically sound redevelopment plan. But the city has no obligation to approve a redevelopment proposal from De Anza although the lease agreement in force does allow De Anza to submit a redevelopment plan for review. Some review has now occurred, by Real Estate Assets, and the next step should be to open up the discussion on the Special Study Area, not to rush into an Memorandum Of Understanding.

The City has an obligation to complete the master plan update on this Special Study Area and hold public hearings about the future of the lands. These hearings should involve multiple proposals for future uses and should include more than one participant. De Anza should not receive an exclusive right to negotiate unless and until the Special Study Area is in fact studied, as required by the master plan process dating from 1994.

Where should the public consideration of this matter start? Surely, prior to the discussion of what I have heard characterized as an "exclusive MOU." Surely, the Mission Bay Park Committee is the appropriate venue to begin the next round.

Now is the time to be discussing future uses in an inclusive public process beyond that afforded during one full council hearing where it is already preordained that no substantive public discourse will take place. The lease expires in a little over four years. We all need to have a plan and process we can trust.