Something Fishy in Paranoia Bay

— Despite a recent scolding, the city, some watchdogs say, continues to disrespect Mission Bay Park and those citizens who care about it. On April 18, you might remember, a San Diego County grand jury released a 21-page report, The Truth About "False Bay," that detailed the city's mismanagement of the park's resources and finances. After a ten-month investigation, the grand jury faulted both the park and its supposed stewards.

At the time, Barry Newman, the grand jury's deputy foreman, said, "Mission Bay...is neither being maintained nor protected against pollution." The report pointed to the high number of contamination notices in 1999, and in particular to one posting at Campland on the Bay that was up for 53 days. The report also reprimanded the city for failing to live up to its own mandates. The park master plan adopted by the city in 1994 called for $171 million in improvements. Why, the report wondered, had only $3 million been spent?

Among the recommendations made by the grand jury were that the city designate a water-quality coordinator, add a volunteer service to help patrol the bay for potential polluters, and develop a plan to improve water circulation. Most notably, the grand jury requested that the city stop development in Mission Bay Park until it conducted a survey to determine the exact acreage of the park. Such a survey was necessary because both a city charter approved by voters in 1987 and the Mission Bay Master Plan say that the city can lease only 25 percent of park land.

The report's implication is clear. With regard to Mission Bay Park, it's time for the city to grow up and start doing its math. But now, just seven months after the report, local activists and ordinary citizens are crying foul. The city did indeed conduct a survey of the park, but the results, according to some, were rigged and are absurd.

On June 5, the city contracted a San Diego firm, Project Design Consultants, to conduct the survey. For $426,000, the firm would determine once and for all how many acres were in the park. The survey, which was completed on October 5, counted some parcels that had always been in park boundaries but never designated as park land. On October 30, the city council voted unanimously to designate the new 26.84 acres as part of Mission Bay Park. City officials and some press reports have declared the absorption of these new parcels. Look, they say, the park is bigger than anyone knew.

But environmentalist Donna Frye and other concerned citizens say the survey and the new parcels are more like a lump of coal in the public's stocking. First, the solicitation for survey bids predetermined that marshlands be counted toward the total amount of leasable land. That definition of marshland, Frye explained before the city council, was based upon a 1988 memorandum by the city attorney rather than normal standards for surveying wetlands, which should include hydrology and soil studies. Equally troubling, as Union-Tribune columnist Don Bauder reported on November 10, was that four days after the city contracted Project Design Consultants, it merged with Lettieri-McIntyre and Associates, the firm doing the master plan for SeaWorld's expansion projects. While there is no evidence that either firm is guilty of improprieties, the merger appears unseemly and ill-timed. Scott Andrews, of the Alliance to Save Mission Bay, says, "The City of San Diego is so set on converting the park to commercial development that they permitted Anheuser-Busch's consultant to merge with the local firm during the survey."

But what Frye and others know for sure is that the addition of 26.84 acres to the park has increased the amount of land the city can lease. This is cause for concern, considering the city's record as park manager and that the park is already oversold. Moreover, the acreage increase, Frye says, coincides with two expansion projects. In testimony prepared for city council meetings on October 30 and November 14, Frye requested that the council oppose the city manager's recommendation to dedicate the parcels. Frye wrote, "Could one reasonably conclude that the 25 percent of the 26.84 acres being dedicated today as 'park land' is the same amount of land needed for the Dana Inn and Quivira Basin expansions?" Twenty-five percent of the new parcels equals 6.71 acres, Frye illustrated, and together the two expansions equal 6.6 acres. Despite these concerns, the city council approved the Dana Inn expansion at the November 14 meeting.

Al and Catherine Strohlein, Crown Point residents and longtime Mission Bay advocates, also question the survey's motives. Al, whose primary focus is halting park growth and SeaWorld expansion, also attended the November 14 meeting. He says, "The city looks upon the park as a cash cow. Somebody has to pay for the Chargers tickets. We feel that they're over the 25 percent now. We're so paranoid and skeptical and cynical that we simply do not trust the government to make these decisions for us anymore. It has never worked. The city council has a micro view of things, and if they see income, that's all they can look at. The park is disappearing."

Catherine adds, "We have graduated from suspicion to paranoia. God knows what they'll do. They could bring in downtown San Diego and call it Mission Bay Park and I wouldn't be surprised."

But what most appalls Frye and the Strohleins is that -- in Al's words -- the new parcels are "useless land." It would be one thing if the survey happened to give park users additional recreational land, like beaches or greenery. But besides some grass around the visitors' center at the north end of the park, the new parcels have no redeeming value. In short, the acres profit the city and not park users. Included, for instance, in the 26.84 acres are just over 4 acres in the middle of Sunset Cliffs Drive and almost half an acre in the middle of Friars Road north of the San Diego River Channel. Neither is a place for soccer.

And there's a half-acre parcel on the access road along the south bank of the channel, on which sits an ugly cinder-block pump station. In her testimony, Frye stated that she did not understand the rush to dedicate portions of the roads and the pump station as park land. "It seems that this is nothing more than an attempt to increase the amount of land that can be leased for development," she said. "It is also unlikely that there is any demand or public interest for a picnic area at a pump station."

Jim Peugh, coastal and wetlands conservation chair for the San Diego Audubon Society, shares Frye's concerns. "Transportation corridors and highways should be omitted from the countable acreage in the park," he says.

Even though the city council approved the incorporation of the parcels on October 30, city officials refuse to admit that the amount of leasable land has increased. The day after the designation, a Union-Tribune article reported that former mayor Susan Golding added a provision urging that the acres not be used in calculations for park land development. The sentence is misleading because, in fact, all Golding said was that some of these matters should be discussed in a future meeting of the Natural Resources and Culture Committee. A city official, wishing to remain anonymous, said that that won't happen until the first quarter of next year at the earliest.

When asked about this, Rick Grenell, the mayor's former press secretary, chastised me, saying it was the first time in his tenure at the office that the Reader had ever called him. He refused comment and referred me to the city manager's office. Tim Rothans, an assistant to the city manager, says there's no reason for concern. He says that the city council instructed his office to use only the numbers from the master plan when calculating leases. His statement implies that the new parcels cannot inflate leasable acreage.

Will Griffith, the city's real estate assets director, says, "All we did was dedicate parcels that should have been dedicated a long time ago. We saw this as a housekeeping kind of thing. Without those parcels being dedicated they could have been built upon. The dedication protects the parcels." Griffith says that the 11.8-acre parcel near the visitors' center "could potentially fit a hotel." Now, he says, it's safe from development. He adds that the parcels had long been considered park land and that all the survey did was incorporate them officially.

Golding's suggested provision, Griffith adds, was "part of the motion to dedicate the parcels and to direct questions about policy issues to committee for public input."

Despite the dizzying spin coming from city offices, it's not hard to set the record straight. The bottom line is that a provision is not binding; it's as fickle as any given council. The city charter, however, is law. And what the section of the city charter regarding Mission Bay Park says clearly is "notwithstanding any other provision of this Charter to the contrary," the total leasable land is 25 percent. No matter what provisions the city council wants to bandy about, today, under law, there are an additional 26.84 acres that can be counted toward the lease total.

"It's a done deal," Frye says. "I'm not waiting for it to be thrashed out later. The immediate effect of the dedication is that you now legally have acreage that can count toward leasing."

Some of the parcels in question are in Councilman Byron Wear's district. According to Wear, "The fact of the matter is that everyone knew when we went into the survey that it was going to come up with a number. The number is accurate. The number is the number. Everyone knew all along it could come up with additional acreage. And of course it should be dedicated park land." If there's additional acreage, he says, "Let's get the revenue from it that the plan allows."

"It just so happens," Wear says, "that the survey didn't turn out the way that some people hoped it would turn out. I think what you need to ask the people who are complaining is, 'Do you support the Mission Bay Master Plan?' Does Donna Frye support the plan? Does Al Strohlein support the plan? If not, then what's the point?"

Some argue the master plan might need a second look. Jim Peugh agrees with Frye that these new acres, though under policy discussion now, can become a problem later on; a future council could do whatever it wanted with the new parcels. But even more urgent than the political wrangling over the survey, Peugh says, are long-term philosophical questions regarding the park. "The population of San Diego is increasing," Peugh says, "and so then is the need for park land. But the city seems to care only about the needs of tourists in the park. The commercial use has to go down as the population goes up." Peugh ponders revisiting the master plan. "Maybe," he says, "the 25 percent needs to be throttled back to 20 percent, or 15 percent."

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