We're Sorry About Mike Aguirre

— 'I apologize to San Francisco," said Ben Haddad when the California Coastal Commission met for its monthly meeting in the Bay Area city on December 14. "As for [city attorney Mike] Aguirre...," said Haddad, an alternate commissioner from San Diego, "I'm very disappointed in having all of you exposed to the continuing dysfunctionality of [our] city and its antics, whether it's the city attorney or other elected officials or offices; it's just been a disaster. And this is the latest example of a disappointment...."

The dastardly latest example concerned complaints about proposed changes to several I-shaped historic buildings at the old Naval Training Center. The Corky McMillin Companies have been redeveloping the property into Liberty Station. The first complaint had come in a "last-minute letter" from Aguirre, "which was questionable in its legal analysis," according to Haddad. The second complaint came from Save Our NTC, which Haddad characterized as a special-interest group claiming to represent the City of San Diego. An audiotape of the December meeting reveals that John McNab of Save Our NTC was allowed three minutes to address the commission. Aguirre's letter, a speaker representing Aguirre's office, and McNab argued that the City of San Diego had illegally bypassed reviews of the changes. Additionally, McNab maintained that the changes would destroy the historical integrity of the buildings.

Haddad views the complaints as unfair to the Liberty Station developers because "we just keep moving the bar; we keep changing the rules on the applicants midway through the process." But the coastal commission's job is to hear such objections. One wonders whether Haddad forgot that he was no longer Mayor Susan Golding's chief of staff or the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce president. Today he is senior vice president for communications at the local Science Applications International Corporation.

Many people in San Diego believe that McMillin and the City's Redevelopment Agency have been the ones moving the bar. In 1993 the Navy donated the facility to the city of San Diego. Mayor Golding announced the gift as a chance to create what came to be known as a waterside Balboa Park. In 1994 she established the NTC Reuse Planning Committee, which promised among other goals to "create a center that celebrates San Diego's maritime history." Many San Diegans began to look forward to new public land devoted to public use. But when the committee published its 1998 Naval Training Center San Diego Reuse Plan, it became clear that private commercialization would characterize much of the project.

By 1999 San Diego city manager Michael Uberuaga's selection committee was recommending the nationally respected Lennar Communities to develop the former training center. But the city council announced on June 22 of that year that it had selected Corky McMillin instead. Shortly afterward McMillin created the NTC Foundation to oversee public nonprofit activities on the site. A year later the council approved a "Disposition and Development Agreement" for the project totaling 800-plus pages. Writing in the Union-Tribune on June 13, columnist Neil Morgan questioned how well the plan, which now included condominium complexes and office buildings, was preserving public land. McMillin would now own 20 percent of the site. Even Mayor Dick Murphy eventually expressed outrage at the turn of events. In July 2001 he stated that he would have opposed the project if he had been mayor at the time it was adopted. But then he voted to continue it anyway.

Corky McMillin named the redevelopment Liberty Station in 2002. Its latest manifestation includes the Marketplace at Liberty Station, a group of retail businesses and restaurants. The I-shaped buildings discussed at the December California Coastal Commission meeting belong to the Marketplace. Thousands of Navy personnel used them as barracks from 1923 through the early 1990s. A coastal commission staff report describes the changes to the Marketplace's historic buildings as follows: "Modifications to Buildings...27, 28, 29, 30, consisting of removing the narrow (inside) portion of the 'I'-shaped buildings and adding approximately 13,766 [square feet to them], for the adaptive reuse of the buildings for retail and restaurant use."

But "these are H-shaped buildings," says John McNab. "Afterwards they'll be square." Their H-shape has created courtyards that could be used for dining outdoors, perhaps by bed-and-breakfast tourists who long ago trained nearby, according to McNab. That would retain the buildings' "defining characteristics," which is what federal law requires. Instead, their new square shape would make them more suitable for housing large retail businesses. McNab worries that businesses like Bed, Bath and Beyond will take over the buildings, making the Marketplace much more like a strip mall than a waterside Balboa Park.

At the December 14 hearing a verbal dispute framed the crucial issue. The original plan for the Marketplace, approved by the coastal commission in 2001, has two contradictory paragraphs under the heading "NTC Historic District." The first requires that "additions to buildings" be sent to the California Office of Historic Preservation "for a determination of consistency with" U.S. Secretary of the Interior requirements. It also demands that the additions go before San Diego's Historical Resources Board for a recommendation.

The second paragraph states that if changes are only "modifications to existing structures on the site," then San Diego's Development Services Department shall conduct a "substantial conformity review" to determine whether the changes go beyond the original plan.

The City's development services opted to conduct a substantial conformity review, which concluded that the changes to the Marketplace's historic buildings do conform to the original plan. At the December 14 meeting, the City's project manager Cory Wilkinson said the substantial conformity review "is not subject to appeal."

So is it McMillin's plan to construct "additions to buildings" or make "modifications to existing structures"? The debate at the December coastal commission meeting became whether this question constituted a "substantial issue" that required resolution. Before the meeting, the commission's staff recommended that no substantial issue be found with the project. The staff reasoned that since less than 50 percent of the buildings' exteriors would be demolished, there was no justification for delaying the project. They also insisted that the remaining external facades would not be greatly affected.

But several commissioners were concerned about the "ambiguities" over whether San Diego's Development Services Department was required to obtain historic reviews, especially the one by the California Office of Historic Preservation. According to commissioner Mary Shallenberger from Sacramento, "We're not doing anybody any favors by acknowledging there's an ambiguity, saying, 'There's no substantial issue,' and moving on. This issue will be back before us in the future if we don't straighten it out now." Two of the commissioners agreed that weight ought to be given to the San Diego city attorney's "position that there hasn't been proper vetting."

Several other commissioners thought that the issue should be resolved by the parties in San Diego and not by their body. But commissioner Sara Wan of Malibu argued that "dueling forces within the City of San Diego" demanded that "an independent assessment" be sought from the state historic preservation office.

In the end, the commission voted six to five that no substantial issue existed to stop the adaptations to historic buildings in Liberty Station's Marketplace. The minority vote came from five commissioners living outside San Diego County. One might have expected the three San Diegans on the commission to split their votes, reflecting their region's "dueling forces." But joining Ben Haddad in a block vote with the majority were Patrick Kruer of the La Jolla Monarch Group developers and Chula Vista mayor Steve Padilla. Before casting his vote, Mayor Padilla reiterated Haddad's apology to San Francisco.

A drive through the old Naval Training Center today reveals massive construction everywhere. At buildings 27, 28, 29, and 30 a guard prevents entrance into the demolition area. But from the adjacent parking lot one can see that the inside staffs of the I-shapes are being removed. The planned infill will replace the buildings' charming courtyards forever.

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