San Diego News Room-Finally, a new bayfront for Chula Vista

San Diego Cities Chula Vista
Written by Albert H. Fulcher   
Wednesday, 07 July 2010 22:37

In one of the largest redevelopment ventures of its kind in the nation, the city of Chula Vista is piloting a new way of executing government business. This spring, Chula Vista combined efforts with the Port of San Diego, developers, environmentalists, businesses and the community to move forward with the Chula Vista Bayfront Master Plan(CVBMP), ushering the city from the Industrial Era into the Green Age.

The Port of San Diego and Chula Vista City Council’s adoption of the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) paves the way for top-notch redevelopment of 556 acres of bayfront land. Nestled between the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge and J Street Marsh, these plans have been nearly four decades in the making, and include a 2,000-room resort, conference center, fire station, hotels, businesses supporting community and tourism, and 238 acres for parks, buffers and open spaces.

Chula Vista Bayfront Master Plan Animation from Port of San Diego.

According to Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox, the city now waits to go through two more regulatory agencies for final approval: The California State Lands Commission and California Coastal Commission. Crucial for approval is an even land exchange of 96.8 acres of private land adjacent to the refuge, owned by Pacifica Companies, with 35 acres at the harbor.

The sole private landowner in the master plan area, Pacifica is the only developer with residential building rights. The company’s plans for the area include 1,500 condominiums/townhouses, 15,000 sq. feet of first-floor retail, a 250-room hotel and 400,000 sq. feet of commercial/office space.

Allison Rolfe, project manager for Pacifica Companies, said residential development is a key component to a successful master plan.

“Swapping of this land does two things,” said Rolfe. “It moves residential development away from the refuge and in the middle of the master plan, creating energy, vibrancy and ‘feet on the street’ in an area the city and port hope to activate.”

Pacifica’s land has a history of agriculture and an approved local coastal program for more than 1,000 residential units. Valued at nearly double the 35 acre exchange, Pacifica agreed to an even swap. Upon final approval of the master plan, Pacifica goes to the Coastal Commission to apply for its project-specific Coastal Development Permit. Development is scheduled to begin in 2014 with final project completion in 2032.

“Our project generates more than $130 million of city tax increment and creates temporary and permanent jobs,” said Rolfe. “Included are 150 affordable housing units, plazas, promenades and pedestrian pathways.”

Rolfe said Pacifica is building its entire infrastructure with no subsidy, contributing $3 million to the master plan infrastructure. Pacifica is committing half of one percent of the sale of all units (and unit re-sales for seven years) into a community fund and $2,000 per hotel room into a foundation.

Cox said the city needed the land exchange with the current residential zoned area being so close to sensitive land.

“Environmental groups and the city had very specific desires for this well-preserved land and the wildlife that depends on it,” she said.

South Bay refuges are home to several endangered native species of birds, wildlife and plants. They also serve as a one-stop shop for migrating birds– more than 370 species of bird are documented living and migrating in these estuaries.

Rolfe said Pacifica is ready for the challenge of eco-friendly design. The company is responsible for the redevelopment of Imperial Beach’s Seacoast Inn, a plan that is Leadership in Energy- and Environmental Design-certified.

Commissioner Stephen Padilla, Port of San Diego Secretary, represents Chula Vista. Padilla says the land swap meets the criteria of the Port, but won’t be official until it’s approved this fall.

“During my administration as mayor, we abandoned old plans and started over,” said Padilla, former Chula Vista mayor and a two-term city council member. “We wanted to do it comprehensively. From the beginning we embraced the concept of placing that land into public trust for preservation.”

Environmental groups became heavily involved in 2000. A project based on an existing approved land plan spurred the creation of the Bayfront Coalition, whose members are representatives from the Environmental Health Coalition, San Diego Audubon Society, San Diego Coastkeeper, Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association, The Surfrider Foundation and Empower San Diego.

Laura Hunter, associate program director of the Environmental Health Coalition, said the Bayfront Coalition had a comprehensive plan to develop the bayfront as one entity. Adopted by the Coastal Commission, it resulted in 40 meetings with representatives from every sector of the community. Hunter called these community meetings historic and healthy, claiming they brought the groups out of a stalemate.

“I think there was a lot of cross-pollination going on, allowing us to move on— not how government normally operates,” she said.

Jim Peugh of the San Diego Audubon Society said this forced many to face issues never dealt with before.

“We had to be renaissance people,” said Peugh. “Bird strikes are going to be a problem with high rises in shore birds’ flight path. Education and compromises had to be made.”

Hunter said it was hard work with difficult compromises, but in the end, very worth the effort.

“When have you ever heard of an environmental group signing up for 1,500 high-rise condos in the coastal zone? Never,” said Hunter. “Chula Vista will gain a nationwide model bayfront, setting it apart from any redevelopment of this nature.”

According to Rolfe, Pacifica believes that environmental and community benefits do not have to conflict with business.

“Accounting for the environment and community is good business,” said Rolfe. “We are proud that this project has brought people together rather than created divisions.”

Padilla said the project is an amazing collaboration between everyone involved.

“I hope when this gets to the Coastal Commission they see we now have a much better development—allowing money for the city and protection for the habitat,” he said.

In early May, the Bayfront Coalition, Port of San Diego, Chula Vista and Redevelopment Agency of the City of Chula Vista signed the Master Plan Settlement Agreement. Additional measures approved for protection of the environment go beyond those required by any applicable federal, state and local laws. This agreement places long-term mitigations in the FEIR and allows the coalition to challenge future disputes.

“There is a lot in the Settlement Agreement, but we felt we secured core issues for the habitat and community,” said Hunter. “With all of these environmental pieces in place the coalition could support the plan as a whole.”

Brian Joseph, executive director of the Chula Vista Nature Center, compared the forethought in this plan to the creation and long-term results of Balboa Park.

“I think the Chula Vista Bayfront can be the interpretive educational and cultural center for San Diego bay,” said Joseph. “This will preserve the natural habitat, attract businesses and tourists. Chula Vista deserves this image and should make people proud.”

Cox said the city wants a water-related bay, an attraction for tourists and a service for the community.

“Whether you live in Julian or Chula Vista, we all have the right to experience the beauty of the bay and the natural habitat surrounding it,” said Cox.

The Port’s analyses predict more than 7,000 construction jobs and more than 2,000 permanent jobs arising from the execution of the master plan. Estimating $11.5 million in annual tax revenue, they expect the project to produce $1.3 billion in regional revenue in the first 20 years.

Padilla said he expects revenue to go “well north” of the $1 billion estimate.

Chula Vista’s economic development officer, Denny Stone, is responsible for overall management of the master plan. Stone said Chula Vista has a rich history of infusing environmental protection with all of its many city projects.

“Chula Vista started out the gate with the idea of an economically-invested, thorough plan including protection of habitat,” he said. “We had to get together, gain each others’ perspectives and take in the perspective of the environment of the bay. I have to commend the environmental groups for stepping in, listening and learning the economics of redevelopment.”

Rolfe said that even though this acreage will be clean, Pacifica would incur additional costs in special construction techniques to ensure protection of public and resident health. Deep pile foundations over barriers are required to prevent any vapors from groundwater plume rising up.

Cox said the city will wait until next year for final approval by the Coastal Commission. In the meantime, Port of San Diego will send Request for Proposals for developers.

“When you invite someone over for dinner, you have to set the table first,” said Cox. “We do not want to send the invitation too early.”

Cox said the entire community has prepared this project together, and interested developers will have to rise to the challenge of this plan.

“When this master plan passes, there will be many very, very interested developers,” said Cox. “Can the city recruit? Certainly, from anywhere. We can say to any developer, ‘here is the plan, here is what we expect, and this is your obligation.’”

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