A plan that would overhaul the San Diego Bay waterfront in Chula Vista with a convention center, large hotels, as many as 2,000 housing units in towers up to 17 stories tall, and extensive parkland may be headed toward final approval after more than three years of work.

The Chula Vista Bayfront master plan prepared by the Port of San Diego — which controls most of the land in the area — and the City of Chula Vista would remake what has been a mostly industrial waterfront with rather limited public access.

“The whole goal of this is to get people down there,” summed up Laurie Madigan, assistant city manager for special projects.

“It’s going to be a world-class waterfront,” said Richard Campbell, of Pacific Companies, which plans to develop the housing component. “I think everybody wants it.”

Although the plan covers 550 acres of land, coastline and wetlands, two tightly concentrated projects are dominating the discussion. One is Gaylord Entertainment’s proposal for a 400,000-square-foot convention center, up to 2,000 hotel rooms, and ancillary restaurant and retail development on about 33 acres. The other involves a swap between the port district and developer Pacifica in which Pacifica would trade all or part of 120 acres of land next to a wildlife refuge for about 35 acres of brownfields owned by the port. Pacifica would then develop up to 2,000 housing units in the form of townhouses and mid- to high-rise condominiums. Pacifica also plans a 250-room hotel and up to 300,000 square feet of office space.

Elsewhere in the master plan area would lie approximately 230 acres of parks and open space, a promenade, an improved harbor, and additional hotel, office and restaurant development.

Although the city and port district began the planning process in 2003, they still have a long ways to go. The draft environmental impact report for the plan came out at the end of September, kicking off what could be a lengthy adoption process. The city and port district must work out financial agreements with Gaylord and Pacifica. The State Lands Commission must approve the swap between Pacifica and the port district. The Coastal Commission must bless the master plan, which would then allow the port district and city to issue actual development permits. And industrial brownfields, which have not been fully evaluated yet, must be cleaned up.

Indeed, much of the site lies in a city redevelopment project area with an industrial past. A former 80-acre BF Goodrich Aerostructures Group campus that the port district now owns and the aging South Bay Power Plant are predominant. All of that will go away to make room for new development.

Six years ago, Pacifica began planning to develop its land with up to 3,400 housing units, hotels, offices and retail space. The project met strong opposition from environmentalists because of the site’s sensitive location next to Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge and Chula Vista Nature Center. As Pacifica began revising its project with fewer units, the port district started a master planning effort for its 420 acres. At environmentalists’ urging, the two planning processes were combined. However, the port’s land is state tidelands, which means it is limited to water-related uses such as shipping and energy production, tourism, navigation, environmental protection and recreation — but not housing.

So city and port planners, with the assistance of a 30-member citizens advisory committee and the design firms Carrier Johnson of San Diego and Cooper, Robertson & Partners of New York, began work on a site design that ignored ownership. The idea was to choose the best design and work out ownership details later. They ended up designating three districts: The largely undeveloped Sweetwater District next to the wildlife refuge, a centralized Harbor District that would be heavy on visitor-serving uses, and the Otay District to the south, where housing would replace the power plant and other industrial uses.

“Just as we were coming to the final process, we had a visit from Gaylord,” Madigan recalled of the first meeting with the developer in 2005.

Gaylord Entertainment owns the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and hotel/convention centers in the suburbs of Dallas and Orlando, and Gaylord is building a waterfront convention facility in Price George’s County, Maryland. In searching for a West Coast location, Gaylord looked at an eastern Chula Vista location in the massive Otay Ranch development. However, Madigan steered Gaylord to a 33-acre “event center” site proposed for the bay front’s Harbor District. Gaylord liked the waterfront idea but did not like the site, so the city and port district reworked the Harbor District plan to provide the company with an acceptable location closer to the bay.

Two other developers — JMI Realty and Manchester Financial Group — also submitted convention center and hotel proposals, but they were smaller than Gaylord’s plan, Madigan said. In July, the city and port district signed a letter of intent with Gaylord under which the city and port district would provide up to $308 million for the project by committing revenues from hotel bed taxes, redevelopment tax increment and port leases. That amount is based on the need for $178 worth of infrastructure, plus $130 million needed to assist convention center construction, Madigan said.

“The theory is that convention centers don’t make money, but they serve as a catalyst for redevelopment and for all of the other revenues we will receive,” Madigan explained.

Randa Coniglio, area real estate manager for the port district, called the Gaylord project “the anchor for this plan. It provides the revenues for the public improvements that are needed.”

Under the letter of intent, the city, port district and Gaylord have until May 2007 to reach a deal. Negotiations are ongoing.

At the same time, the port and Pacifica are negotiating their land swap. Campbell said the company envisions about 1,700 units of condominiums and townhouses, as well as offices, and a hotel and retail space that would serve the convention center, which is something Gaylord wants. Campbell called the proposed park spaces “gorgeous” and said that the residential site offers great views.

“Gaylord is the trigger that makes the entire project possible,” Campbell said. “I cannot think of anything negative that the Gaylord project does to our project. We feel we fit together very well.”

Environmentalists have participated throughout the master plan process and, at this point, are not opposing the project. What sets the area apart is Chula Vista’s intact sensitive coastal habitat, including a large saltwater marsh, said Laura Hunter, a spokesperson for the Environmental Health Coalition and member of the master plan advisory committee. Past development proposals have not accounted for the natural resources in the way the master planning effort has. Still, Hunter is not ready to endorse the project until the port district and city decide on mitigation measures. She’s also concerned about Gaylord’s chosen development site.

“We thought we had a plan. It got significantly changed,” Hunter said. “We don’t know how that is going to play out. We still have a ways to go.”

Project proponents say development could start in 2008, but large coastal developments nearly always get delayed in permitting processes and litigation.

“It’s the largest planning effort we’ve ever undertaken,” added the port district’s Coniglio.

Laurie Madigan, City of Chula Vista, (619) 691-5031.
Randa Coniglio, Port of San Diego, (619) 686-7217.
Richard Campbell, Pacifica Companies, (619) 296-9000.
Bayfront master plan website: http://www.portofsandiego.org/projects/cvbmp/