In the midst of San Diego’s gentrified waterfront, it is one of the last outposts of sleaze and decay. An ancient coal wharf, built out of shifting landfill, it is dotted with closed or closing firms, it stinks of fish and it’s spilling into the bay that surrounds it.
For more than a decade, the Port of San Diego has quibbled and bickered over a question that seemed to have no solution: What to do about the G Street mole?
During that time the Port Commission has held hearings, staged an architectural contest, and considered a plethora of potential uses, including a high-rise hotel, a maritime museum and an open-air market, to list only the front-runners. The La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art even briefly considered becoming a tenant. Now, in its latest incarnation, the pier will become the site of a large fish restaurant, following the Port Commission’s decision June 4 to spend $3 million to spruce it up.
But the pier’s use still breeds consternation among those who deliberate over its future.
Port Commissioner Louis Wolfsheimer, for one, is not happy with the current plan.
“I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend all that money and give all the parking to one restaurant,” said Wolfsheimer, who attributed the commission’s decision to a failure of imagination combined with frustration over the endless succession of proposals.
The plan that the commission eventually endorsed, referred to as “Concept C,” calls for replacing Tom Lai’s Chinese Restaurant--now located on the mole--with the larger, more upscale Fish Market Restaurant, as well as a retail fish store, and a “fishette” cafe. Much of the unused space on the mole, along with part of the parking area, will be turned into a grassy park area. The fishing fleet, fish processing plant and headquarters of the American Tunaboat Assn., which complete the mole now, will remain.
Earlier, the port seemed to be leaning toward a grander development effort. A nationwide architectural contest held in 1983 with $55,000 in prizes brought in a lot of “architects’ fantasies,” but little that the commission was pleased with, Wolfsheimer said. To develop the latest plan, the port paid another $87,000 in fees.
Wolfsheimer favors a more ambitious program for developing the mole, if public funds are going to be put to work. “I would have liked to see something that brought a lot of people in and had them walking around--like San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Instead we’re getting a rather sterile park.”
But Commissioner Bill Rick defends the low-level usage, citing the rather weak material from which the mole is constructed and the desire to create a peaceful corner on the teaming San Diego Bay waterfront. “This piece of property has been left over since I was a kid and is sadly in need of being integrated with the rest of the waterfront. By keeping the level of development low, you avoid cutting off the public from the water,” Rick said.
Subject to a few modifications, the “Concept C” plan, which will be financed out of the port’s capital improvement monies, is ready to move ahead, Rick said.
According to Michael Theilacker, whose firm, Kawasaki/Theilacker & Associates, came up with the proposal, the landscaping and refurbishing will constitute an “open invitation” to the public to stroll on what now looks like a commercial site.
“Physically and visually, the mole is at the center of the harbor. With this plan it will become the final link between Ash Street and the Seaport Village,” he said.
While the 5.6-acre mole has been considered an eyesore for years, the architectural firm discovered that it was in need of structural repair as well. The northern and western quay walls and wharfs are deteriorated and will require extensive renovation, the study found. In some sections, the deterioration has reached the point that the sea walls can no longer contain the fill material that makes up the mole.
David Rehmann, whose Royal Pacific seafood processing plant has been on the northwestern tip of the mole since 1969, said the area is pocked with sink-holes as well. “Why, we almost lost a forklift down one of those things.”
Rehmann remains skeptical whether the area will be renovated anytime soon. His firm is on a short-term lease because of uncertainty about the mole’s future. “They say this is the final determination, but then they’ve said that before.”
John Freis, one of the four owners of the Fish Market Restaurant chain, expressed similar reservations about the Port Commission’s speed of deliberation. It was only inadvertently that the firm became entangled in the port’s redevelopment plans, he said.
“When we first heard that Tom Lai wanted out, we offered to buy the lease on the spot. But the people from the port told us they had to decide what they wanted to do with the land, and that they’d get back to us in 90 days. That was 2 1/2 years ago,” Freis said.
Since then, the restaurant has been paying hefty options to Tom Lai’s to keep its hold on the site. Further, the architect’s proposal calls for the firm to add $4.5 million of its own money to the $3 million the port plans to spend. And once the restaurant is running, a percentage of its profits will go into the port’s coffers.
But Freis said that the mole’s waterside location will make the expense worthwhile. The restaurant will renovate the building, extending it out over the water to capitalize on the waterside location. The Fish Market chain, which began only eight years ago in Palo Alto, has five outlets, including one in Del Mar, and is eager to gain a stake in San Diego’s waterfront explosion.
Among those who are less enthusiastic about the latest plan to beautify the mole is the longtime resident American Tunaboat Assn. President August Felando thinks that the needs of both his members and the fleet of fresh-fish boats have been neglected by a plan that treats them as a tourist attraction rather than a working fleet.
Felando said the access for loading and unloading of heavy equipment and the space for net repair are inadequate.
“They’re telling us that this new investment is going to be the engine that makes this place run. Well, we’ve got a whole bunch of other engines out there in the fleet. And even if their dock fees don’t match up to what the restaurant will bring in, they’re spending money everywhere they go in this harbor--repair, diesel, everywhere.”
But Theilacker disputes the assertion that the fishermen’s needs have been ignored. “The fishing fleet is definitely an asset. People love to come down and look at boats and fish being unloaded. We certainly wouldn’t consider any plan that would eliminate them.”
Beyond financial considerations, Felando asserts that the Port, which holds the tidelands in trust for the state, has a moral obligation to maintain the tuna industry, which was founded in San Diego and is a source of the city’s fame. Instead of succoring the tuna industry, the Port Authority has sought to replace the industry--which has declined substantially in the last decade--with more lucrative tour operations, some tuna fishermen assert.
While the local market for tuna has drastically declined in recent years with closing of the city’s canneries, the market for fresh fish, which is caught with far smaller boats, is booming, according to Rehmann, whose firm handles 40% of all the fresh fish brought into San Diego. Even if the tuna industry dies out altogether, the G Street mole will remain a fishing center, he said.