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A 2nd Entrance : Drive Starts Again to Create Backdoor to Bay

Times Staff Writer

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on his first visit to San Diego as President in 1935, waggled his ivory cigarette holder and proclaimed in sonorous tones that the city needed a backdoor to its bay.

F.D.R.'s remark made headlines locally because it was followed by a promise from the President to support a $20-million bay project, in the interests of national security. After all, the former Navy secretary pointed out, the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet could be bottled up and destroyed if the San Diego harbor entrance were blocked by well-aimed bombs or well-placed mines.

Though San Diego got its share of the Roosevelt-era Works Projects Administration programs, a second entrance to the bay was not among them. The promise became a popular one for generations of politicians during the decades that followed. One veteran waterfront observer noted that the idea of cutting another entrance into the harbor seems to flourish around election time, perhaps because it’s the sort of project that even the most energetic politician could not be expected to deliver within his or her political lifetime.

Now, more than 50 years after Roosevelt’s promise, the crusade for a second bay entrance is back, buoyed by Stars & Stripes’ capture of the America’s Cup yachting trophy and the prospect of future America’s Cup racing in San Diego.

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M. Larry Lawrence, a maverick millionaire Democrat who owns the Hotel del Coronado, believes the America’s Cup could be the catalyst needed to get the entrance channel project out of dry dock.

A South Bay harbor channel to the ocean, cut through the narrow waist of the Silver Strand near the Coronado Cays, “would be a great benefit to 80% of the bayfront,” turning the South Bay backwater into prime real estate for commercial and residential development, he said. A second bay entrance “is the ultimate answer to a lot of the economic problems of South Bay communities,” and promises to alleviate the growing congestion in the northern third of the bay.

Not that the main entrance to the bay isn’t wide and deep enough to accommodate freighters from the Orient and the Navy’s behemoths, Lawrence said, but traffic is building up in the main harbor channel as it is on coastal freeways. Waits for weekend boaters heading for the ocean are as long as, or longer than, those for homebound motorists caught in the northbound commuter crunch where Interstates 5 and 805 merge. An alternative bay entrance must be opened or there will be the nautical equivalent of gridlock, experts agree.

Lawrence questions, however, whether San Diego Unified Port District officials will buckle down to the task of ramrodding a second entrance, or, for that matter, enticing the America’s Cup defense to San Diego. In his opinion, port commissioners are “nothing more than a bunch of guys who like to travel a lot.”

Don Nay, Port District director, said that a second harbor channel in South Bay has been on the Port District’s planning list for a long time, but not in its budget. Even the affluent port can’t afford a project that could cost anywhere from $100 million to $1 billion, Nay said, unless the federal government pays a good chunk of the tab.

Nay, who has been at the helm of the autonomous Port District for more years than he cares to admit, recalls that the biggest push for the South Bay ocean channel began in the early 1960s and still simmers on the back burner.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched an intensive study of the channel project, even building a huge, 2,500-square-foot model of the bay to test out the consequences of changing tidal currents by opening up the South Bay to the ocean.

Nay recalls a 1968 trip to Vicksburg, Miss., to view the mechanical bay replica in operation. There, inside a huge warehouse, engineers manipulated nature, causing the tides to ebb and surge every 13 minutes while time photography documented the pace and direction that Styrofoam chips and dyes traveled. The verdict: the second entrance would improve the tidal flushing action of the bay without eroding the deep-water channels used by commercial and military ships.

A less satisfactory answer arose from the Corps’ economic study of the project. A draft report released in the 1970s found that only about 60 cents benefit would be gained from each $1 of investment in the entrance channel--a death-dealing “negative cost-benefit ratio” that threatened to sink any chance San Diego would have to gain 90% federal financing for the project.

Nay contends that the cards were stacked against San Diego Bay in the Corps’ study because “benefits” did not include the miles of bay frontage that would be turned from vacant mud flats to bustling terminals with the advent of the South Bay entrance. Nor did the Corps consider the benefits that would accrue if recreational boaters could sail directly from South Bay anchorages into the ocean without making the 14-mile trip up the bay.

About all the Corps engineers did consider on the plus side of the ledger, Nay said, was the military benefits, chiefly “steaming time,” or how fast the ships in port could high-tail it to open sea.

The commercial and recreational benefits were stressed to the public, but not the bottom line on the Corps of Engineers study: the need for a second ocean entry to improve safety factors in docking nuclear-armed ships in San Diego Bay.

At about the time that a draft Corps report came out with the negative cost-benefit ratio and the positive tidal flow verdict, California was undergoing an environmental revolution. Nay, a realist, said that the advent of environmental concerns spelled doom for the South Bay channel.

Philip Pryde, a San Diego State University geology professor, has more questions than answers about the environmental impacts of a second entrance on South Bay ecology. Will it decrease the salinity and the temperatures in South Bay? Will its flushing action deepen the presently shallow South Bay waters and destroy the bottom vegetation that now supports aquatic life? Or will the second entrance refresh the South Bay waters, allowing fish, fowl and humans to use the healthier bay habitat in harmony? Only an in-depth study of the ecological impacts of the second entrance will answer these and other questions, Pryde said.

Larry Peeples, a former Rohr Industries spokesman, has taken up the cause of a second bay entrance, financed by the cities of Chula Vista and National City to the tune of $70,000. In a few weeks, the nonprofit organization Peeples has helped form will go public, seeking private contributions to finance an environmental analysis and economic studies needed to launch a new drive for federal, state and local government funds to construct a South Bay entrance.

An 18-minute film, which carries a subliminal message for funding aimed at the Unified Port District, is Peeples’ weapon as he plies the luncheon circuit gaining personal and corporate support. Soon SHEP--Second Harbor Entrance Proponents--will announce its directors and launch its fund drive.

Peeples admits that there is no chance that the second entrance can become a reality in the less than four years before the next America’s Cup competition begins, but he can see the benefits to opening up the southern part of the bay to sailors and all recreational boaters, to smaller commercial craft and sportsfishing vessels. He agrees with Lawrence that a nearby channel to the ocean is a key ingredient in the mix needed to create a boom in the South Bay.

Chula Vista Mayor Greg Cox is the spokesman for South Bay cities’ efforts to become equal with San Diego in bayfront development. The city’s barren bayfront land and its less-than-flourishing marina attest to the South Bay’s need for a shortcut to the ocean for recreational craft.

Cox said the greatest support appears to be for a “recreational cut"--about the width and depth of Mission Bay Channel--which would cost much less than the estimated $230 million cost of a full-scale entrance large enough for use by major military craft, ocean liners and commercial vessels.

Cox also stressed that the smaller entrance would cause less environmental havoc than the 600-foot-wide, 48-foot-deep channel that the Navy had been planning.

Overwhelming opposition can be expected to a second entrance which would be large enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier, supporters admit. The larger entrance would require ocean jetties to prevent siltation of the channel and a bridge with a 154-foot clearance.

The impact of jetties on Silver Strand beaches and the visual blight of a mile-long, 15-story-high bridge are among the environmental concerns that second-entrance proponents must overcome.

Peeples said his group favors a highway tunnel rather than a bridge over the channel. The underground traffic lanes would be less costly and less environmentally intrusive than a bridge constructed at a grade that could carry truck traffic, he said.

Cox admits that raising funds for a second entrance channel for small recreational craft won’t be easy. But plans are to seek non-federal funding for an estimated $40-million opening similar to the Mission Bay channel, then offer to expand the channel to meet military requirements if the federal government pays the additional cost.

The idea of a second entrance in South Bay preceded even Roosevelt’s visit. More than 100 years ago, when the founders and movers of bustling National City and affluent Chula Vista were seeking ways to compete with San Diego for commercial tonnage, talk was rife about cutting an entrance through the Silver Strand to provide a shortcut to the ocean.

The dream of commercially developing the South Bay nearly capsized in 1916 in a flood that followed the collapse of the Otay River Dam. The dam waters washed a good portion of the South Bay’s topsoil into the bay. Today, the undredged portions of South Bay waters average only about 3 feet to 4 feet in depth. Any southern entrance project would have to include extensive dredging of the shallow, non-navigable bay waters.

Despite the impressive environmental and economic barriers blocking this newest effort to create a South Bay ocean channel, Cox and other leaders of the cause are convinced that recreational and commercial development of the under-utilized South Bay shoreline depends on the success of their mission.

While second-entrance crusaders in the 1960s and 1970s had the backing of tenured congressmen like Rep. Bob Wilson (R-San Diego) and Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin (D-San Diego), the channel group doesn’t have the support of at least one powerful politician. Sen. Pete Wilson, according to a spokeswoman in his office, “has no opinion on the second entrance issue.”


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