3 Plans for County Lots Leave Supervisors Cold

Times Staff Writer

Dealing still another--and perhaps fatal--setback to the long-delayed effort to develop two parking lots flanking the bayfront County Administration Center, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to postpone action on three development proposals until at least this summer.

Clearly unenthusiastic about any of the three plans to build shops, restaurants, a public plaza and possibly an aquarium and hotel on the site, the supervisors voted unanimously to delay action on a task force report detailing those proposals until another study on development along the waterfront is completed.

The supervisors also gave strong indications that even after the so-called "Mid-Bay Development Strategies" study now being coordinated by the San Diego Assn. of Governments (Sandag) is finished this summer, the parking lot development plans may never get off the ground--literally and figuratively.

At least two supervisors expressed reservations about pursuing any development on the parking lots until after 1991, saying that the area might be used for America's Cup activities, assuming that San Diego is selected as host for that year's competition for yachting's most prized trophy.

Others complained that none of the three proposals would generate enough revenue--two, in fact, were projected to lose money over the first 15 years--to justify eliminating the existing open space on the site.

Supervisor George Bailey, pointing out that the City of San Diego must approve any development on the site, described consideration of the development plans as premature, saying that the county is "just blowing smoke" until it gains the sole right to determine how to use the property.

The supervisors' failure to act Tuesday marked the latest episode in a long-running debate over whether and how to develop the two parking lots.

The 15-member task force whose report was presented to the supervisors Tuesday was appointed in August, 1985, to examine possible uses for the valuable land after the $120-million Harbor Square plan collapsed in the face of strong opposition from both county and city officials. That plan, which called for 250,000 square feet of office space, 70,000 square feet of retail shops and a 300-room hotel, was widely criticized as incompatible with the historic County Administration Center.

Seeking to quiet concerns that adjacent development might overshadow the Spanish colonial county building, the latest recommendations are smaller in scale than Harbor Square. But as a result, the three alternatives--ranging from a low-density retail and exhibit complex to a more intensive plan that would couple the restaurants and shops with a 100,000-square-foot aquarium and a first-class 250-room hotel--also would raise substantially less money.

County officials had projected that the original Harbor Square plan would produce a $24-million profit for the county over the first 10 years and $4 million annually after that. Two of the three new proposals, however, were expected to lose millions of dollars over the first 15 years, while the ambitious aquarium-hotel plan would produce an estimated $5.9-million profit (equivalent to $2.3 million in 1986 dollars) during that period.

The smallest of the three projects outlined in the task force's report calls for 50,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space, 40,000 square feet of display space for water- and marine-related exhibits, parking and a large public plaza. That proposal would have "the worst net fiscal impact" on the county of the three alternatives, losing $9.6 million ($5.6 million in present terms) over the first 15 years as the result of development costs, the report concluded.

A 100,000-square-foot aquarium would be added to the retail complex, exhibit space and public plaza under the second alternative. Despite that addition, that plan would lose only slightly less money than the first by the year 2001--$7.1 million, or $4.3 million in current dollars.

The third proposal, which would further broaden the development with a 250-room hotel--along with the retail complex and aquarium--is the only one of the recommendations that could be expected to produce a profit for the county. Financial estimates included in the task force's report project a $5.9-million profit over a 15-year period.

Championed in the early 1980s as an innovative method of increasing county revenues without raising taxes, the parking lot development proposals have since come to be viewed from a different perspective--one that weighs environmental and aesthetic considerations against financial factors.

"Revenue generation should not be the major consideration in determining uses appropriate to the parking lots," the task force's report said. Rather, the report emphasized that the site should be developed "with an emphasis on public use and enjoyment" in a way that will "preserve and enhance the historical, aesthetic and functional value" of the County Administration Center.

During Tuesday's debate, though, the supervisors indicated that the absence of sizable projected profits from any of the three development plans was a major factor in their reluctance to interfere with the site's "view corridor" to the bay.

"I'm not holding onto open space forever," Supervisor John MacDonald said. "But the returns were not great enough for me to support the change in use."

Supervisor Brian Bilbray, meanwhile, framed the issue in aesthetics-versus-economics terms similar to those included in the task force report.

"It's nice for us to have this beautiful setting," Bilbray said. "But we also have a responsibility to abused children, battered women and protection of public safety."

The challenge facing the county, Bilbray added, is to "create and enhance usable open space around this building" while simultaneously "maximizing our resources and revenues" to provide funding for necessary programs.

Tuesday's meeting underscored the difficulty of responding to that challenge. Indeed, the supervisors' lack of consensus served as a reminder of Supervisor Susan Golding's oft-stated summary of the issue.

"Most people seem to agree that we can do better than using that land for parking lots," Golding has said. "But that's where the agreement ends."

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