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Sea World Wants to Use 30 City Acres : Tourism: Theme park proposes to divide parkland area into public athletic fields, but use it for overflow parking during peak season and holidays.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sea World officials unveiled a proposal Wednesday to expand their parking lot onto 30 acres of city-owned land on Mission Bay on which a long-awaited city park is planned.

The proposal, which will need City Council approval, calls for Sea World to spend up to $3 million to convert the 30 acres into essentially a large lawn divided into several baseball diamonds and athletic fields, some of which would be lighted for night games.

Sea World would pay to maintain the fields, which would remain under the city’s jurisdiction.

In return, Sea World wants exclusive access to the fields and grassy area during peak attendance periods at the aquatic theme park--so it can park about 3,500 cars. Sea World officials say peak periods are July, August and school holidays.

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The need for overflow parking is not great now, Sea World officials told a City Council committee Wednesday, but the company’s projections show that attendance will nearly double by 2008, to 6 million a year.

The 30 acres are next to Sea World’s ocean of asphalt-covered parking lots, which accommodate about 6,600 vehicles. The land Sea World wants is part of the city’s 100-acre South Shores Park, which has been in planning for at least 10 years.

This year, the city began work on the first phase of the park, which encompasses the 30 acres Sea World is seeking. The city has spent about $2 million grading the former landfill site and building a boat ramp and public restroom.

It plans to spend another $2 million or so finishing the first phase by doing more grading and landscaping, building a 9-acre lagoon, an asphalt parking lot, a small beach and public pier, said John Leppart, an assistant to the city manager.

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The city is scheduled to get bids for the project in March. The other phases of the park, which aren’t completely funded, would include more parking and large picnic areas. The finished park would cost about $8 million.

Funding for the South Shores park is based in part on money from state grants and state park bonds. Sea World wants the city to ask those agencies whether a change in park plans to accommodate Sea World would delay or harm the city’s access to the funds.

The council’s Public Facilities and Recreation Committee agreed Wednesday to do that, and city staffers said they expect to have an answer sometime next month.

The committee stressed that it is not endorsing Sea World’s proposal, and Sea World of California President Robert K. Gault said the proposal is still conceptual.

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Although the configuration of the first phase of South Shores park would change, Gault said all the elements for the public, such as the boat ramp, would still be open even when Sea World has to use the playing fields for parking.

As planned by the city, a large part of the land Sea World wants to plant with grass and use for overflow parking is designated as an asphalt-covered parking lot. Under Sea World’s plan, the parking lot would be moved and reshaped.

Gault told reporters that people who use the playing fields during slack periods at Sea World could park in Sea World’s lots.

“In direct benefits to the city, Sea World contributes more rent income based on Sea World revenue than any other city tenant,” Gault told the council committee. A Sea World spokesman said later that Sea World paid the city about $4 million in rent alone last year. Sea World’s lease with the city runs until 2033.

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Gault told reporters that it would be too expensive to build a multistory parking garage on Sea World’s existing lots because of city height limits and the high ground-water table.

The need for more parking will be exacerbated, Gault told the committee, because Sea World plans to turn 11 acres of what is now an asphalt-covered parking lot into an exhibit area. He declined to give details about the new exhibits because he doesn’t want to tip off competitors.

Several people backed Sea World’s proposal, including a spokesman for the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club, said there is a great need in the beach area for playing fields.

Not everyone, though, was ready to endorse the proposal, at least not without more analysis.

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Judy Swink of Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, an urban planning group, recommended that Sea World find another way to accommodate its visitors, transportation alternatives.

She warned that giving Sea World exclusive use of much of the 30 acres for parking would come at a time--the middle of summer--when use of Mission Bay by local residents is at its highest.


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