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Gafcon’s San Diego bayfront plan seems to please tuna fishermen

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After months of behind-the-scenes bickering and horse trading between San Diego’s commercial fishing fleet and a developer tapped by the Port of San Diego to revamp a large portion of a large section of San Diego Bay, the sides appear to have reached a détente.

Kip Howard, spokesman for Seaport (the new project): “Obviously we could be making a lot more money hosting these big recreational boats than commercial fishing.”

Last June, the Port unveiled a host of proposals for the redevelopment of 30 acres of land and 40 acres of water along downtown’s bayfront, including Seaport Village and Tuna Harbor, home to more than half of the region’s commercial fishing boats and a popular dockside fishermen’s market. At the time, fishermen promised stiff resistance before the California Coastal Commission and other regulatory bodies against any proposal that threatened their ability to remain docked at Tuna Harbor.

Tuna Harbor parking lot. Rafael Castellanos from the Port: “Much of the infrastructure that’s in place is reaching the end of its useful life.”

Local developer Gafcon eventually got the nod to proceed with the redevelopment project, which will be named Seaport. The group was one of the fleet’s preferred options as it promoted improvements to the harbor that would largely leave fishing interests in control. Still, many remained wary of what they feared was lip service being paid to the industry that has been beset by challenges for more than a half-century, leading to a sharp decline in a San Diego fishery once known as the “tuna capital of the world.”

“Fishermen have never asked for anything more [on the waterfront],” Kelly Fukushima, captain of the vessel Three Boys, told a crowd assembled for a Tuna Harbor update organized by the San Diego Food System Alliance on Thursday (April 13). “All they’ve been able to do is constantly fight to keep what little that we have.”

For its part, Gafcon has not escaped controversy in previous endeavors. Development of Irvine’s Great Park, which the city hoped would become a landmark rivaling Balboa Park or New York’s Central Park, faced an audit of the project that found after spending $200 million between 2005 and 2012, the park fell far short of expectations and the project was plagued by mismanagement and irresponsible spending. The company fought the charges, accusing the report of being a politically motivated hit job. They launched their own promotional website to combat the claims, and convinced local state assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher to push for a state investigation of the audit, which itself concluded that the city had overspent and mismanaged the audit.

Kip Howard, president of Allegis Development, spoke as the representative of Seaport.

“Tuna Harbor is the part of the project that we’ve been focusing the most on to date,” Howard told the group, noting that eleven meetings regarding site design had already been held between developers and fishery representatives.

“Fishing will be one of the most important aspects of the Seaport project,” Howard continued. “We’re committed to revitalizing the industry, and to celebrating the history and heritage of it.”

Still, Tuna Harbor is a relatively small factor in the development, which includes 280,000 square feet of retail space, massive underground parking structures, three hotels, a commercial aquarium, and a 45-story observation tower where, for a price, visitors will get a bird’s-eye view of the bayfront.

The Port sent the vice chair of its board of commissioners, Rafael Castellanos, to echo support for the fishermen and cheer the expected cash influx from super-sizing the site.

“We want to do everything we can to support the industry, but we have challenges,” Castellanos told the group. “Much of the infrastructure that’s in place, which we’ve spent about $1.7 billion building since the inception of the Port, is reaching the end of its useful life. We have tens of millions of dollars in capital improvements and repairs that need to be made.”

“What’s exciting about the Seaport project is the opportunity to bring in money – lots and lots of money.”

That money, Fukushima says, will go a long way toward improving the efficiency of the existing fleet and making way for future growth in the fishery. Dock repairs, improved offloading, storage, and equipment repair facilities, and a permanent home for the dockside market to operate daily (Saturday mornings are the only time locals can currently purchase off-the-boat fresh catch) were at the top of the needs list.

“I think all of us, as fishermen, spend more time working on our boats and getting ready to go fishing than actually fishing. That’s one of the reasons having upgraded facilities will help the industry significantly,” Fukushima said. “Each one of these boats is an independent, family-owned small business that produces a year-round supply of local, sustainable seafood.”

“San Diego is home to the most diverse fishing fleet on the entire west coast,” he continued. “We have offshore boats targeting tuna, opah, and swordfish. Coastal seiners fish squid, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines. Net boats target white sea bass, halibut, shark, while dive boats harvest sea urchin and sea cucumber. That’s not to mention trap fishermen who go after California spiny lobster, and other species.”

One serious point of contention that Seaport officials have since dropped was a plan to bring recreational boats including massive personal craft into the harbor. While pleasure craft anchorage could be lucrative for the developer, working boat captains worry about disruptions to their business and complaints about noise, odor, and other facts of life that surround a working waterfront.

“I realize that mega-yachts and water taxis and things like that bring in an incredible amount of revenue, but I see individuals in this room who’ve fed over a million people over their careers. How do you put a dollar value on that?” Fukushima asked, drawing cheers from the crowd.

Howard, meanwhile, acknowledged his group was ready to make a concession on that point, sharing a presentation slide that showed a revamped harbor design with pleasure craft conspicuously absent.

“That was a big give – obviously we could be making a lot more money hosting these big recreational boats than commercial fishing,” Howard admitted.

While the redevelopment plan is still years from fruition (Seaport Village doesn’t lose its lease on the site until 2018 and Driscoll’s Wharf, a second home for the commercial fleet that figures into overall improvement plans, is in the hands of Tom Driscoll through 2022) Howard indicated that, granted approval from the Port, Coastal Commission, and other regulatory bodies, some of the Tuna Harbor improvements could begin sooner, perhaps as early as next year.

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