On the Waterfront

Two weeks ago, former state Senator and current John Moores “senior advisor” Steve Peace and perennial (or is that centennial?) county Supervisor Ron Roberts presented their bayfront dream. The plan is nothing if not ambitious: reconfigure Lindbergh Field by moving the terminals over to Pacific Highway, close off a big hunk of Harbor Drive and create a bayfront promenade of parks and public spaces mixed with complementary commercial enterprises from Shelter Island to National City. One can only applaud any public figures who suggest something approaching comprehensive planning be applied to what has, since the days of Alonzo Horton himself, been the hodge-podge development of the municipal asset that Roberts calls “San Diego’s front porch.”

But it’s what lies behind the plan—the plan for the plan, if you will—that intrigues me. The history of San Diego’s waterfront development over the last decade is a lesson in political pointillism: lots of separate, discrete individual dots that, together, make up a comprehensive image. And if you connect all these dots, the dominant image they create is the logo of a candy company: M&M. Only in this case the two Ms refer to San Diego’s two behemoths of development, John Moores and Douglas Manchester.

Peace sees his initiative as a natural extension of the California Independent Voter Project that he spearheads (with a helpful infusion of John Moores’ money.) The primary interest of the CIVP, Peace says, is to stem the tide of increasing voter disengagement. Peace blames voter blasé on, as he puts it, “the binary world” of negative political posturing that has replaced civic dialogue in recent decades. Peace recently told me that, in his view, the whole purpose of the bayfront initiative is to try to develop a citywide (indeed, regionwide) positive dialogue on a critical civic issue—the waterfront—and then measure if such a positive dialogue can, in fact, improve citizen engagement. Thus one way of looking at the Peace-Roberts initiative is a sort of political-science experiment writ very large.

But this is Steve Peace we’re talking about here: a man with a history of good intentions that have, on occasion, initiated events that have quickly grown beyond their initiator’s controls. Like energy deregulation that became the Enron fiasco and the San Diego Airport Authority that spawned the waste of public time—and monies—that was the Miramar initiative.

And now the Peace and Roberts initiative, however nobly inspired, is stirring up the always-troubled port waters with possibly unforeseen consequences. One of these seems to be the potential—if not the reality—of increased friction between the two biggest players in downtown San Diego.

Moores and Manchester are the two biggest-league players in the San Diego municipal ballgame. Indeed, with the passing of the matriarchy of Joan Kroc and Helen Copley, they are the new heads of a San Diego patriarchy, the crown princes of civic leadership and philanthropy.

Manchester came on the San Diego scene the old-fashion way, working his way up from humble local origins, building a real-estate empire project by project over the last four decades. Moores’ rise is more endemic of the modern route to wealth, riding the new wave of high-tech money in the 1980s and converting it into a real-estate empire in the 1990s and ’00s.

The two men have many similarities. Both are family men (score: Manchester 5, Moores 4). Both are nationally renowned philanthropists (though Moores wins this match-up having made some of the largest public university donations in U.S. history.) And both have been the dominant players on the San Diego waterfront for the last decade or three. On that score, though, Moores is the latecomer to the majors. Manchester built his waterfront empire in true monopoly fashion, assembling contiguous properties and building hotels on each one. Moores built his on the transformation of East Village, which flowed from his quest for a new home for his newly acquired Padres.

And therein lies another similarity between the two men. At the core of both their empires are major civic projects around which their private developments could flourish: the San Diego Convention Center for Manchester, Petco Park for Moores, with each man being a prime booster of the public projects that would, in turn, boost their own prosperity.

So how did San Diego’s titan twins end up in potential conflict? The two magnates co-existed peacefully enough in the 1990s. Like multimillionaire versions of Germany and Russia back in 1939, they maintained a cordial development détente, dividing up downtown into spheres of influence like a municipal Poland. Manchester focused on building out his waterfront holdings around the convention center while Moores did the same around Petco. But their two zones rubbed right up against each other on Harbor Drive. And where there’s rubbing, there’s friction.

In 1999, the two men became embroiled in a convoluted tussle over the Campbell shipyard property. Located right next to the convention center, it was the natural site for Manchester to next expand into. But Moores’ JMI Realty had already entered into a preliminary agreement with the Port District to build a hotel on the property. Then the Port District deselected JMI and switched award of the project to the Manchester Financial Group. A JMI spokesman at the time said that JMI’s only interest in the property was to get a hotel built on the site to generate transit occupancy tax revenues needed to offset financial obligations generated by Petco Park. But the series of legal and environmental hassles that followed ultimately resulted in the Port of San Diego paying Manchester a hefty $5 million (including a $3 million profit) to buy out his interests in the development deal. Meanwhile the hotel project remained derailed and the TOT dollars desired by JMI never materialized. Neither man was reported to be particularly pleased with the matter.

M&M may be generating friction again, this time over differing views of developing the waterfront north of the convention center. Manchester has focused his energies in recent years on two key projects: development of Lane Field and redevelopment of the Navy Broadway Complex. The Peace/Roberts vision would, if adopted, significantly impact Manchester’s plan and even cancel large portions of it. At a minimum, simply starting this new dialogue, as Peace calls it, has the potential to stir up a hornet’s nest of public action and “dialogue” that could bog down Manchester’s projects for years. As a man self-described as given to emotion, this cannot be a prospect that’s easy to swallow. Manchester was being unusually understated when he complained to Voice of San Diego that he wished “Ron and Steve would have come to us a year ago, before spending $3.8 million and going through the 28 public hearings.”

All of this could result in a win-win situation for Messieurs Manchester and Moores, of course. Manchester has a penchant for making lots of money even off of failed development projects by suing public entities—in addition to the port settlement, he got $2.2 million from the city of Oceanside over a development deal gone south. Litigious lawyers must even now be salivating at the thoughts of the size of the settlements Manchester might muster over the even bigger Navy and Lane Field projects.

Moreover, it can be certain that Manchester will be able to secure a lucrative slice of whatever development opportunities the Peace/Roberts “dialogue” might generate. And Moores can clear a spot on his shelf for the kudos he’ll receive for being a visionary force in creating a livable San Diego waterfront for generations of San Diegans to come.

Peace strenuously points out that he and Roberts are acting without overt collusion with Moores. (Though he does say the whole idea for the waterfront initiative came about over a breakfast between “four old white guys”—himself, Roberts, Moores and the project’s conceptual architect.) Moreover, he denies that their plan will maim Manchester in any way. Peace, in other words, comes in peace.

Peace also points out that Moores’ interests downtown are altruistic. Yes, Moores lives downtown and has extensive business holdings there, but, Peace says, he has moved into his Bono phase of life, more interested in philanthropic projects like AIDS and stem-cell research than getting involved in a big, downtown imbroglio.

But therein may lay the rub. To Moores, San Diego is a nice place to live and rake in a few extra tens of millions from real estate and sports ventures—all the better monies to give away in his new role in life as a global philanthropist. But “Papa Doug” Manchester takes a more paternal view toward his San Diego projects. He doesn’t just live in San Diego; his entire business identity is San Diego. His San Diego projects are, in their own way, his professional children. And Moores, directly or indirectly, unintentionally or not, is messing with two of Manchester’s babies.

Thus on this, Valentine’s Day, it would seem there is little love to be lost between M&M down on the tangled political turf of the San Diego waterfront.

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