Big changes coming to San Diego’s Seaport Village

All up and down the California coast, cities are undergoing some major changes, including at the very southernmost border. San Diego’s downtown cityscape has changed significantly in the last decade. A major revitalization of downtown East Village began with the opening of Petco Park in 2004. The Central Library, designed by nationally recognized local architect Rob Quigley, was erected in 2010, and rises among an ever-increasing number of loft buildings and skyscrapers that are a far cry from the shopping malls that were the main attraction of downtown San Diego for a long time.

Now, a set of local architects and developers are redesigning another key part of downtown San Diego – the waterfront.

Seaport Village is an iconic tourist destination that belies its mere 37 years of age. It sits on a prime morsel of real estate stretching several miles along the harbor facing Coronado Island, just at the southern edge of downtown.

“I don’t think there’s a better site – I’d say in the world – than what we’re dealing with right here.”

Yehudi Gaffen is a San Diego-based developer whose company, Protea Waterfront Development, won the Port of San Diego’s competition to redevelop the San Diego Waterfront last year. He plans to construct $1.2 billion dollars’ worth of hotels, an aquarium designed by hotshot architect Bjarke Ingels, offices, a 500-foot observation tower, a science institute, and 30 acres of parks and open spaces. The new San Diego Waterfront will include high-end retail, restaurants, and a public beach. The idea, Gaffen says, is for it to be uniquely “San Diego.”

“It’s pretty much going to be about the San Diego lifestyle and trying to represent that physically in terms of the buildings, the public space, the places. The focus on health and wellness. The outdoors. Our weather, etc. So it’s going to be creating a “there” that isn’t there right now.”

The problem is, that there is a “there” there right now. A place beloved by locals and tourists alike, or so it would seem on a regular Sunday stroll through the existing, bustling Seaport Village.

“I like it the way it is… it’s a landmark, it’s historical,” say Summer and Laura, two women pushing a stroller up and down the boardwalk along the water.

“Now it’s perfect! You don’t have to do anything to it!” say Glen and Gloria, an out-of-town couple who says they visit Seaport Village every time they’re in San Diego. They also ask, “Is everything going to get more expensive?”

Asked what they think of the renovations, a visiting couple from Boston say, “it’d lose a lot of its character if you took that down.”

The character they’re talking about is evident throughout Seaport Village. Wooden cottage-like souvenir shops sell all kinds of knick-knacks, from kites to engraved wooden toys to personalized mugs. Cobblestoned Spanish colonial-themed food courts sell burgers, ice cream, hot dogs, and burritos. The song from the carousel rings out through the low trees dotting the edge of the water. Families sit along the low wall bordering the boardwalk, listening to the lapping of the waves and taking pictures. A cargo ship’s horn resonates from across the harbor; jet skis zoom by the kids flying kites at the park near the water.

It’s one of the few places along the Harbor that doesn’t necessarily require any money to access, assuming one avoids the shops and restaurants.

Some San Diego locals aren’t as nostalgic about the place as those strolling its streets on a Sunday afternoon. The architect, or as he describes himself, “urban conceptualist,” of the new project is Frank Wolden, of a company called AVRP/ Skyport. Like the developers, he is a longtime San Diego resident, and he feels differently about Seaport Village. He recalls when it was first built:

“All of the architects and planners hated it because they thought it was a little contrived village on the waterfront that was not a part of an urban scene that was created… it looked like a little New England fishing village.”

Seaport San Diego would include an observation tower, hotels, aquarium and expanded commercial fishing marina. (AVRP Studios)

And so modernizing that New England look and redeveloping the Village has become the next step in the decades-long revitalization of downtown San Diego. The new plan calls for an extension of downtown’s streets in to Seaport Village, which is currently blocked off by a set of parking lots in true Southern-California style. Wolden hopes that focusing on making it more city-like will encourage pedestrians and bike riders to access what will become a more integrated corner of San Diego. Wolden and Gaffen also envision establishing what would become an iconic starting point to the Pacific Coast Highway within the Village. This would, in a very romantic way, connect San Diego to the rest of the California coast.

But the transition has been difficult for some local business owners to accept, not least because of the uncertainty brought on by the renovation. Lila Abed grew up in San Diego. Her mother owns the independent bookstore in Seaport Village called Upstart Crow. It’s at the edge of the village, past a quaint wooden bridge that spans a very well-populated duck pond.

“I think that part of the charm here at Seaport Village is the fact that it’s kind of old… and the fact that it’s very hard nowadays to find places that are as cozy and as historic as Seaport Village. And so I think that a lot of us are, you know, a little bit sad about the new development. But you know, that’s modernity for you!”

The bookstore has a coffee shop, live music, and readings. Abed runs a vegan food stand in front of the store. Some of her fellow shop owners mobilized against the redevelopment last year. They created a group called Save Seaport Village with the slogan “It will take a village to save our Village!”

Tuna Harbor in the foreground would included enhanced facilities for commercial fishing as part of the Seaport Village redevelopment plan. In the background is a proposed observation tower. (AVRP Studios)

But Protea Waterfront Development campaigned to win them over. Yehudi Gaffen says that when the Port District approved Protea’s project last year, they saw an outpouring of support from “downtown residents, fishermen, Seaport Village tenants, people involved in blue-tech, you know, aquaculture. So it was a really broad cross-section of the community.”

Gaffen is particularly proud of working with the waterfront’s fishermen so that his redevelopment continues to support their commercial enterprise. In April of this year, however, the Port of San Diego proposed a Port Master Plan Update designating the tuna fishing harbor a “mixed use” zone, which threatens the livelihood of the fishermen.

Frank Wolden says that, ultimately, the development team is not out to destroy any of the charm of the existing waterfront. Rather, the project wants to update the Village so that it’s befitting of a new, “more urbanistic” city. He says they “embraced the spirit” of the current Seaport Village, but Wolden struggled not to describe it as a “more upscale” version: “…[we’re figuring out] how we could create new versions of the kinds of experiences – you know, new, probably more upscale – well, not necessarily upscale – but more kind of urbanistic, big-city versions of those same kinds of experiences. So that we can have a bigger, more urbanistic place that serves the city as it is today, but still have a connection to what people liked about Seaport Village.”

In the meantime, the shop owners seem to be in a state of limbo. The Port did not renew the lease for the current managing company of Seaport Village, TRC, and announced in June that it would solicit proposals from companies that would want to take over for the interim period between now and the renovation. According to Gaffen, who spoke to KCRW in April, Protea Waterfront Development hoped to take over the lease themselves.

Abed, whose mother runs the bookstore explained: “We were going to close [the bookstore] and we had an outpour from all of our customers that we couldn’t close because, again, it’s a historic bookstore, and a lot of the stores here in Seaport Village are.” She says that Seaport Village and the developers worked with the shop owners, and her family decided to keep the Upstart Crow open until September of 2018. “But after that, it’s sort of unsure what is going to happen, you know?”

It could still be a decade before the community sees changes. Mother Nature might stall the project; an earthquake fault was discovered underneath Seaport Village that might prompt an entire redesign of the project, should the fault line be young enough to be considered active. That means it would have to be under 11,000 years old.