San Diego Business Journal

Developer Halts Project to Listen to Community Input
Development: Pacifica Cos. Rethinks Mid-Bayfront Design

BY MANDY JACKSON
Staff Writer

CHULA VISTA , It's not uncommon for developers and environmentalists to disagree, but it's not every day a developer stops the growing momentum of a big project so it can hear what they have to say about it.

That's just what San Diego-based Pacifica Cos. Inc. is doing with its 126-acre project slated for Chula Vista's Mid-Bayfront. The developer entered into a one-year exclusive negotiating agreement with the city in April and has been forming its plans for two years.

The yearlong agreement between the city and Pacifica is on hold while public input is being gathered. Normally, the public process would come at the end of the city's review of the project.

"It's very unusual, but I think it's a good thing to do," said Chris Salomone, Chula Vista's community development director.

The decision was a practical one. Ash Israni, the president and CEO of Pacifica, said the company wants to come up with a plan that will please the environmentalists and be economically feasible.

"We decided it was better to do it now rather than go forward and revise the plans. It will save us time in the long run and money in the long run," Israni said.

Pacifica has been planning for 3,400 housing units (condominiums, townhomes and apartments), three mid-rise hotels and some retail and office space. Israni said about half the site will be left as open space.

On Dec. 7, environmentalists, including representatives of the Environmental Health Coalition, and residents convened at Chula Vista High School to express their concerns.

Attendees wanted to make sure natural habitats and public spaces were preserved. Some were also concerned about additional traffic on local highways.

Lower Density

The Mid-Bayfront is bounded on the north by the Sweetwater National Wildlife Refuge, and on the west by San Diego Bay and additional land set aside for wildlife. To the south is a saltwater marsh area that is also environmentally sensitive. To the east is a small amount of property owned by San Diego Gas and Electric Co., Metropolitan Transit Development Board railroads and Interstate 5.

The land is owned by Chula Vista Capital, an overseas investor, according to Israni. He said Pacifica has an option to buy the land.

Israni said Pacifica's plans will be changed for sure, but he doesn't yet know how drastic the changes will be.

When Israni addressed the workshop, he said, "We decided we were going too fast."

He added, "We're contemplating coming back with a lower density project that everyone can support."

The developer is asking for the city's park standards to be relaxed. Israni said Pacifica wants to get credit for its plans for open space.

He said the developer wants to get the project through the city on a fast-track priority, in order to get started on burying utility cables. Pacifica also wants to look at public subsidies to support a lower density development, Israni said.

Updating Previous Plan

During the workshop, Salomone explained the bayfront's history. In the early 1980s, 300 acres were set aside for the wildlife preserve and additional land was set aside for other habitats. At the time, 126 acres were deemed suitable for development.

In 1992, a high density, mixed-use project designed by Jon Jerde, the architect that designed Horton Plaza in Downtown San Diego, was approved. Salomone said the project was never developed because it was not economically feasible, but it became the local coastal plan that is in effect for the site today.

County Supervisor Greg Cox was on Chula Vista's city council from 1976 to 1981 and served as mayor from 1981 to 1990. Cox said discussions of developing the bayfront go back to before his election to the council.

"My greatest disappointment was the fact that we didn't make more progress on the Chula Vista bayfront," he said.

However, Cox added, he is proud that the first development there was the Chula Vista Nature Center, which opened in 1987.

Land to the south of the Mid-Bayfront is owned by the San Diego Unified Port District. The southern portion of the port's land is home to Charlotte, N.C.-based Goodrich Corp.'s aerostructures unit, which inhabits a campus south of F Street.

The city and the Port District recently began a two-year process of master-planning the port-owned land.

The port is prohibited by state law from building housing on its land, which means the Mid-Bayfront is the only site on the bay in Chula Vista where housing can be built.

Because the Mid-Bayfront project has been put on hold, Israni said it is uncertain when construction will be able to start. The developer had hoped to begin construction in 2003, but now it looks like that won't happen, he said.

"The city's embarked on this process and I think it's a good one," Cox said. "(They're) only going to have one opportunity to do it right. So (they) better get it right the first time."

Another public workshop is planned Jan. 11. The workshop findings will be presented at a joint meeting of the Chula Vista City Council, acting as its Redevelopment Agency, and the city's planning commission in February.