Doubling down on a mission to connect public transportation to the airport, San Diego’s mayor and the county’s transit chief have landed on a 71-acre, airport- and freeway-adjacent site that they see as the region’s utopian transit hub of tomorrow.
Friday, Hasan Ikhrata, the newly installed executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments, will tell his board at their regular monthly meeting that he wants to move swiftly to try and secure the Naval Base Point Loma, Old Town Complex — more commonly recognized as the SPAWAR property — as part of an ambitious plan to create a Grand Central Station that also includes housing and commercial space.
“This could be one of the biggest economic development opportunities; (one of the) most advanced transportation systems to access an airport,” Ikhrata said in an interview with the Union-Tribune that also included Mayor Kevin Faulconer. “And we’d do it in such a way that if you want to take transit (to the airport), it would be as convenient as, if not more convenient than, a car.”
Specifics are slim, but the early plan, as outlined by Ikhrata and strongly advocated for by Faulconer, would combine the SPAWAR land with the existing Old Town Transit Center to create a 120-acre, mixed-use development. That project would be theoretically funded by multiple regional agencies and developed through a public-private partnership. As envisioned, the Grand Central transit hub would sit at the nexus of a larger project (with to-be-determined housing and office elements), and bring together all current and future rail options. Included in the hub would be a people mover to shuttle commuters to and from San Diego International Airport’s two terminals, Ikhrata said.
It’s a grand machination that hinges around several unknowns — and obstacles. Before answering the omnipresent question of who’s going to pay for what, SANDAG must first take a stab at getting the land. It’s not the only party eyeing the attractive SPAWAR property, which is about 2.5 miles from downtown and 3.5 miles from the airport.
Owned by the government since 1995, the Naval Base Point Loma, Old Town Complex is currently home to the military’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, and the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific. Though the World War II-era hangers were designed to make combat aircraft, the groups are now using them for lab space, storage, warehousing and administration, and many of the buildings are in disrepair with sewage problems, leaky roofs and ground contaminants.
As such, the Navy would like an all-new base better suited to its present-day needs. And, just like it did with its Broadway Complex more than a decade ago, it’s looking to the private sector to get what it wants. In September, the Navy issued what’s called a “Request for Interest” as a way to gauge interest from the developer community, which has until Jan. 18 to respond. The RFI acts as a precursor to soliciting competitive bids.
In sum, the RFI spells out that the federal agency would like to lease the entire site to a developer on a long-term basis in exchange for a new, (rent-free) 1.5 million square-foot Navy facility also on the site. It’s a potentially hot development prospect, as evidenced by the 208 people who attended the Navy’s November industry forum and tour of the property. Prominent developers Cisterra, Irvine Company, and Lankford & Associates were among the 89 firms represented at the event.
"The Navy is expecting a significant number of industry responses for this prime real estate opportunity,” said Jay Delarosa, a public affairs director with the Navy Region Southwest. “After reviewing the responses to its request, the Navy expects to determine a way forward by March 31, 2019.”
That means SANDAG’s proposal, when submitted next week, will go head-to-head with others that could give the Navy more of what it wants. What that looks like remains to be determined, but Delarosa said SANDAG will not be getting special treatment during the process.
Separately, Ikhrata’s Grand Central vision won’t get off the ground without universal support from the airport, the Port of San Diego and other regional agencies, all of which need to literally buy into the likely billion-dollar-plus project.
“This is not going to be inexpensive — no visionary plan is — but it's not going to get less expensive if we wait,” Faulconer said. “We need to think big. We need a bold vision that is going to work for this region for decades to come and is going to finally get us the transportation hub we need.”
Discussed for decades, the notion of an airport transit center was once again thrust into the spotlight last year with the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority’s planned expansion of Terminal 1. The agency’s draft environmental impact report was highly criticized by local leaders, who felt the airport wasn’t adequately addressing public transit alternatives for getting to the airport.
The mayor has since taken the lead on corralling representatives from agencies across the county to clear the air and come to an agreement on airport transit. His initial December summit morphed into a new group called the Airport Connectivity Subcommittee, which held its first meeting last week.
The committee, chaired by SANDAG’s board leader Steve Vaus, consists of members from the airport, the port, the city, the county, the Navy, Caltrans, San Diego Metropolitan Transit System and the North County Transit District. The group was briefed on the Grand Central proposal at its Jan. 3 meeting.
“It’s a new idea,” said Kimberly Becker, who is the CEO of the airport and attended the meeting. “From the airport’s perspective, we’re just pleased that the discussion is gaining momentum. Finally, everybody is talking together and has the same objective to find some kind of regional (airport transit) solution.”