Port of San Diego, Coastal Commission face off on waterfront project

District and state agency are at odds of whether Portside Pier plans are consistent with state law and master planning.

SAN DIEGO — Controversy is brewing between two of California’s most powerful agencies as the Port of San Diego and California Coastal Commission differ on whether plans to replace an iconic waterfront restaurant with an updated dining establishment are consistent with California’s Coastal Act and port district’s master plan.

The Port of San Diego recently approved conceptual plans to replace Anthony’s Fish Grotto in Downtown San Diego with a newer dining venue (Portside Pier) proposed by The Brigantine, a local restaurateur group.

The Coastal Commission, however, claims the conceptual plan has several inconsistencies with the Coastal Act and Port Master Plan (PMP), including restricted dock use, increased water coverage and parking shortages.

Coastal Commission Chair Dayna Bochco and Commissioner Mary Shallenberger appealed the proposed restaurant project, seeking a dispute resolution on material items of the plan’s legal consistencies.

Commissioners will hear the appeal during their March 8 meeting in Ventura.

Anthony’s Fish Grotto

The Port of San Diego’s Board of Port Commissioners approved conceptual plans to replace a longstanding restaurant on the downtown area Embarcadero with a new restaurant plaza known as Portside Pier. Bringing in Portside Pier’s four dining concepts meant removing Anthony’s Fish Grotto, which first opened its doors in 1946.

Current plans call for Portside Pier to replace the current Anthony’s structure on the eastern bay with new restaurants, dine-and-dock opportunities for boaters and a public viewing dock.

Anthony’s moved to the Embarcadero in the 1960s and signed a 52-year lease with the port district in 1965. The lease expires Dec. 31, 2017, opening the door for the port district to seek other potential vendors to operate the waterfront property at 1360 N. Harbor Drive.

Indeed the port district issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) in May 2015. The Brigantine won the RFP process, gaining the port district’s blessing to redevelop the waterfront property.

The Brigantine beat out five other proposals to redevelop the waterfront property on Harbor Drive. Projected annual revenue for the Portside Pier Restaurant development would be at least $20 million, according to The Brigantine’s proposal.

Other bidders included Sunroad Enterprises and Fish Market Restaurants. The Fish Market proposal would have kept Anthony’s and three other dining establishments at 1360 N. Harbor Drive.

It was the second time in less than five months The Brigantine was selected to replace an iconic San Diego area restaurant with something more modern. The Port of San Diego approved a leasehold sale of Shelter Island’s Red Sails Inn Restaurant to The Brigantine in summer 2016. Red Sails Inn, established at Shelter Island in 1957, officially closed its doors on Aug. 31 and would be replaced with a modern dining concept.

Portside Pier Plans

Portside Pier would be a two-story restaurant redevelopment featuring four dining concepts and three public access amenities.

The planned dining themes are surf-and-turf with oyster bar and lounge (Brigantine on the Bay), California Mexican (Miguel’s Cocina), casual pub fare (Ketch Grill & Taps) and café style serving coffees, espressos and gelatos (Portside Gelato & Coffee).

A dock-and-dine feature highlights Portside Pier’s public amenities; the dock would be able to accommodate up to 12 vessels.

Plans also call for a public walkway area on the bay and a second floor viewing deck.

Other amenities would include bike racks, parking, water taxi coordination and Big Bay Shuttle participation.

Port of San Diego’s selection of The Brigantine

Port district staff conceded Anthony’s had a longtime presence on San Diego’s waterfront but stated a recent market study revealed the area’s real estate was too valuable to maintain the status quo.

“Anthony’s was a longtime operator. However, based on a market study by Jones Lang LaSalle, the site’s highly desirable, irreplaceable location on an overwater platform on the Embarcadero has the potential to be one of the best-performing restaurant leaseholds on tidelands,” port district staff told The Log. “Because of the high profile nature of this site and the end of this long lease, the Board of Port Commissioners felt it was important to test the market and have a competitive process to ensure that its potential is maximized.”

Commissioners selected The Brigantine as the property’s new operator, believing the group presented the best opportunity to maximize the land’s value.

“As a successful local family restaurant developer and operator, The Brigantine proposal demonstrates the best balance of activating the location through increased public access as well as maximizing revenues to the district,” port staff stated.

Water Use Designation

Coastal Commission staff stated the port district’s plans to expand the building and dock footprint of Anthony’s property was not consistent with the PMP’s water use designations.

The current zoning designation, according to the Coastal Commission, states the property’s water use is for ocean-going ships.

“The project includes expansion of both the building and dock footprint into area that is designated as ‘Ship Anchorage’ in the certified PMP. The ‘Ship Anchorage’ water use designation is intended for ocean-going ships to anchor,” Coastal Commission staff stated in a report to commissioners. “Thus, the restaurant use is inconsistent with the existing water use designation and the PMP should have been amended prior to approval of the CDP to change the water use designation from ‘Ship Anchorage’ to the appropriate designation, ‘Commercial Recreation.’”

Water Coverage

Portside Pier, as currently proposed, would increase water coverage, according to Coastal Commission staff. The increase water coverage could be a problem for the local bird habitat, commission staff added.

“Only a portion of the increase in water coverage (2,805 sq. ft.) is associated with the expanded dock, and the remainder (1,675 sq. ft.) is associated with the expanded restaurant building,” Coastal Commission staff pointed out. “The Port has allowed for design modifications such as translucent areas, to be subtracted from the mitigation required for the increase in shading, which do not mitigate the reduction of foraging habitat for birds and is not an appropriate form of mitigation for increased open water coverage.”

Public Access

Coastal Commission staff said the Portside Pier project raised several questions about public access and issues of biological resources and visual quality.

A specific concern is whether there is enough public signage to inform people of the public viewing areas.

“It is unlikely that the public will be aware of these amenities as access to them is only available by entering through the restaurant(s), elevator, or outdoor dining area, instead of an exterior entrance directly connecting from the public promenade to the viewing deck and accessway, and public access signage is limited to three proposed signs that are difficult to see due to their small size (6-inch round sign with “PUBLIC ACCESS” printed on top 3 inches of sign), placement (wall-mounted on building), and color (black/bronze),” Coastal Commission staff stated.

The commission also took exception to the port district’s description of the dock-and-dine option as a public amenity.

“The port represents the associated dock as a public amenity, although use of the dock will be restricted to boaters dining at the facility, which effectively restricts public access and privatizes the dock,” Coastal Commission staff stated in a report to commissioners.

Parking Deficit

The port district stated Portside Pier would include 979 parking spaces for valet services and a shuttle service for employees who park their vehicles at a remote designated lot.

Coastal Commission staff stated The Brigantine’s project was plagued with “a serious parking deficit.”

“Parking for the project was calculated based on the increase in area of the new building compared to the existing structure, which is acceptable when a project consists of minor improvements; however, in this case, the existing structure is being completely demolished and redeveloped with a significantly larger one,” Coastal Commission staff stated. “It is not appropriate to use the existing parking requirement as a baseline because the existing building is pre-coastal and no on- or off-site parking was required as part of the original development.

“Because the project consists of substantial redevelopment and expansion of the existing use, parking should be calculated based on the entire area of the new development,” Coastal Commission staff continued.

Signage

The project’s proposed signage would be “visually obtrusive,” according to the Coastal Commission, potentially establishing a bad precedent for future development along the San Diego waterfront.

“The project includes a large number and size of signs and lights that appear visually obtrusive, especially as they will be visible from both land and water. The proposed complex is not visually compatible with the character of surrounding development, including the Star of India, a historic ship, and the San Diego Maritime Museum,” Coastal Commission staff stated. “Approval [of the Portside Pier project] therefore could set an adverse precedent for redevelopment of the Embarcadero.”

The Coastal Commission’s decision on March 8 probably won’t save Anthony’s from being replaced by Portside Pier. What remains to be seen is whether the replacement project, in the eyes of the Coastal Commission, maintains consistency with the state’s goals of protecting maritime resources and ensuring public access.

Visit cal-span.org to watch the commission’s March 8 meeting, which begins at 9 a.m. The commission’s March 2017 agenda can be viewed here.

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