By Frank Gormlie / OB Rag
There are gray storms brewing over Mission Bay – or rather over the future of Mission Bay. And in particular, over the future of the northeast corner of Mission Bay, the largest aquatic park on the West Coast.
In a nutshell, there are conflicting visions over what should happen to the area at issue between the City of San Diego’s development plans versus what is envisioned by environmentalists, led by the San Diego Audubon Society.
Because of a confluence of changes to the northeast corner of Mission Bay, the future uses and development of it are now up for grabs. In some sense, it’s an all-too-familiar classic stand-off between the forces fighting to develop every corner of available land with those trying to preserve and enlarge the natural sections.
The City has proposed a series of options that include developing playing fields, campgrounds, open spaces for festivals, water sports areas, children’s playgrounds, a restaurant cluster in the former Visitors’ Center, along with piers, sand volleyball courts, skate parks, community gardens, bridges, boardwalks and tunnels for cars.
Meanwhile, the Audubon Society has stepped in – creating its ReWild Mission Bay campaign – and has crafted three options of its own, all with the emphasis to restore the wetlands, to improve water quality, reduce flooding, adapt to climate change, and support fish, birds, other animals and plants, plus protect wetlands from the negative impacts of human activity, and provide community engagement with the enlarged natural resources via access, recreation, and education.
A central theme of ReWild Mission Bay is the need for more marshlands – or wetlands – to help mitigate the effects of coastal sea level rise, and given the estimates of a 2-foot sea level rise by 2050, it is necessary to expand the acreage of those marshlands of northeast Mission Bay. (This estimate, by the way, is relied upon by the California Coastal Commission.)
Some say it’s a once in a 50-year opportunity – this confluence of changes. How did all of this come about?
In the immediate sense, the storm is about the future of an estimated 210 acres. These include:
- the 76-acre mobile home park on De Anza Point
- the 50-acre Campland on the Bay site,
- the 46-acre Mission Bay golf course,
- and the 40 acres of remaining marshland in the park known as the Kendall-Frost Marsh.
After decades of litigation, the city was finally successful in forcing out the inhabitants of the mobile home park at De Anza. The opening up of this land is naturally no a surprise to city planners. With the upcoming expiration of Campland at the Bay’s lease in 2018, and with an icy reception by people in Pacific Beach over the golf course remaining, the city began making plans.
Now, the 210 acres of the northeast corner is a tiny fraction – less than 3% – of the entire 4,500 acres of Mission Bay, which, of course, was originally a huge estuary of the San Diego River – all wetlands and marshes. When the Spanish first arrived, they called it “Baia Falsa” – False Bay – because the water level was so shallow.
Beginning in the 1940s after World War II and into the Sixties, the city aggressively dredged Mission Bay in order to manufacture a gigantic water park. It made islands, where there was none – like Fiesta Island – with the dredging. Also during much of that time, the southern rim of Mission Bay was used as a domestic and industrial waste dump (the area just east of SeaWorld and north of the River).
It took some decades for San Diegans to come to value the natural aspects of the Bay, but in 1994, the Mission Bay Park Master Plan was updated to prioritize preserving and restoring nature.
Now, the debate continues.
In late November of 2016, the City unveiled 3 proposals for the future of the 120 acres, which included the restaurant cluster, a combination of recreational amenities already mentioned and some restored marshland.
Each of the proposals call for playing fields, campgrounds, festival open spaces, water sports areas, children’s playgrounds and a restaurant cluster. Also, each one has a strip of restored marshland. Where the city’s proposals differ is whether De Anza Point is kept intact or separated into small islands, and whether the golf course is expanded, revamped or replaced with a small golf practice area.
The City contends that it decided years ago that the Campland RV resort would be turned into a restored marshland, once the lease expires next year. And the golf course was put on the table after PB community leaders complained of the costs of irrigation water and that it wasn’t environmentally-friendly while only a small group of people utilized the course.
Criticism of the city’s proposals was swift. Rebecca Schwartz, the Audubon Society’s point person on Mission Bay and director of conservation, also served on the City’s planning committee for the park, had a pointed reaction. She said there was not enough marshland in the proposals, that they were shortsighted economically, and didn’t reflect public input over the last year at workshops and community meetings. Schwartz told the press:
“We heard three main desires from the public — community-oriented recreation, space for camping and habitat restoration — and all of their plans focus on the first two and give barely a nod to habitat restoration.
“We were expecting more of a range, sort of the environmental option, the camping option and the recreation option.It’s basically the same puzzle pieces that they’ve moved around a little bit, but they are remarkably similar.”
Schwartz’s argument is that if the marshlands aren’t restored sufficiently to help mitigate and absorb a long-term sea-level rise in Mission Bay Park then the aquatic playground which draws thousands of locals and visitors every year will not continue to be a huge revenue source for the city.
She maintains that the more wetlands that are restored, the more bird watchers and nature lovers will visit, and the cleaner the water is, the more visitors will swim and participate in other water sports. This is no small vision as the water of East Mission Bay has been historically the most polluted in the park.
Last September, Rewild Mission Bay, the campaign by the San Diego chapter of the Audubon Society, was unveiled – then it included 8 scenarios for the northeast corner. Then just over a month ago, in late April, ReWild released three revised proposals that all included more wetlands, mainly due to sea level rise.
ReWild’s 3 options propose between 164 and 240 acres of marshland, acreage that will substantially be reduced over the decades by the rise of the sea. The California Coastal Commission predicts a rise of two feet by 2050 and an increase of five-and-a-half feet by 2100.
Each of the Rewild proposals call for roughly 90 acres for recreation but do not identify any recreational amenities. They do call for the marsh areas to be “bordered by more nature-based recreation, such as trails, overlooks, picnic areas, kayaking, tent camping and nature photography. They recommend more intense activities be located farther away.”
Schwartz of the Audubon Society said:
“When you’re zooming into the northeast corner it can look like a lot. But when you take a step back, you realize what a small portion of the bay we are talking about. It’s more a nod to the history of Mission Bay than a full-scale transformation.”
She added that expanding the marshland was necessary to achieve the goal of the Mission Bay Park Master Plan for 120 acres of marshland — which would include the Kendall Frost Marsh and another 80 acres.
The City will issue revised proposals, based on public feedback, in June. The goal is to decide on a proposal in 2017, do an environmental analysis, and garner final approval from the City Council and the Coastal Commission possibly in 2019.
No one knows the price tags on any of the proposals – but obviously millions would have to be spent. City voters, however, approved Measure J last November, which boosted potential funding sources by clinching an estimated $1.5 billion for San Diego’s regional parks from lease revenues in Mission Bay Park.
How and when the storm clouds over Mission Bay clear up is still unknown. The future of Mission Bay hinges on which vision – or compromise – is selected.
It’s not too late for more public input. Schwartz of the Audubon Society said:
“There’s still plenty of time for people to get involved and make their opinions known. Nothing is set in stone.”
For details, visit ReWild Mission Bay or deanzarevitalizationplan.com.
Did you know?
Marshland filters carbon dioxide from the air, boosts the quality of water that passes through, and can act as a sponge to mitigate rising sea levels expected as ongoing climate change accelerates.
Marshes, sometimes called wetlands, are also crucial to the survival of many migratory birds that connect marine life with land-based animals and plants.
“Mission Bay started its life as a 4,500-acre estuary complex at the mouth of the San Diego River. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the City of San Diego dredged most of the wetlands to transform the bay into the recreational destination we see today. At the time, the importance of wetlands to our coastal communities wasn’t well understood. Now we know better,” says Schwartz. “In 1994, the Mission Bay Park Master Plan was updated to prioritize preserving and restoring nature. This project is guided by that document and community input.