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--the California "Mega-Park" Project

Tracking measurable success on efforts across California to preserve and connect our Parks & Wildlife Corridors



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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

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Chula Vista Wetland Restoration Hinges on 1500 Condos and Shopping Center


http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20071009/news_1m9pacifica.html

Developer is working on bayfront land swap
By Tanya Mannes
STAFF WRITER, San Diego Union-Tribune


October 9, 2007

CHULA VISTA – San Diego-based Pacifica Cos., which has been working since 2000 on a plan to build condos and at least one hotel on the Chula Vista bayfront, has agreed to scale down the project and move it to a new site – across from the Chula Vista Marina – to protect wetlands.

Permits are still years away, but company President Ash Israni said he is encouraged by the progress made in discussions with the Port of San Diego, environmental groups and labor unions.

Israni holds an option to develop 97 acres near a wildlife preserve. He hopes to swap that for 32 acres owned by the port and build a “walkable neighborhood” of 1,500 condos, a 250-room hotel and 450,000 square feet of commercial and office space.

“What we want to do is a 24-7 type of community that is active, vibrant and environmentally sensitive,” Israni said. “You have to make sure that everything is agreeable and everybody likes what I'm doing.”

Public attention has focused on Gaylord Entertainment's plan for a hotel and convention center on the Chula Vista bayfront. Fewer people have heard of Pacifica, which is the other big private-sector player in the 550-acre Chula Vista Bayfront Master Plan. Both companies intend to invest more than $700 million each in their projects.

The Port of San Diego is working on an environmental impact report for the master plan area. Permits are at least two years away for Tennessee-based Gaylord and three years away for Pacifica.

Israni got involved in the bayfront master planning process years before Gaylord arrived on the scene.

“But we've been very low-key about it,” Israni said. “A lot of people don't know who Pacifica is.”

Pacifica is a $2 billion asset company with a portfolio of condos and apartments throughout the United States and India. One project is in Imperial Beach, where Israni is seeking permission to build a resort on the Seacoast Inn site.

Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox said she's aware of “very general” information about Pacifica's plans but has not seen any design renderings. She noted that the Citizens Advisory Committee for the bayfront envisioned housing as an important component of the master plan.

In 2002, before she was elected mayor, Cox worked as a consultant for Pacifica on an issue involving National City's hotel tax. In 1996, she worked with Pacifica to help it get a more visible sign for its Holiday Inn Express in Chula Vista.

If the land swap is approved, Pacifica would begin a one-year process of seeking coastal development permits. The Chula Vista Redevelopment Corp. will have the authority to approve them.

Chris Lewis, chairman of the Chula Vista Redevelopment Corp., remembers Pacifica from his work on the Citizens Advisory Committee but said he hasn't heard much since.

“I know very little about it,” Lewis said. “They kind of took a back seat when we started working on Gaylord.”

Gaylord got involved in the Chula Vista bayfront planning process in 2004. The national company hopes to build a hotel with up to 2,000 rooms and a 400,000-square-foot convention center. In July, the company reached an impasse with labor unions and for a time said it would drop the project.

So far, Israni has managed to avoid a combative relationship with labor unions. Pacifica has begun preliminary talks with the San Diego County Building & Construction Trades Council, the union that butted heads with Gaylord. Israni said the talks have been “very cordial, very friendly.”

Israni has also taken steps to appease environmentalists who objected to his 2002 plan for 3,400 condos and three hotels for the site bound by wetlands. He has scaled back the project and accepted the idea of a complicated land swap.

To help build alliances, Israni hired former Mayor Steve Padilla's coastal/environmental coordinator, Allison Rolfe, as the project coordinator. Rolfe served on the Citizens Advisory Committee for about two years before joining Padilla's staff in September 2005.

This year, Rolfe helped Pacifica reach a tentative pact with local environmental groups, including the Environmental Health Coalition and the San Diego Audubon Society, to not oppose the project. Israni agreed to build a “green” project that would meet national standards for nature-friendly design. He also agreed to contribute an estimated $7.5 million into a new community benefit foundation for affordable housing, natural resources protection, environmental education and other projects. The agreement is not yet signed.

The land swap will require approval from the port and then from the State Lands Commission. The bayfront master plan will also go to the Chula Vista City Council and the California Coastal Commission. The earliest the plan could clear all hurdles is mid-2009, according to the port's timeline.

Israni said he never anticipated that the project would take this long.

“It has been a real trying project for me. I would never take on a project like this again,” he said. “But we are so far into it that it has become a challenge I need to pursue.”

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