Fixing San Diego Bay (Part Two): The Bayside Skyway

With several projects being proposed or completed over the last several years, there has been a lot of talk in San Diego about improving our bay front.  Now, the Port of San Diego is soliciting proposals to redo Seaport Village and parts of Harbor Island.  Adding these two huge pieces of the puzzle to the mix provides a prime opportunity to really think about how we want our city to meet the bay.  I've decided to take a crack at some of it.

The first part of my plan involves Seaport Village and remains the same as I discussed last year.  Please go read that post for the details, but the general idea is to create a "beer beach" at Seaport Village, with an actual sandy beach on the bay, a brewing incubator to help highlight and grow our craft brewing industry, and residential housing covering the existing Seaport Village parking lots.

I stand by that plan, but want to add one point.  When making its decisions regarding land use on the bay, the Port of San Diego often strives to maximize revenue for the land that it leases.  The Commissioners aren't maximizing revenue to line their pockets: the Port holds the land in public trust.  Instead, their approach is to lease land to maximize revenue to have the most money possible to build and maintain public parks and to pay for environmental mitigation.

This is a laudable goal and I don't fault the Port with taking this general approach.  But I do think that the goal of maximizing revenue to build parks can lead the Port astray if it becomes the sole criteria.  There doesn't need to be a black and white decision between "non-public" commercial use and "public" parks.  Parks are nice if they are done right, but few grassy parks can compete with a thriving public plaza lined with beneficial commercial uses when it comes to creating great public spaces.  Perhaps, the best use for some of the Port land is to create a public-friendly commercial zone that sacrifices some revenue generation to achieve the goal of public use.  I think my beer beach idea does just that.

Now, what's Part Two?  Stringing together our bayside jewels.  In response to a Union-Tribune editorial, Howard Blackson explained on twitter that "We need a plan to make a continuous path around the bay with as many city connections as possible to create various activity nodes."  He then translated this plannerspeak statement into wanting a "continuous ribbon . . . studded with jewels."  I don't always agree with Howard, but I think he is right here.

We actually have a lot of great "jewels" already along the Bay, or at least diamonds in the rough.  From the Convention Center to Seaport Village to the Midway Museum to Broadway Pier to the Waterfront Park to Harbor Island to the Airport to Liberty Station and on to Shelter Island, we have a lot of "activity nodes."  And you can actually mostly walk from each of those to the next on a continuous pedestrian path along the bay.  The biggest problem is that such a walk would take a couple hours.  Doable, but not likely to be a common occurrence.  Especially a round trip.

So what do I propose?  Let's literally string up those jewels with an aerial tram skyway.  Here's the rough sketch of a route:


Ron Roberts at SANDAG has already proposed a Skyway route along Sixth Avenue from near the Convention Center to Balboa Park.  A lot of people scoffed at the plan, and it's easy to see it would mostly be used by a few tourists.  But a feasibility study found it could be built quickly, cheaply, and actually generate a profit.  Sixth Avenue is pretty and all, but I wouldn't call it scenic.  But you know what is scenic?  Gliding through the air along our beautiful bay.  Imagine flying over the bay itself, with downtown on one side and the bay and ocean on the other.  Excuse the hyperbole, but it would be breathtaking.

I suggest stations at the Convention Center, Seaport Village, the Waterfront Park, Harbor Island/Airport, and Liberty Station.  It would take about 20 minutes to get from the Convention Center on one end to Liberty Station on the other end.  If it proves to be a success, it could be extended down the coast as well.

What does this solve?  First, it strings together our bay front attractions.  Someone could visit the Public Market in Liberty Station and then hop on down to the Midway Museum for the afternoon.  Or a convention goer could head over to Little Italy for lunch, all without needing a car.  It could also be used to go to a Padres Game.  Connect with the Roberts Skyway and you can now visit nearly all of San Diego's main attractions without a car.  Perhaps Ron Roberts can get the County to fund this with its buckets of cash just sitting around, waiting to be spent.

Also, it can provide a public transportation link to the airport.  I can think of no better introduction to San Diego than to walk out of the airport terminal, onto a gondola, and across the bay to downtown.  Even as a local I would love that trip.  The trip would only take about 10 minutes from the airport to downtown, where you can then continue on to the Convention Center or hop onto the trolley in Little Italy.

Now, there are a few problems with this plan.  In downtown, it closely follows the trolley line, which makes it somewhat redundant.  But although the trolley is geographically close, Harbor Drive is a huge visual and mental barrier. 

And I am sure the airport would love to object to this (although the towers are only about 80 feet tall, less than half the height of the County Administration Center, and outside the flight path).  But I think that with a strong political will, it could happen and it would be awesome.

I am sure there are plenty of people who would say it is ugly.  But if done right, we could make the towers into beautiful bayside sculptures.  Prohibit advertising on the gondolas themselves and they could be floating jewels shining in the sunlight.  If the goal is art, we can achieve art.

The Bayside Skyway would complete the transportation connections along the bay.  In addition to biking or walking, a person could quickly travel without taking a car.  If it succeeds, we can then think about narrowing Harbor Drive to remove that barrier between the city and the bay.  But that's another post...