Lease for Driscoll’s Wharf in Point Loma won’t be renewed, raising questions about what comes next
The Port of San Diego says the facility ‘is not in the condition it should be’ but that ‘commercial fishing will continue to be the designated use.’ Meanwhile, subtenants like Tunaville Market and Grocery face uncertainty.
Point Loma’s Driscoll’s Wharf is losing its lease when it expires April 30, creating a lot of questions about the future of the site of the longtime commercial fishing marina and other businesses there.
The Port of San Diego sent a letter Oct. 20 to Tom Driscoll, president of Driscoll’s Marina Ltd., notifying the company that the port would not pursue a lease extension for the wharf. Driscoll’s company has held the lease for the waterside facility in the 4900 block of North Harbor Drive since 1992. It accommodates commercial fishing vessels and limited recreational boats.
In a statement regarding its decision not to renew the lease, the Port of San Diego said Driscoll’s Wharf “is not in the condition it should be to serve the current needs of commercial fishing and help provide opportunities for growth and success.”
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Driscoll said the company approached the port in 2017 with a proposal to update the facility.
“That proposal had new docks, a new promenade, the kind of things that everyone knew needed to be redone,” Driscoll said. “So we waited three or four years and we said, ‘OK, how about a short-term deal where we do some minor work and get like a five-year deal?’ That was submitted a year ago.”
One of the biggest challenges in keeping up and renovating the site was the limitation on revenue from slip rental fees, Driscoll said.
“The slip rate required ... is part of the [California] Coastal Commission thing we got negotiated when the permit was actually drafted in the late ‘80s,” he said. “The fishermen pay this rate and right now it’s a little less than $3 a foot per month, where a normal recreational vessel is about $20 a foot per month. That rate for the fishermen makes it really, really difficult.
“It’s not something that makes a bunch of money. ... I can see why the port is thinking this way because of the financial difficulty of running a facility like this.”
Driscoll will be responsible for removing landside and waterside structures, installations, equipment, vessels and more from the leased premises before surrendering the property to the Port of San Diego. In addition to the wharf, Driscoll’s company runs a boat yard on Shelter Island and another at Mission Bay.
In 2013, the California Coastal Conservancy awarded a grant to the San Diego Unified Port District — which manages certain tide and submerged lands within San Diego Bay — to repair and upgrade the offloading facility at Driscoll’s Wharf. The grant also was intended to help purchase and install a small-scale ice machine and live seafood holding tank, design and install interpretive signage and plan for an onsite fishermen’s market.
Driscoll’s Wharf was required to put in about $100,000 toward the new work. The port allocated additional funding.
The first phase (about $285,000) was completed in September 2013, but before the second phase could get started, a San Diego fishermen’s group “tried to .. have the grant money taken away from the port and come directly to them,” Driscoll said. “The Coastal Conservancy was not happy and ended up pulling the rest of the grant.”
‘Fear of the unknown’
On Nov. 8 this year, shortly after Driscoll was notified of the wharf’s lease expiration, port commissioners unanimously approved launching an environmental review for a $3.6 billion redevelopment plan for San Diego’s Seaport Village area. The proposal includes upgrades for Tuna Harbor, one of two designated commercial fishing harbors in the Port of San Diego area along with Driscoll’s Wharf. The upgrades include a new fish processing facility.
Port spokeswoman Brianne Mundy Page said “commercial fishing will continue to be the designated use” for both Tuna Harbor and the area known as Driscoll’s Wharf.
Driscoll affirmed that the port is working to ensure that the wharf’s commercial fishing operations continue “because they are very, very important to the commercial fishing fleet. They should be protected.”
The port statement said active commercial fishing vessels at the facility may be temporarily relocated “within the Driscoll’s Wharf berthing area and/or to Tuna Harbor.”
Still, the port’s decision not to renew Driscoll’s lease leaves many questions unanswered, especially for Driscoll’s Wharf subtenants, including Chula Seafood and Tunaville Market and Grocery.
“[Driscoll’s Wharf] is really the only commercial fishing facility in Point Loma where we can load and unload boats and buy fish directly from fishermen,” said Mitch Conniff, who opened Tunaville Market earlier this year with Tommy “The Fishmonger” Gomes. “Other than that, we’re driving down to G Street downtown, which is several hours round trip, not to mention the gas that gets wasted and everything else. Without the continuity of maintaining offloading facilities for fishing vessels in Point Loma, the future of our business and the businesses of many of the fishermen operating out of Point Loma would be in danger.”
The Port of San Diego says it is working on potential next steps for the landside subtenants and that those steps may vary for each, including allowing them to continue beyond the expiration of Driscoll’s lease.
Jimmy Silveria, owner of Chula Seafood and president of the Point Loma Commercial Fishing Alliance, a collaborative of local fishermen and related businesses, said it sounds like the building that houses Chula Seafood and Tunaville Market, as well as a building that serves as dry storage for a lot of fishermen, are probably safe for now.
He said the port is indicating it will take over the property and that Tunaville and Chula would be able to operate as direct leaseholders rather than going through a master leaseholder like Driscoll’s.
However, Silveria said, there is still concern about the fate of waterside businesses and the fishermen who unload at the wharf. As many as 25 commercial boats are docked at the Point Loma location, and many local fishermen with smaller vessels depend on access to the docks to unload their catch, he said.
If the docks were removed from the Driscoll’s site without a replacement, fishermen would have to travel to Tuna Harbor, Silveria said.
“To have to run downtown, it would add at least an hour to an hour and a half of boat time every day,” he said. “If you’re a fisherman going out five times a week, that can be substantial [to operating costs].”
Miramar Canvas & Upholstery, another subtenant at Driscoll’s Wharf, declined to comment in detail but indicated it is in the process of moving.
Other subtenants contacted by the Point Loma-OB Monthly declined to comment.
Conniff, who owns Mitch’s Seafood in Point Loma, said he’s uncertain about Tunaville’s fate.
“The fear of the unknown is certainly hanging over our heads,” he said. “[Tunaville] opened in June of this year and then we found out that they weren’t going to renew Tom’s Lease. Obviously that’s not what we wanted, being a relatively new business there.”
Among the unanswered questions are who the new landlord would be and what kinds of changes will be made to the area, said Conniff, who added that he is working with the port and fishermen’s groups to try to ensure the facility doesn’t change dramatically.
“Our biggest concern is there has undoubtedly been some deferred maintenance on the docks, and whoever is going to take over — if it’s the port or some other landlord — is going to replace those or repair them in a major way,” Conniff said. “We’re advocating for that to be done in a responsible manner that allows commercial fishing to continue in Point Loma and [that] it’s not going to be a situation where they build the most beautiful docks in the world but it’s not going to be finished for the next 20 years.”
4:40 p.m. Dec. 8, 2022: This article was updated with comments from Jimmy Silveria.