San Diego government agencies discovered an active earthquake fault nearly 10 years ago under the Central Embarcadero on the downtown waterfront, yet they didn’t alert the public, the state, or the company currently undertaking a billion-dollar redevelopment of the land.

A geologist with San Diego’s Development Services Department and the president of the San Diego Unified Port District – the two agencies involved at the time – told inewsource it wasn’t their responsibility to do any of those things. There is no law requiring it.

Faults are ubiquitous in California. There are more than 15,000 of them throughout the state, and more than 500 are classified as “active,” which means they have moved at least once in around the last 11,000 years, and likely will again.

It is against state law to build any structure for human occupancy atop or within 50 feet of an active fault in California.

The downtown fault was rediscovered in 2017 by the land’s current developer, Yehudi Gaffen, who proposes to reshape the Central Embarcadero with parks, hotels, an aquarium, a revived commercial fishing industry and other improvements. Gaffen estimates the geological testing and plan changes to avoid building on the fault have cost close to a million dollars.

inewsource interviewed three independent geologists for this story. All said evidence of the waterfront fault was available long before 2008 in state and consultant data – but no one wanted to look at it comprehensively.

Mark Legg, president of Legg Geophysical, Inc. in Huntington Beach, California, said there is a longstanding culture in the state of hiding or ignoring faults because it can be costly and damaging discovery. Legg has studied faults in San Diego since the 1970s. (Brandon Quester/inewsource)

“It is a cover-up,” said Mark Legg, president of Legg Geophysical, Inc. in Huntington Beach.

“It’s a very contentious issue,” he said. “There’s big dollars behind it, there’s big government behind it, there’s all sorts of egos behind it.”

Earthquake faults spell money and headaches, the experts told inewsource. The lack of disclosure of the downtown fault is indicative of a longstanding culture in California of hiding, or at least ignoring, what can be a costly and damaging discovery, according to Legg.

Asked about the lack of public notice concerning the Central Embarcadero fault, Legg replied, “It doesn’t surprise me, but it bothers me. Because it shouldn’t happen.”

The first findings

San Diego’s Old Police Headquarters – that sits between Kettner Boulevard and Pacific Highway, south of West Harbor Drive – was an eyesore. Built in 1939, the building served as the San Diego Police Department’s headquarters until 1987, when the agency moved to a new building at 14th Street and Broadway.

Randa Coniglio, the port’s CEO, recalled walking potential developers through the abandoned building in the early 2000’s as part of her job in the agency’s real estate department.

She ended up delegating those tours after one visit left her covered in fleas.

An undated photo of the Old Police Headquarters’ courtyard. Courtesy: TheHeadquarters.com

“It was a blight sitting right there in between the fancy Hyatt and the Seaport Village,” she told inewsource. “We were very anxious to try to get something done with it.”

The space was a financial opportunity for the port, since the agency earns much of its revenue from its hundreds of master and sub-tenants who lease port property. The port’s real estate department is projected to earn more than $97 million this year.

In May 2008, Terramar Retail Centers of Newport Beach negotiated a 40-year lease on the old police property to transform it into the commercial hub that it is today, with restaurants, shops and art galleries.

Terramar commissioned a geotechnical study as part of the permit process.

William Lettis & Associates, once a California firm but now an international company, performed the work by combing through previous research and 11 geotechnical reports that covered nearby land. Only one turned up a potentially active fault, located half a mile to the north near the Santa Fe Depot train station.

Lettis then dug into the ground. Their work revealed a fault zone cutting across the southwest corner of the police station property and declared the site potentially exposed to the “hazard of surface fault rupture.” The firm designated a 50-foot setback zone “in which no new structures for human-occupancy should be constructed.”

A few months later, the port and the city filed a notice with the San Diego County Recorder’s Office describing the fault and referencing the Lettis report. The notice was signed by Coniglio, then-director of the port’s real estate department, and Kelly Broughton, the former director of the city’s Development Services Department.

In recent interviews, both Broughton and Coniglio told inewsource they had no recollection of signing the document.

City of San Diego Seismic Safety Study.

The Central Embarcadero fault doesn’t appear on the city’s online seismic maps or California’s interactive fault map. A spokesman for the California Geological Survey told inewsource the agency was never alerted to it. The city and port said they never issued a public notice, though the port board did publicly vote to file the notice with the county.

A write-up in the local paper about the unveiling of the new headquarters in 2013 made no mention of it.

Years later, as companies vied to develop the adjacent 40 acres of property, public records and interviews show no indication that the port or the city said a word about it.

History repeating itself

Mark Legg’s life’s work makes up the decor of his Huntington Beach office. The walls are plastered with maps of Southern California land and ocean. Hundreds more are scattered throughout the room. Near the door sits a photo of a younger Legg, squeezing into a submersible to explore faults underwater.

Mark Legg, president of Legg Geophysical, Inc. in Huntington Beach, California, points to various fault lines that have been discovered in and around San Diego. (Brandon Quester/inewsource)

Legg has studied San Diego faults since the 1970s. He wrote his graduate thesis on the tectonics of the Southern California and Northern Baja region while attending the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Then he earned his PhD in geological sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The fault running through San Diego’s Central Embarcadero came as no surprise to him.

“That fault’s been known for about 30 years,” he said.

Legg said the fact that it’s not publicly known fits a culture in California that goes back more than a century. He described the Hayward earthquake that rocked San Francisco’s Bay area in 1868, the resulting scientific study, and the rush to hide it in light of San Francisco’s shot at becoming the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad.

Photographs showing damage throughout the San Francisco Bay area after the 1868 earthquake. Courtesy: USGS.gov.

Brad Racino is the assistant editor and senior investigative reporter at inewsource. He's a big fan of transparency, whistleblowers and government agencies forgetting to redact key information from FOIA requests. Brad received his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri...