Port commissioners hear proposals for 5 bayfront attractions

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SAN DIEGO -- The Port of San Diego Board of Commissioners heard presentations Tuesday on five proposals to build a giant Ferris wheel or observation tower at the downtown waterfront.

The “observation wheels” have become an “in” thing for tourist attractions. Eighteen are now in use around the country, and one that opened 11 months ago in Las Vegas is the world's tallest at 550 feet. Another wheel in Orlando is set to open this year, and one is in the planning stages for New York City, according to port staff.

Commissioners voted unanimously for a motion to create defined sub-areas for the integrated plan, but made no decision for or against observation structures. This new step will allow new development ideas to be studied and included in the larger plan context, but in an expedited fashion.

The proposals for San Diego's waterfront include:

-- a 450-foot-tall observation wheel proposed by Discovery Point LLC -- which includes SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment -- that would charge riders $25- 30 and generate an estimated $70 million in revenue;

-- a 450-foot-high version from the same developers of the Orlando project;

-- a wheel up to 250 feet high from developers of five previous attractions that would charge riders $15 each;

-- a wheel 175 feet high by Pier 57, a waterfront development firm that wants to replicate the Seattle Great Wheel in San Diego; and

-- an observation tower at least 250 feet tall that would be topped by a restaurant, proposed by U.S. Thrill Rides, which has created attractions for Balboa Park, Universal, Six Flags and Mall of America.

A port staff report says some of the proposals are more fleshed out than others at this point, and all are unsolicited.

If the port commissioners eventually accept one of the ideas, it will be one step in a very long regulatory process. According to port staff, such a project would be subject to a thorough environmental analysis and would have to be cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration, state Coastal and Lands commissions, U.S. and state wildlife agencies, and possibly other government organizations.

The FAA has already come out against the Discovery Point wheel as being an aviation hazard at Lindbergh Field. The FAA indicated that a structure 277 feet or lower would be acceptable.

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