SAN DIEGO (CNS) - San Diego civic officials broke ground Thursday on a long-planned project they hope will make the downtown bayfront more pedestrian-friendly and visually appealing.

The $28.6 million first phase of the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan will create a 105-foot-wide esplanade along the bay from Navy Pier to the B Street Pier, with formal gardens, jacaranda trees, plazas and shade pavilions, according to the Port of San Diego. The project also includes improvements to roadways, utilities and storm water systems.

"To put it another way, we wanted to tear up the asphalt and plant some trees," said Councilman Kevin Faulconer, the chairman of a Joint Powers Authority that oversees the project.

When finished in about 18 months, the area will resemble the park-like setting in front of the USS Midway Museum and Tuna Harbor.

Scott Peters, the chairman of the Board of Port Commissioners, called the groundbreaking "a moment of great accomplishment for the San Diego region."

Former port commissioner Mike McDade, called the "father" of the project, said the seeds were planted in 1996 when he and a business partner walked out of the County Administration Center and strolled along the waterfront near the foot of Grape Street to clear their minds after a meeting.

They agreed the area needed to be redeveloped, he said.

McDade, who left the port's governing body three years later, said supporters of the plan avoided a clash among the five government jurisdictions with interest in the property because staffers of the agencies "were swept up in the dream."

McDade was one of 17 current and former government officials who dug shovels into dirt at a parking lot at the corner of N. Harbor Drive and W. Broadway. Among the others were Mayor Jerry Sanders, Councilman Todd Gloria, former Councilman Byron Wear and ex-port Commissioner Steve Cushman.

"We're right on the cusp of becoming a world-class waterfront," Sanders said.

Faulconer said the first phase is paid for. With redevelopment agencies slated to be phased out, officials will need to be "creative" in how they fund further phases of the project, which would extend the esplanade to Seaport Village on one end and Grape Street on the other, he said.

The plans call for West Broadway to serve as a gateway to the waterfront, with special paving and medians, decorative lighting and rows of palm trees.

Planning for the bayfront transformation has taken 15 years, involving the port, the city of San Diego and its downtown redevelopment arm, the Centre City Development Corp. The Navy and county of San Diego also have been involved.

The county has its own waterfront park project in front of the County Administration Center.