San Diego’s downtown--given new life by developments such as Horton Plaza and the U.S. Grant Hotel--is about to experience the second wave of its renaissance.
And nowhere will that be more clearly evident than in the Marina Redevelopment area, a collection of 125 acres of warehouses, parking lots and railroad tracks stretching from the south edge of Horton Plaza to the waterfront.
Perhaps more than any other part of downtown, it holds the potential of giving the city what it now lacks: urbanity and a sense of place.
“This is San Diego’s front door,” says Max Schmidt, a design official with Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC), the public agency overseeing the area’s transformation.
The formula for the Marina’s success rests on people--not just the visitors and tourists who flock to Seaport Village, or the Broadway Pier, but people who will actually live in the area and have a personal and emotional stake in its development.
So how do you get them to live down there? One way, CCDC believes, is by guaranteeing that the kinds of buildings--and the way they are built--will foster the creation of a residential community.
With that goal in mind, CCDC is attempting to fashion a bold plan that would do just that.
So sweeping is its proposal that it not only identifies where multimillion-dollar high-rises can be built, but also where such mundane things as curb cuts for driveways should be placed.
“I think we’re trying to create a Telegraph Hill (in San Francisco) or a Back Bay (in Boston) that’s right for San Diego in the 1980s,” says Bryan Grunwald of the architectural firm of Hall, Goodhue, Haisley & Barker, the San Francisco company that will be paid $250,000 to write most of the nearly completed urban design and land use plan.
Several well-attended meetings and workshops have been held on the proposal. In general, the plan has drawn wide support from both CCDC’s board of directors and the public.
“We can really endorse the work of the consultants,” said Bill Sauls, a resident of and spokesman for the Marina Park condominium complex, on F Street downtown. “It addresses what we see as our primary concerns in that it protects the view corridors and pedestrian linkages to the waterfront and . . . it provides for a lot of sensitivity to maintain a people-oriented environment.”
But because the plan is complex and ambitious, such favorable comments are tempered by concerns from developers, property owners, some CCDC board members and downtown residents--including Sauls--over specifics and whether, overall, it has the flexibility necessary to attract residential developers to the Marina. And conversely, there are those who feel the plan is already too flexible and needs to be made more rigid.
“There are too many opportunities to go too many directions,” says Ron Roberts, the chairman of the San Diego Planning Commission, which, after CCDC is done with the plan, must approve and send it on to the City Council, a process that likely will lapse into the fall. CCDC has another hearing on the matter set for Friday.
In essence, the complex proposal seeks to make the Marina the heart of a new, vibrant residential neighborhood with 5,000 to 6,000 people.
It does this through a variety of methods, but principally it relies on two anchors: Horton Plaza to the north, and the waterfront--embodied by Seaport Village, the new convention center and its attendant high-rise hotels--to the south. In between, like a sandwich, is where the housing is supposed to go.
Among its key components are:
- A grand boulevard. Selected for this is Market Street. Lined with palm trees, it would include stores, businesses and restaurants, and small hotels.
- View corridors. This would enable people standing on Horton Plaza’s balcony to have an unobstructed view of the waterfront. The corridors would be created by imposing height limits on buildings.
Expanding on this concept, there are even provisions to protect what’s called “upper level” view corridors, so that people who live in future mid-rise and high-rise structures won’t feel boxed in.
- Walkways. By designating certain streets, such as 1st Avenue, as the focus for pedestrians traveling from the waterfront to downtown, the plan hopes to use landscaping and stores to prod tourists, conventioneers and residents onto the streets.
- Retail-commercial. While the plan emphasizes residential development, there is room for a small amount of commercial and retail uses geared toward neighborhood services, such as laundries, cleaners and convenience stores. But some people worry this may hurt the nearby Gaslamp Quarter district.
- No more Horton Plazas. To get away from the mass multi-block developments characterized by Horton Plaza and to give the area a more residential flavor, the plan limits future projects to a single block or smaller.
- High-rises. Generally, the plan attempts to steer high-rises--defined as up to 350 feet or 35 stories--toward the central business core, where other towers now exist. But there are several exceptions to this concept, including a controversial provision allowing for construction of new high-rises if they are within 250-feet of an existing tower.
The proposal also includes a 50-foot-wide park and bikeway along part of the Santa Fe railroad right-of-way; traffic circulation plans; descriptions of a new trolley line and stations; parks, and landscaping themes.
To guard against having a grand plan that works only on paper, Grunwald’s consulting team had an economic study done and found that the plan was viewed as workable by developers and financial institutions.
What makes that plan workable, however, is interpreted in different ways.
There are those who say the plan works because it is flexible to deliberately entice developers.
There are others, however, who believe that downtown redevelopment has reached a stage where CCDC is in the position of holding hefty leverage over developers and doesn’t have to be as flexible to ensure success.
But Gerry Trimble, CCDC’s executive vice president, said that “despite all the success we’ve had, we’re still not in a situation where we can dictate” to residential developers.”
“I think they are so close to the battle . . . it’s hard for them to realize they’ve been so successful they can demand more from developers,” said Rob Quigley, a San Diego architect who is involved in the development of the Marina Palms apartment project across from the Meridian condominium towers.
Trimble says that while that argument may hold true for office and commercial development, it doesn’t apply to residential development, which thus far has had much difficulty getting off the ground and which, in almost every case, has needed government subsidies.
In fact, the Marina design proposal is based on those government subsidies continuing.
The issue of how rigid or flexible CCDC can afford to be is perhaps best illustrated in the high-rise component of the plan, which has generated the most attention.
While there is general agreement about high-rises being steered toward the Broadway office core, the exceptions have drawn the fire.
First there are the so-called “gatepost” corners at the fringes of the Marina. These corners--at Pacific Highway and Market Street to the west, and K Street and 4th Avenue to the east, across from the convention center--are where large hotels would be built, including a proposed 335-room Embassy Suites hotel by Santa Fe Realty Corp.
But the plan also allows for the construction of slim, high-rise “point towers” in some other locations if they are within 250 feet of an existing high-rise.
This has raised the specter, in the minds of some, that towers will eventually spread throughout the Marina, destroying the very human-scale neighborhood ambiance the plan is striving to accomplish.
“They will look like accidents,” said Carol Randolph Caplan, CCDC board member. “The whole strategy is not well-reasoned. It’s a strategy that allows (developers) to circumvent what we’re trying to create.
“What we’re trying to do is balance the constraints of the plan versus the flexibility. Too much flexibility will nullify the affects of any plan.”
In agreement with Caplan on the concept of point towers is Peter Davis, CCDC president. “I think that despite good intentions, there’s a better chance that it (towers) will look like bad planning,” Davis said. “I’m not opposed to high-rise as long as it’s not isolated or in a long line of buildings.”
Grunwald responded: “The intent is to cluster these around other high-rise buildings. The problem is in the application of that over time. We could potentially get a Miami Beach, which I think everyone is concerned about.
“That’s certainly not the intent. What we’re trying to provide is a mechanism that leaves the door open for a developer to look at.”
In some ways, however, the issue is academic in the larger perspective. The Navy houses its downtown naval base and supply center on several acres it controls along the north edge of the Marina’s waterfront. The Navy plans a $140-million face lift of the facilities, which may involve construction of high-rises.
Then there is the San Diego Unified Port District. The Port District, which controls development on property right next to the water, has embarked on a program that appears to be creating its own concrete curtain, regardless of what happens in the Marina.
The convention center will be about the same height as Horton Plaza and will be about 600 feet long. Around it will be three high-rise hotels, one of which, the Hotel Inter-Continental, is already built.
“People voted on the convention center . . . they knew there were going to be big hotels built down there,” said Don Nay, director of the Port District. “The city wants the hotels for the room tax, and CCDC gets (property tax) money from the development.”
Nay makes no apologies for development his agency is shepherding on the waterfront.
Other owners of downtown property have questions about how the plan will affect their holdings.
For example, Ed Levine, Santa Fe’s property manager in San Diego, says the provision for a 50-foot wide linear park and bikeway along part of the railroad’s right-of-way is excessive, taking away from the company property it hopes to eventually sell or develop.
In addition, Levine finds unnecessary the idea of adding more than one new pedestrian railroad crossing to connect people with the waterfront and downtown. The plan contemplates two new crossings.
“More than one new crossing would be unacceptable,” Levine said. The railroad’s position is not to have any new at-grade crossings, though it will consider opening one if it can close an existing one somewhere else in the vicinity.
“In general, however, we are very supportive of the plan,” Levine said. “We think it’s well done.”
Despite the restrictions in the plan, some property owners in the Marina say they intend to develop their land to the “highest and best use,” which means high-rises.
J.T. Frost, president and general manager of Frost Hardwood Lumber Co., a large family-owned lumber yard at 347 W. Market St., says that in the future, “We’d like to see a very large convention hotel on this property.”
Right now, however, the plan wouldn’t allow hotel construction on Frost’s property. It instead calls for low density structures up to 90 feet, or about nine stories.
Says Trimble, without directly addressing the Frost proposal, “Every one of the property owners were put on notice about what we’re doing. If some people choose not to believe it (recommended land uses), they are not reading the documents and not following the intent of what’s happening.”
There are other property owners who have much more immediate plans to develop their property but whose developments are in conflict with the proposed Marina plan.
In that category is Neil Senturia, a Los Angeles-based developer who has hired San Diego attorney and former planning commission attorney Louis Wolfsheimer to represent him.
Senturia wants to build a $40-million, 24-story building consisting of 235 apartments, offices and neighborhood retail stores on a block at the corner of 3rd Avenue and J Street, across the railroad tracks from the convention center.
The Marina urban design plan calls for low-rise buildings of up to five stories on Senturia’s land, which is near one of the high-rise hotel “gatepost” corners.
“We’re hoping for flexibility for some specified parcels,” Wolfsheimer said. “We have a substantial number of residential units in this building. The only way they can be built is in a high-rise.”
Wolfsheimer says it makes no sense for Senturia’s development to have to wait until another high-rise is constructed before his client can begin building.
Even then, there could be problems because the exemption limits heights to no more than 160 feet or about 16 stories.
“We could be waiting forever,” Wolfsheimer said. “This is a $40-million project that’s ready to go that helps meet the goal of making the Marina a residential area.
“What’s changed in 12 years (when Wolfsheimer was on the Planning Commission) is that developments like this are here now.”