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Board Gives Boost to Huge Plaza on Bay

Times Staff Writer

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday took its first major step toward construction of a $132-million office expansion. The project would be built around the historic waterfront County Administration Center and would have as its centerpiece a dramatic 9-acre Bay Plaza touching the water’s edge.

If everything goes according to the plan, which the board approved in concept, the first phase of construction would begin in the early 1990s, and the final phase would end in 1997. When done, the county would have 500,000 square feet of new office space, 100,000 square feet of which could be used for a museum or other public uses, and enclosed parking for 2,150 cars, including underground garages for the existing 1,150 parking spaces on two lots that now flank the County Administration Center.

But the overriding feature of the plan, which envisions using not only the two blocks now occupied by the county building but two others across Pacific Coast Highway, is that the design is deliberately low-scale, with none of the buildings more than four stories high.

Architectural Focus

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That would preserve bay views from neighboring Harbor View and, more important, would keep the architectural focus in the area on the county building, a structure that this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

County officials are so concerned about the threat of new high-rises overshadowing the County Administration Center that, at the same time supervisors approved the concept Tuesday, they appealed to the San Diego City Council to enact an emergency ordinance severely restricting development across the street from the county building on the east side of Pacific Coast Highway until permanent land-use controls are imposed.

“This will set the standard about what should be done along the bayfront,” said an enthusiastic Supervisor Brian Bilbray, who, like several of his colleagues, praised the design for its sensitivity to the adjoining neighborhood, its ample open space and its scale.

The big question, however, is one of financing. The county staff and the consultants who prepared the proposal--Williams-Kuebelbeck & Associates, urban designer Gerald Gast and architect Daniel Hillmer--evaluated five alternatives, ranging in cost from $124 million to $132 million. The one they recommended costs $132 million.

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Certificates of Participation

Although the county does not have the money for such a project now, the staff and consultants’ report says the best arrangement is to rely on certificates of participation. This involves having private investors put up the money to build the structures and then leasing them back to the county. After paying off the debt, usually over 20 to 30 years, the county would own the buildings.

This type of financing, which originated in this decade, has become popular with local governments in California, giving them a method of providing themselves with office space. The new San Diego police headquarters building, for example, was built using certificates of participation.

Lawrence Williams, principal in the firm of Williams-Kuebelbeck, estimated that it would cost the county about $12 million a year over 30 years to pay back the private investors. He said that, if the county applied all the money it is now paying for private office space and added that to what it can expect to pay if it continues leasing office space plus other assorted new revenue and savings, the project will offset about 75% of the $12-million yearly cost.

The question of financing, as well as refinement of the design, will be part of a report and update scheduled to be presented to the supervisors in March.

The new county complex would consist of two annexes connected by courtyards to the main County Administration Center, bounded by Harbor Drive, Pacific Coast Highway, Ash and Grape streets.

No Higher Than 4 Stories

The two annexes would contain 400,000 square feet of office space, with the largest buildings next to Ash and Grape streets no higher than 4 stories. The annexes would be over parking lots built half a level below grade and having space for 1,150 vehicles.

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The new buildings would contain up to 100,000 square feet of public space that could be utilized for a museum or some other use, such as restaurants.

The intent is to have something to attract people at night and on weekends.

But the centerpiece of the design would be the creation of a Bay Plaza, a huge public gathering spot that would stretch 9 acres, or the equivalent of 11 football fields, according to Gast. Should the San Diego Unified Port District decide to narrow Harbor Drive, the open space would increase to about 13 acres.

The idea of a grand civic plaza facing the bay was first initiated in a 1926 proposal by John Nolen and called “Cabrillo Portal Entrance.” It was clear Tuesday that both the consultants and the supervisors favored the idea of such a large-scale, water-oriented open space.

“The overall advantage is to create a great civic plaza,” Gast said.

The second part of the recommendation involves using part of Cedar Street as a spine for more office space, but again no higher than four stories. This aspect of the plan is similar to, though much less intense than, an idea called the “Cedar Street Mall” created in the 1940s by engineer Glenn Rick.

Specifically, the proposal calls for the county to use two blocks for the construction of another 100,000 square feet of offices and underground parking for 1,000 extra cars.

The first block, bounded by Cedar, Kettner and Beech streets and the Santa Fe tracks, is already owned by the county. The second block, bounded by the tracks, Cedar, Kettner and Date streets, is privately owned, and the proposal calls for the county to buy it.

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Finally, the plan suggests that the two blocks directly across from the County Administration Center and fronting Pacific Coast Highway, property now used for fast-food restaurants, would remain in private ownership. But any development on those blocks would be confined to structures no higher than about four stories.

That could be a problem because county officials say they are aware of at least two proposals on the east side of Pacific Coast Highway that call for buildings about 15 stories high. That’s why, according to Supervisor Susan Golding, the county needs the city’s approval to impose immediate land-use restrictions so that the county’s new proposal is not usurped and overshadowed by high-rises.

It was Golding who, three years ago, led the fight to kill another plan, known as Harbor Square, that included building hotels and offices--including a 10-story parking tower--on the county building’s parking lots.


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