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National City’s Civic Center Plan Falls Short of Being All It Could

What is it that stands out about National City? The Mile of Cars? A few great period Victorians? Beyond these images, many of us who don’t live there have only hazy--and not always positive--impressions.

City officials hope to change this with a new civic center in the heart of town, scheduled to break ground later this year. Designed by San Diego architects Wheeler Wimer Blackman & Associates, the government complex is expected to spur a new era of economic vitality and set a high architectural standard.

The positive economic impact seems probable, but, as design goes, the project falls several notches below what it could have been, looking too much like a speculative office building and not enough like a prestigious, people-oriented new soul of a city.

City officials invited about a dozen local firms to bid on the job--not with designs, but prices--and Wheeler Wimer Blackman was selected simply because its proposed fee of 4.85% of the construction cost was less than half the next lowest bid, according to Arnold Peterson, the city’s community development director.

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Lacks Aggressive Pursuit

Such a process seems exactly opposite of the best way to get a good design, which is to choose the architect with the best ideas, then make a financial agreement. National City’s approach lacks the aggressive pursuit of fresh designs displayed recently by the cities of Escondido and Oceanside. Both held well-publicized civic center design competitions entered by local and national firms.

Despite the criticism from some local architects that such contests are useful mostly for generating publicity, both resulted in top-notch designs. And, despite local griping that locals get overlooked when the field is open to national stars, that didn’t prove true. A local firm (PAPA) did Escondido’s new City Hall, and the nationally known Charles Moore & Urban Innovations Group got the civic center job in Oceanside. And, in Escondido, the public was invited to comment on designs before the architect was selected. In National City, comments have been heard only since selection.

The project could have taken a number of directions, since there was no strong historic or neighborhood context. Nearby are used-car lots, auto body shops and other uses in older buildings of little architectural impact. The site is a sloping pie slice of land immediately south of the existing ‘60s civic center with its entrance on National City Boulevard, at the edge of Kimball Park, a wonderful green open space with tremendous potential.

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The architects responded with a building of white precast concrete and green glass. A circular plaza joining the new structure to the old civic center is the best thing about the design. Aligned with Civic Center Drive, this outdoor space will offer a warm invitation to pedestrians and motorists. Made of concrete and stone, with plenty of benches and a piece of public art at its center, this promises to be a great people place. Also commendable is the way the architects tucked two levels of parking out of sight, below street level.

An Inspired Move

Locating the council chamber at the back of this plaza, as a sort of link between the old and new buildings, is also an inspired move. Symbolically, it puts the seat of important decisions in full public view. Architecturally, the council chamber is a low, minimalist building with a free-standing aqueduct-like arch out front that gives a sense of importance to the complex. Adjacent conference rooms cantilevered over the park will have dramatic views.

But, although the plaza sets up a main entry axis that leads into the council chamber, the main entrance to the big, new building, the place of prime importance to the public, is off to the side. This is a missed opportunity to guide users into the complex.

Not only does it lack a strong entry treatment, but also this main building will tower over everything else nearby, including the park, with its expanses of lawns, palm trees and children’s play areas. At seven stories, it will rise to about 120 feet in a neighborhood of one- and two-story buildings.

Apparently, the city feels the size is needed as a flexing of economic muscle, as a catalyst for a new wave of intense development. As such, the civic center is too harsh a gesture toward the people who will have to look up at its green glass walls from the park side.

There could have been some great interaction here. A public plaza at the edge of the building would have eased the transition between park and civic center. Instead, the design turns a cold green shoulder on the park--there’s only one narrow entrance from this side, and nothing that engages pedestrians. The building, at least in model form, looks more like a Holiday Inn from the park.

Seeing Workers Inside

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The architects say the green glass will allow people outside to see workers inside, giving some sense of human interaction to the project. But those of us who have wandered through the Golden Triangle or downtown San Diego know that when strong daylight bounces off colored glass, it becomes nearly opaque.

From the street side, the feeling will be friendlier, but, aside from the circular plaza, with its weak link to the main building, not inviting. In terms of massing, the architects had the right idea, stepping three elongated cylinders back from the street. From some angles, though, the composition is awkward, and a cynic might compare the whole thing to a stack of Dough Boy pools topped by a giant carrying handle.

Vertical white fins on the outsides of these rounded volumes do a nice job of breaking up the expanses of glass; they also pick up the vertical details on the old civic center next door. The city requested a building that would look different from all angles, and Wheeler Wimer Blackman’s design meets this requirement.

Call it a pet peeve, but it’s hard to imagine people working in San Diego County and not being able to get fresh air. Yet the new civic center will have operable windows only on the top floor.

No Natural Light

Inside, the architects have organized the new building’s offices around an interior atrium space. But it won’t rise to the top of the building, so it won’t let in natural light. Surely, there would have been a way to locate this dramatic five-story volume such that it could tap some bona fide daylight.

Against the exciting new civic centers developing in Escondido and Oceanside, both fresh designs made with people in mind, National City’s looks weak. That’s not for lack of size (60,000 square feet) or budget ($10.6 million), but simply because the building doesn’t maximize the opportunity for a people-oriented government center that opens itself to the beautiful park next door. Perhaps a formal competition process, one oriented toward good designs and not the bottom line, would have led to more adequate solutions, or spurred these architects on to new highs.

Other than the architects, the city apparently didn’t ask for outside design advice. The result makes a strong case for not putting city officials without design experience completely in charge of such a significant project.

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