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Possible Remedy for Downtown S.D.'s Lack of Heart

Redevelopment has brought sweeping changes to downtown San Diego: Horton Plaza, new hotels and hundreds of new living units. But the city’s core still lacks a heart, a bold stroke of urban design to unite the disparate new parts.

Now, planning experts from ROMA Design Group have proposed a masterful remedy. Their thoughtfully conceived programs for a new downtown civic center at 12th Avenue and Broadway and the Navy’s massive development plans at the foot of Broadway by the bay, could provide the thoroughfare with the status it deserves as downtown’s most significant street, anchored at each end by large public plazas and architecture designed with people in mind.

As if these blockbuster schemes aren’t enough, ROMA has been hired to develop a master plan for the College Avenue edge of the San Diego State University campus, and was just retained by developer/entrepreneur Harry Cooper to figure out where a downtown sports arena should be built.

Who is ROMA, and how did they become such a force in San Diego?

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Based in San Francisco, with a small local office on Fourth Avenue across from Horton Plaza, ROMA has 35 employees working on projects throughout the United States. ROMA’s partners are widely experienced at large-scale urban planning, and they also have impressive academic credentials. Several, including president Boris Dramov, an important contributor to the San Diego plans, hold degrees in some aspect of architecture or urban design from Harvard and other prestigious universities.

ROMA’s resume includes major waterfront planning projects in Portland, Ore.; Vancouver; San Francisco, and Honolulu, and various large-scale urban master plans in San Jose; Austin, Tex.; Bellevue, Wash., and Santa Monica.

Often, consultants like ROMA are hired to undue the ravages of the 1960s, when urban planners often “revitalized” downtowns with multiblock developments and massive freeway projects that wiped out hundreds of intimately scaled period buildings, the material the best urban fabric is made from.

Today’s politicians, citizens, urban planners and financiers are well aware of past failures, and they’ve gained a greater voice through various boards and community planning groups. With so many interests represented, master planning becomes as much an act of statesmanship as of sound urban-design skills. That makes the clarity of ROMA’s downtown San Diego efforts all the more impressive.

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Dramov doesn’t see much ‘60s residue here.

“San Diego hasn’t made any of the big mistakes,” he said, adding that “Horton Plaza works,” despite frequent criticism about inaccessibility for pedestrians. “San Diego needed significant catalyst projects. Now it’s building up the fabric around them.”

ROMA recommended the civic center site over two others: the current city hall at Third Avenue and C Street, and a location called “Bayview,” a few blocks from the Gaslamp Quarter near the new convention center. Developer Ernest Hahn, appointed by the mayor to lead the Centre City Planning Committee in moving a civic center toward reality, favored the Bayview site, but ROMA convinced our City Council of the civic center’s importance to Broadway’s possible renaissance.

“The placement of the complex is a masterful stroke,” said Portland, Ore., architect and planner Donald Stastny, recently selected by the city to run the design competition for the civic center. “It completely changes the face of San

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Diego and the way the city operates.”

For the Navy, ROMA outlined 3.2 million square feet of waterfront development, including offices, an aquatic museum, a pair of hotels and an office building. Soon, the Navy will look for a suitable master developer to oversee the for-profit buildings. According to Dramov, this joint development effort will be a first for a military organization in the United States.

What’s most encouraging about both downtown proposals is the way their large public plazas would anchor each end of Broadway like giant, friendly front porches. ROMA wants the civic center to straddle Broadway with a domed tower or another prominent architectural gesture that would give the eastern edge of downtown a tangible anchor. The “Harbor Green” on the Navy property might have a fountain at its center, and would open to full, two-block width behind new high-rises.

Also key to the Navy project is that ROMA wants E, F and G streets extended through to the water, opening fantastic new view corridors for pedestrians and motorists.

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But key details of the two downtown projects are in question. City Councilman Ron Roberts has proposed leaving a commercial office tower off the Navy project to make the public plaza even larger. Dramov questions the financial feasibility of the project without this large income generator.

And in these days of tight local government budgets, it looks more and more questionable whether the city of San Diego will be able to finance a major downtown library anytime in the near future. It plays a key role in ROMA’s civic center program. Dramov said the library could always be replaced with some other use, but couldn’t suggest exactly what that might be.

However, if both projects are built as planned, downtown San Diego has the potential to become a city with at least some of the appeal envisioned by planner John Nolen early this century when he proposed a pedestrian mall civic center on Cedar Street. (Sadly, the County Administration Center on Pacific Highway was the only realized portion of Nolen’s dream).

Looking at a bird’s-eye-view layout of our future downtown as dreamed up by ROMA, it’s impossible not to be swept away. Broadway leaps out as the logical central spine, anchored by the Navy and civic center sites. In two swift strokes, ROMA has given downtown San Diego the kind of clear organization it’s never had before.

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