Is Gaslamp Right Spot for Condo Tower?

Developer Neil Senturia, a former television sitcom writer, is about to spring some high drama on the city of San Diego.

Senturia wants the city to approve a 325-foot-high building in the historic Gaslamp Quarter downtown, an area zoned for a maximum of 125 feet high.

Several key people within the city's urban planning system are opposed to the project's height, including City Architect Mike Stepner; Max Schmidt, Centre City Development Corp.'s urban planning expert, and Pam Hamilton, CCDC's executive vice president.

During the coming months, Senturia will try to persuade the City Council to go against the advice of its top planners, arguing that the design fits in with nearby high-rises. Going against aides' advice would not be unprecedented. Last year, the council approved a 38-story luxury condominium project on lower Broadway, despite Stepner's reservations about its height and bulk.

Some council members said they won't make a decision until they get a good look at Senturia's project, probably this summer, after an environmental impact report is completed.

The site Senturia has optioned (he doesn't own it yet) for the project, Park Plaza, is bounded by 5th Avenue, K Street, 3rd Avenue and Harbor Drive, at the southern entrance to the Gaslamp Quarter across from the San Diego Convention Center.

The $75-million complex would include 25,000 square feet of retail space and 150 condominiums. The building would have a six-story base and a 27-story tower, set close to K Street and 100 feet back from 5th Avenue.

Senturia, a short, wiry, articulate, gregarious man and a preference for crisp dress shirts and well-polished shoes, has been working as a developer in San Diego since 1985. Some of his projects include the Union Bank building at 5th and University avenues in Hillcrest, One Harbor Drive (a pair of 41-story downtown luxury condo towers scheduled to break ground June 15), a single-room occupancy hotel at 4th Avenue and Fir Street and a large parking structure being built on 6th Avenue, between A and Ash streets downtown.

Senturia laid out his argument for Park Plaza last Friday in his offices in a downtown high-rise, where he enjoys sweeping views of the city.

The project has already gone through many design revisions. Senturia initially worked with Arquitectonica, the hip, slick, Miami firm, but its design apparently didn't please either Senturia or city officials.

"It was some of the poorest site planning and design I'd seen," said City Councilman Ron Roberts, the lone council member trained as an architect. "There were four buildings, with two on Harbor Drive, and none of the architecture or site planning related to anything around it."

Senturia now agrees that the scheme wasn't right for the location.

Senturia's argument in favor of his 325-foot tower is that, because several larger high-rises are about to be built nearby along Harbor Drive (including his own One Harbor Drive), and because the Park Plaza site actually stretches beyond 4th Avenue (outside the western boundary of the historic district), his tower is really as much a part of intense adjacent redevelopment as it is a part of the low-scale historic district.

That doesn't placate people like Howard Greenberg, a Gaslamp Quarter Planning Board member who is converting the low-rise Pioneer Warehouse to apartments, across K Street from Senturia's site.

"I fought long and hard for the increase to 125 feet, and I thought that was pushing the envelope," Greenberg said, referring to the area's initial height limit of 75 feet. "For someone to come in over 300, I think, is pushing the envelope too far."

Architect Ralph Roesling, who sits on the Gaslamp board, prepared a computer model of the Gaslamp Quarter, including Senturia's project, to study building heights and bulk. Roesling also helped write the plan that convinced the city to increase the height limit to 125 feet from 75 feet in select cases.

"I think it's too high," Roesling said of Park Plaza. "That project is definitely within the Gaslamp Quarter district, and they're asking for 325 feet. That would be so out of scale with everything else, I think it would be wrong." According to Roesling, the tower would cast large shadows across 5th Avenue in the afternoon, besides towering over surrounding buildings.

High-rise units generally bring premium prices, and Senturia said a lower building would be "less economically feasible."

Over the past decade, several Gaslamp Quarter businesses have struggled or died during delays in the building of the Horton Plaza shopping center and the San Diego Convention Center. However, even after those projects opened, many businesses continued to stagger, and members of the Gaslamp Quarter Council (now Gaslamp Quarter Planning Board) began thinking that a few large new projects, probably hotels, would help turn business in the right direction.

When the city of San Diego wrote a plan to limit new buildings to 60 feet (75 in some cases), the Gaslamp Quarter Council commissioned its own height study. The conclusion: buildings up to 125 feet should be considered for four large parcels, including Senturia's.

The San Diego City Council passed a Gaslamp planning ordinance solidifying this policy late last year, with Senturia's project excluded.

Judged without consideration for height, the present design is a sound piece of architecture, though not the masterpiece that Senturia claims could spawn a whole new phase of downtown architecture.

In fact, the six-story portion of the project, along 5th and K, looks very good, with Senturia promising to use high-grade stone such as granite, brick and ceramic tile on the base, and reinforced concrete panels for the tower.

Low-rise facades along K and 5th are well articulated, and these buildings would be punctuated by bay windows echoing the bay windows found on many other Gaslamp buildings.

Senturia rightly described the site as the gateway to the Gaslamp Quarter, an important "transition" block. The corner of the project closest to Harbor Drive would be anchored with a low, open pavilion. Broad stairs would lead from 5th Avenue to second-level terraces.

The design of the project's back portion is crucial because it would face the pedestrian-oriented "linear park" designed for the city under the direction of San Francisco landscape architects Peter Walker and Martha Schwartz, with the local Austin Hansen Group and several artists.

Park Plaza's two tiers of restaurants would step down to meet the park, and Senturia is offering to donate part of the land for park use at one corner of his site.

The tower steps back and would be crowned with Mission tile. It would feature a circular sundial emblem created by local artists. The proportions are good, but the tile seems too cute a way to incorporate local Spanish influences.

There is also some question as to whether the existing buildings on Senturia's site should be destroyed. None is great architecture, but one was designed by early 20th-Century architect William Hebbard, who gave architect Irving Gill his start here.

Historic Site Board chairwoman Kathryn Willetts said there's a valid argument that the buildings should remain, if only to retain the scale and character of the district.

Senturia's project isn't yet scheduled for hearings at the CCDC, Historic Site Board or City Council. Tuesday, he made the latest of several presentations to the Gaslamp board.

The most logical response to his 325-foot fantasy seems to be the one offered by Stepner and echoed by many others:

"I think it's a very handsome building that deserves to be built somewhere, but my question is, is it in the right location?"

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