Cardiff Projects Lack Planning

This city, which incorporated in 1986, does not yet have its planning act together. The most recent evidence is in Cardiff, one of four communities included in the boundaries of the fledgling city.

Rising behind the Jack in the Box at the foot of Birmingham Drive is a new office complex, the Cardiff Executive Center, designed by Schucard Associates and approved by the city of Encinitas, using the old San Diego County planning guidelines.

Although city planners and a community planning group reviewed the design, it is far from ideal for the location, and would have been at least 2 feet lower under the General Plan later adopted by Encinitas.

A second new office building, the Cardiff Professional Office Court at Newcastle Avenue and Chesterfield Drive, was designed by architect Fred De Santo with a look more suitable to the area. Breaking it into two halves with a courtyard down the center preserved views for homes behind it. But, when Cardiff's profile is seen from across the coast highway to the west, the building's tall gables loom over most nearby architecture.

"I'm not real satisfied with those buildings, but I wasn't involved," said Tom McCabe, an architect who joined Cardiff's five-member Community Advisory Board after the buildings had been approved by the board and the City Council.

"There are a lot of ugly designs that come through. I try to comment as gracefully as I can; sometimes there's just no helping it. People don't have any understanding of what design is."

Cardiff has been in trouble since the mid-'80s, when, under a county government notorious for its lack of attention to detail, developers built bulky, poorly designed duplex condominium projects on the ocean-view hillside west of Interstate 5 and south of Birmingham. Until the 1980s, this had been a neighborhood of moderately scaled single-family homes.

One of the first things the new city government did was crack down on these fortresses. Under new guidelines, such duplexes, covering their lots almost to the edges, are no longer allowed. In some cases, developers of subsequent projects had to build single-family homes when new setback and density standards precluded two condominiums of reasonable size.

In downtown Cardiff, the city should have been more diligent. There doesn't seem to be a clear vision for what kind of place it should be.

"There's no plan for Cardiff," admitted city Planning Director Patrick Murphy. "We just have our General Plan and zoning code. We have design standards for the entire city, and these are implemented by each community advisory board."

Design standards don't spell out architectural styles, but deal with such things as screening parking lots, limiting the number of different colors and materials used on a building and encouraging varied roof lines.

The Cardiff Executive Center meets city design and siting standards, but its sheer bulk and insensitivity to context indicate something more is needed in the way of design review.

Immediately adjacent to the project are the Jack in the Box; a one-story condominium project, which will have some of its views obstructed, and a small one-story commercial strip. At 17,000 square feet, the new building will dwarf its neighbors.

With its horizontal laminated-wood beams, circular concrete pillars and large panes of glass, the building is too glitzy for Cardiff. Breaking the large mass into several smaller ones would have helped it fit in and varied the straight, harsh roof line. This would also have allowed views through the site instead of creating a huge visual block.

Continental Pacific Development's detailed landscaping plans seem to assure that the building will be well-screened from the street. But a water runoff swale looks like it will be relandscaped with a mock-nature palette of fake boulders and imported shrubs, rather than plant materials native to the beach area.

Although there is no enforceable plan for Cardiff's business district, a kernel of a vision is contained within the city's Architecture and Site Development Guidelines.

Goals for Cardiff include establishing a more unified visual image for the town, creating a more pedestrian-oriented atmosphere, with pedestrian-friendly features to be added to streets (including Newcastle) and reducing the visual impact of parking.

A "visual image" would be hard to define, and stylistic mandates are generally too constrictive, although they can work well in places such as Santa Barbara, where there is a recognizable native building type.

One important step would be to further limit the amounts of glass on commercial buildings. Granted, an office building can't look like a small beach house, but the Cardiff Executive Center is just too slick for a quaint beach town.

Even more useful would be a detailed plan for downtown Cardiff, a block-by-block analysis of the business district, the kind of prescription that usually comes out of a collaboration between urban planning experts and citizens groups.

Because Cardiff has minimal commercial land, this kind of planning should happen immediately, before any more inappropriate buildings mar the character of the community.

Judging by the way the duplex problem was dealt with, the future of the business district looks precarious.

McCabe said he recommended a few sound design principles to the city for these residential projects: placing garages on alleys instead of main streets, using living spaces such as porches and decks to relate houses to streets (signs of human life might actually be visible, instead of just garage doors) and designing duplexes so that each of two attached condominiums are different, not mirror images.

His ideas fell on unreceptive ears.

In Cardiff's business district, where key opportunities for projects delicately tailored to the community have already been lost, let's hope some focused thinking from the Encinitas Planning Department and its community advisory board leads to a better-designed future.

LINES: Drawings and photos of the Observatory House, which was designed by San Diego architects Rene Davids and Christine Killory and received a national Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects, will be on display in the lobby of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art through July 1. . . .

Friends of San Diego Architecture, founded by Harriet Gill, celebrates its fifth anniversary this month. At the organization's monthly meetings, guest speakers attempt to translate the world of architecture for the lay public.

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