Escondido Building on a Good Idea

Escondido is rapidly becoming an architectural success story. A striking new City Hall designed by Pacific Associates Planners and Architects of San Diego opened two years ago, the result of a city-run, open-design competition.

The city subsequently selected internationally known architects Moore Ruble Yudell to design a companion performing arts complex. Construction will start early next year.

Pacific Associate's City Hall set the stage for several new downtown buildings, and many of them take their design cues from it. When the county project managers hired civil engineers Pountney and Associates and San Diego architect Rob Quigley to design a new transit complex downtown, for example, they specifically requested a building that would complement the city hall.

The resulting $12.5-million Escondido Transit Center, which opened in February, pays direct homage. Quigley borrowed a simple ziggurat pattern and applied this unifying motif to monumental concrete towers, paving, decorative grille work and signs. Located at Valley Parkway and Quince Street, the project anchors its key downtown corner with the same romantic spirit as the City Hall.

Known for such idiosyncratic buildings as the Linda Vista Library and his own downtown San Diego office and residence on Cedar Street, Quigley's work has never been so influenced by another building. He freely acknowledges the debt.

"The big picture is that Escondido didn't have a coherent identity," he said of this city of 104,000, which years ago left behind its image as a sleepy agricultural town. "There were a thousand different buildings, all going in different directions architecturally. That doesn't make for a community. I thought it was wonderful the way the City Hall set a direction and theme. I wanted to make sure the transit center played its part and contributed in a positive way to the formation of an identity."

Pacific Associate's City Hall is equal parts Irving Gill, 1930s Deco and Balboa Park. It has Gill's smooth, mission-influenced stucco walls, Deco-era grille work and decoration, and is anchored by an open lathe dome reminiscent of the botanical building in Balboa Park. A series of courtyards serves as an outdoor lobby to the interior spaces.

Quigley's transit center also celebrates this region's warm climate with its outdoor "waiting rooms." Concrete benches are placed beneath the open-air concrete atrium and three clock towers which tie the project together. Other bus stop benches are shaded by trees or steel-and-Lexan plastic awnings. Even the ticket office in one of three low concrete buildings is open-air.

All of the structures are made of precast concrete panels that were poured on site, tilted into place by crane and bolted together. The largest ones are 36 feet tall and weigh 40 tons.

Trellis-shaded pedestrian paths fan out from the atrium to parking lots at the edges of the complex. Strung along these paths, the towers, with their tall, graceful, arched openings, beckon travelers in from the lots. The low buildings house ticket and transit offices and, eventually, will include a fast-food restaurant.

Quigley said the budget didn't allow much extravagance with materials. Tilt-up concrete is an economical but often plain construction method usually reserved for industrial buildings, but Quigley found ways to dress it up for this public appearance.

Simple decorative ziggurat patterns were cast right into the concrete. More expensive materials such as granite, brick, colorful tiles and copper gutters were used sparingly to add decoration. Paving tiles made from tire rubber add an unusual flair while serving as an apt transportation metaphor.

Pountney and Associates gets credit for the project's layout and efficient circulation scheme. In the name of smooth operation, cars and buses take separate routes through the site. North County Transit District and Greyhound buses travel a peanut-shaped loop past 15 curbside stops. Cars have their own well-marked driveways leading to parking lots at the back.

Landscape architect Marian Marum saved several towering eucalyptus trees that shade the lots and soften the visual impact of so much asphalt.

The project even includes a decent piece of public art, the result of San Diego County's and the City of Escondido's policies requiring public art in new buildings. Peter Mitten's "Hekkilk" consists of large slabs of concrete in earthy tans, oranges and browns, fractured and tilted as if they had slammed together. A plaque nearby says Mitten meant to create "a big dent as in a pass through mountains," sort of an abstract variation on the way the concrete transit complex serves as a "pass" to new destinations.

Along with all the plusses, the Escondido Transit Center has shortcomings. A lack of decoration at the bases of the clock towers makes them unappealing close up. Window-like openings in the towers let daylight inside and allow police enough views to make sure nothing illegal is going on, but these openings are too small and crude, and look like they were hacked into the concrete at the last minute. Given the otherwise inviting appearance of the center, the reflective glass on the main administration and ticket building seems unnecessarily cold.

Transit centers are becoming increasingly important in urban areas. With all the movement of people and vehicles, they provide a kinetic design challenge, one which Quigley and Pountney have met with great success in Escondido. Other local cities hope to reduce car travel by providing bus and rail alternatives, and several new transit centers are being planned. Quigley is working on one for Solana Beach, while Pountney is designing another for Encinitas in conjunction with San Diego architect C.W. Kim.

DESIGN BRIEFS: Rob Quigley has completed the design of a house in Telluride, Colo., for movie director Oliver Stone. Quigley said the 8,500-square-foot home is his first "big budget" house, with an estimated price tag of $1.5 million. He said he is also working on the design of a $10-million Egyptian-flavored mixed-use project to be built at Park Boulevard and University Avenue. . . .

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