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Linear Park Represents a Worthwhile Challenge

The Marina Linear Park, an urban design and landscape plan for a 2,600-foot strip of railroad and trolley right of way along Harbor Drive downtown, could transform a lowly back alley into a grand public space.

If completed by the mid-1990s as expected, the 14-acre, $14-million park along Harbor Drive’s north edge between Seaport Village and the Gaslamp Quarter will tie together at least a half dozen large new developments and diverse modes of transportation, bringing large-scale continuity to the waterfront and making a graceful transition between the edge of the city and the bayfront.

The linear park would be an example of landscape architecture on a grand urban scale.

Long lines created by trolley and railroad tracks, rows of trees and other landscaping, and jogging, bike and pedestrian paths, will lend the park linear continuity. Artist Martha Schwartz, a member of the design team, compares these long bands to the richly colored stripes on a Mexican serape.

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But the big questions are whether the park will be finished at all, and, if so, with how much compromise?

Already, its designers, landscape architect Peter Walker of San Francisco and the Austin Hansen Group of San Diego, have seen some of their richest design ideas eroded. Also, several private developments along the project’s edge, which would finance and build portions of the park, have been delayed by financing difficulties.

Seldom has a project in San Diego had to deal with such an array of public and private entities, including more than half a dozen developers, the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, the railroad company, the Port District, the Centre City Development Corp., the city parks department, SDG&E; and a variety of citizens’ groups.

“Most of the money for the park is coming from developers, little by little,” lamented Walker. (Actually, just over half is coming from sources other than the city’s redevelopment agency.) “Imagine trying to build a house where one person built the chimney, someone else did the plumbing, someone else did carpentry, and they were not under a general contractor’s control.”

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With no single client footing the bill for the park and so many entities building portions of it, no single person or organization has the leverage to make sure it gets built as proposed.

A protest from the local Hispanic community derailed the art proposed for a public plaza at the Convention Center trolley station. Photos would have depicted migrants scaling a border fence. New York artists Andrea Blum and Dennis Adams, who proposed the art, are no longer part of the design team.

The developers, Seaport Manfred, agreed to build a centerpiece 200-foot circular reflecting pool between 1st Avenue and Front Street on the edge of the park, behind the group’s high-rise residential project, Roger Morris Plaza. But the project’s financing has been delayed by the state of the national economy.

The $1.5-million pool, including floating water lilies, is seen by the designers as the park’s jewel, and they hinted that perhaps the Centre City Development Corp., the city’s downtown redevelopment organization, should find another way to pay for it if Roger Morris Plaza suffers further delays.

The pool’s design already was was changed--for the worse--to satisfy the MTDB. Walker and his co-designers wanted trolley trains to “float” across the water on barely visible tracks, but the MTDB decided that, in the event of an emergency, passengers shouldn’t have to exit the trains into foot-deep water. So concrete platforms have been added, cluttering the design.

Another slight to the project came when the city’s traffic and engineering department decided that the cypress trees proposed to line the ends of Front and 1st would obstruct views, creating unsafe traffic conditions. Sweet gum trees, which don’t have the same powerful linear form, will be used instead.

Yet another minor setback came when Convention Center architect Arthur Erickson insisted on having king palms planted in the Harbor Drive median in front of the center, instead of the Washingtonia palms the linear park’s designers had requested to match their landscape plans.

Despite these changes, the park will offer rich experiences to motorists, trolley passengers, joggers, bicyclists and walkers.

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Motorists will cruise Harbor Drive next to rows of Washingtonias, set in front of a chain-link fence of alternating light and dark sections that will give a flickering sense of motion.

The trip past the park will be especially stunning at night. In front of the Marriott Hotel on Harbor Drive, the street already consists of alternating 20-foot-wide bands of interlocking pavers and asphalt; drivers eventually will follow lane lines created with pinpoints of light, much like the landing lights at Lindbergh Field.

Pedestrians and bicyclists will enjoy a variety of paths, benches and even several of what Pat O’Connor, project manager with the Austin Hansen Group, calls “follies” for children--including, possibly, a hedge maze, fountains and play structures.

“I don’t think anyone’s understood the significance of this project,” O’Connor said. “It will create a new face for the city along its southern edge.”

Although financing difficulties have delayed several new developments that include portions of the park, publicly funded areas are well under way.

Striped bands of hardscape material (such as cement, brick, gravel and dirt) have been installed at the park’s three trolley stops--at Seaport Village, the Convention Center and the Gaslamp Quarter--and simple shelters designed by Austin Hansen, topped with large signs by Sussman Prejza of Los Angeles, will be added this spring. The landscaped strip next to Harbor Drive, including double rows of tall Washingtonia palms, will be finished later this year, and the landscaping of the trolley right-of-way that runs through the park’s center will be finished by mid-summer.

Even without the art proposed by Adams and Blum, the park will be a work of art by itself if it is completed as proposed. As Schmidt, who has a degree in landscape architecture, likes to say, “The park is conceived as art. The horizontal palette is the art. Some people have relegated landscaping to what you do after a building is put up.”

Developers of new projects next to the park are cooperating to an amazing degree. Several have hired the Austin Hansen Group to make sure their projects relate strongly to the park.

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Seaport Manfred retained both Walker and Austin Hansen. Walker convinced them to build Roger Morris Plaza’s tower next to the park instead of next to Market Street, to give the project a stronger connection to the park.

Watermark, a 96-unit condominium project scheduled to open in March, will be the first of the new projects completed on the park. The developers paid for high-quality landscaping between their building and the park, including interlocking pavers instead of conventional asphalt or concrete.

One set of twin 41-story luxury condominium towers now under construction along Harbor Drive across from the Convention Center will be finished in 18 months. The linear park’s landscape architects convinced developer Bruce Stark and architects Boone & Boone of Hawaii to place their towers atop a stepped base that will double as built-in seating for park visitors. The project will also include 42,000 square feet of commercial and restaurant space on the first two floors--the kinds of uses that will vitalize the park.

Max Schmidt, assistant vice president of planning and engineering at CCDC, gets credit for first coming up with the idea that the narrow strip of land, with railroad and trolley rights-of-way, could become a lush urban park.

Schmidt began thinking about ways of transforming the area into a useable public space in the late 1970s, when he helped write a new community plan for downtown.

“The idea was that Pacific Highway, Harbor Drive and railroad tracks are barriers that prevent downtown from reaching the waterfront--physically and psychologically. A lot of land downtown is going to waste. Forty-four percent of downtown is streets.”

The linear park could convincingly prove how these dominant--but often unsightly--circulation routes can become important public spaces. By integrating private developments with a public park, the linear park should also prove that urban activity can do a lot more to make downtown San Diego a secure place than additional police officers and more intense building security.

All of this will only happen, however, if Schmidt, Walker, O’Connor and other key players can keep the project on track in terms of design and construction progress. Given the economy and the diverse interests involved in building the linear park, that remains a troublesome challenge.


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