Condo Plan Just Too Tall for Gaslamp


Developers who want to build a 315-foot condominium tower in the Gaslamp Quarter, 190 feet taller than the area’s allowable maximum, are trying to get the San Diego City Council to bend the rules.

For the city to do so, however, would be a major blunder.

Park Plaza, a $75-million mix of shops, restaurants and 148 condos proposed for a prominent full-block site at 5th Avenue and Harbor Drive, is the crux of a politically charged showdown over the historic district’s future.

If approved, the tower would be a final slap in the face for city planners who have been trying, unsuccessfully, to keep high-rises away from the waterfront since the 1960s. They would like to see the Gaslamp Quarter, where most buildings are no taller than 60 feet, remain as an unadulterated slice of 1890s architecture.


In favor of Park Plaza, proposed by a partnership headed by S.D. Malkin Properties, are Gaslamp property and business owners who see such a dense, urban project as a necessary, revitalizing jolt for the ailing southern end of the Gaslamp, a catalyst that could help other businesses succeed and squeeze out street people. The Gaslamp Quarter Planning Board approved the project, 8 to 2, in June.

Opposed are other area business and property owners--including Jim Ahern, chairman of the Gaslamp Quarter Planning Board--as well as just about every city staffer and board responsible for shaping downtown San Diego.

City opponents include City Architect Mike Stepner, Centre City Development Corp. Executive Vice President Pam Hamilton and Assistant Vice President Max Schmidt; the CCDC board; the Planning Commission; the Historic Site Board.

At an Oct. 8 hearing, the San Diego City Council will hold the key.

In 1989, when it revised the Gaslamp Quarter Planned District Ordinance and raised the height limit for the southern end to 125 feet, the council also voted to allow a 325-foot tower on the Park Plaza site. In the redesign, the developers lopped 10 feet from the height.

This action is cited often by the developers to justify their project. But, a few days after the council vote, the city attorney’s office ruled that the council couldn’t legally consider any building over 125 feet because such a radically tall structure had not been considered in an environmental impact report on the district and had not been discussed in public hearings. The height-limit exception for the Park Plaza site was omitted from the final revised ordinance.

Now, to approve the project, the council will have to go against the advice of all of its most important urban design and planning experts on the city staff.

In a cogent summary of a complicated case, Hamilton reported to the CCDC board in July that Park Plaza is “a handsome project but in the wrong location. The Gaslamp Quarter doesn’t need a landmark building; the Gaslamp Quarter Historic District is the landmark.”

Hamilton objected because the project doesn’t keep with the scale of the district, it would be too close to the $20-million linear park being built along the trolley tracks on Harbor Drive, and Park Plaza would set a bad precedent that could lead to inappropriately large development in the Gaslamp. She also said the proposed 4th Avenue auto entrance to Park Plaza would ruin pedestrian access along 4th to the linear park.

After spending more than a year to completely redesign their building, the developers are ready to take a serious run at the council. Their highly refined design was a collaboration between Frank Williams of New York and City Design of San Diego.

Park Plaza’s site is the most pivotal in the Gaslamp Quarter. On the south, it fronts the linear park. On the east, it faces 5th Avenue, the most vital pedestrian- and retail-oriented street through the heart of the Gaslamp. On the north, it would look down on the Pioneer Warehouse Lofts, a renovation of a period building into living lofts that opened earlier this year.

Park Plaza consists of two major elements:

* A 27-story tower, set back 100 feet from 5th Avenue and fronting the linear park, with a main entrance on 4th Avenue.

* And a five-story block of shops, restaurants and residences to the east, along 5th Avenue, designed to suit the scale and character of adjacent Gaslamp buildings.

At the southern end of the lower block, two stories of restaurants would look out on the linear park.

The prominent corner of 5th and Harbor would be anchored by a small public park and an open-air rotunda; a second park would be built outside the building’s entrance, on 4th Avenue.

Jeremy Z. Cohen, vice president at S.D. Malkin Properties, has spearheaded the redesign effort, soliciting comments from many people with an interest in the Gaslamp Quarter, including architects Ralph Roesling and Gordon Carrier, who both work in the Quarter. Roesling serves on the Gaslamp Quarter Planning Board, Carrier used to.

Cohen makes a number of convincing arguments for the project. He sees Harbor Drive as the local version of Lakeshore Drive in Chicago, the famous strip of luxury high-rise condominium towers. With at least a half-dozen such projects already under construction or planned for Harbor Drive, Cohen thinks his project is a natural link in this high-rise chain.

Cohen has been able to convince at least some skeptics of Park Plaza’s merits. One of them is Roesling, who first deemed a 315-foot tower inappropriate for the Gaslamp. Roesling hasn’t seen the newest design yet, but, in concept, he said he now agrees with Cohen’s “Lakeshore Drive” theory.

“If you go out on a boat on the bay and look back, the towers along the waterfront are already there,” he said. “If you could start from scratch, it would be nice to keep towers back toward the central business core, but that’s not what’s happened. I feel that the Gaslamp Quarter needs an anchor, a real strong project down at the southern end. I don’t think the issue of scale is much of an issue like it was 10 years ago.”

The redesigned tower presents a narrower profile to the Gaslamp Quarter. The new shape is enhanced by setbacks at the 12th and 23rd floors; these transitions would be softened by vine-covered trellises. The symmetrical, carefully composed exterior, an intricate mix of compact balconies and bay windows, helps the sizable tower look less imposing.

The front facade of the lower retail/residential wing facing 5th Avenue would be covered with stone on the lower floors and brick veneer on the upper levels, with modest square windows and an ornamental pattern along the parapet giving the building some retro-1890s character. Exterior colors on both the tower and lower annex would be light, off-whites.

The developers, who say they have already invested millions in their project, including more than $250,000 for the earlier design, are dangling a number of carrots in front of the city. They would donate a triangular hunk of land they say is valued at more than $450,000 to the city as park space (though they are also asking the city for rights to the much larger foot of 4th Avenue as their building’s auto entry).

The developers are also offering $100,000 toward construction of the linear park, about $1 million over 30 years toward the park’s maintenance and $200,000 toward increased security in the Gaslamp Quarter.

Park Plaza would include at least some public art: a statue of Alonzo Horton atop one corner and, possibly, a tile mosaic set in the sidewalk at 5th and Harbor.

But good design and a laundry list of bonuses still don’t justify the project. In a downtown being redeveloped with high-rises and other dense urban projects that have replaced older, more modest buildings, the Gaslamp Quarter represents the most significant concentration of authentic architectural history. As such, these period buildings deserve breathing room, a setting that will showcase them as precious diamonds instead of overshadowing their subtle sparkle.

Pioneer Warehouse Lofts and other, more modest projects show promise of revitalizing the southern end of the Gaslamp Quarter without a massive intrusion like Park Plaza.