Star on Skyline : America Plaza Is the Standout of S.D. High-Rises

Scheduled to welcome its first tenant Friday, the $188-million One America Plaza in downtown San Diego is clearly the new standout in a skyline dominated by stark, flat-topped ‘60s and ‘70s-style glass boxes.

Originally Commissioned as a prestigious new headquarters for Great American First Savings Bank, the project was initially called Great American Plaza. The name was changed earlier this year when the bank bowed out because of its financial woes. Great American is selling its 49% stake in the building to the Japanese Shimizu Land Corp., which already owns 51% of the project. The transaction is expected to close in December.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 7, 1991 Los Angeles Times Thursday November 7, 1991 San Diego County Edition View Part E Page 5 Column 3 View Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Last week’s Architecture column omitted the third designer of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art portion of the downtown One America Plaza complex. Architect David Raphael Singer is the collaborating architect on the project, working with artists Robert Irwin and Richard Fleischner.

For the sake of pleasing proportions, it’s too bad the Federal Aviation Administration turned down the developers’ request to build to 600 feet. At 500 feet and 34 stories, the tower looks a mite squatty.

Even so, America Plaza is easily the most sophisticated high-rise in downtown San Diego, from its graceful resolution of complex urban design problems to its unusual structural system, its razor-edged, distinctive top and warp-speed Mitsubishi elevators, touted by the developers as the fastest in town.

This is an intensively mixed-use project. It features a trolley station sandwiched between an art museum and an office tower that includes street-level retail and restaurant spaces as well as a public plaza, and it will have a yet-to-be-built 13-story, 270-room Guest Quarters hotel (designed by The Architects Collaborative of Boston).


The 10,000-square-foot, two-story free-standing building on the western edge of the site is slated to be inhabited by the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, a downtown counterpart to the La Jolla institution, although the negotiations have not been completed.

If the project goes through as planned, a variety of art exhibitions will be visible from Broadway in first- and second-floor galleries, at the building’s west end, which will have transparent glass walls.

Two larger, artificially lighted interior galleries will also accommodate art works that won’t withstand direct natural light. The museum is expected to open in April or May with works from its permanent collection and an exhibit featuring Japanese artist Noboru Tsubaki.

Museum director Hugh Davies recruited internationally renowned artists Robert Irwin and Richard Fleischner to design the museum’s interior and a small public plaza (to be completed next month) between the museum and the future hotel.

America Plaza’s trolley station (which will celebrate a grand opening Nov. 14) opens out toward the Santa Fe Depot train station just across Kettner, establishing this location as the exciting nexus of downtown mass transportation.

During the 1980s, Helmut Jahn and his Chicago-based company, Murphy/Jahn, became leaders in the specialized, sparsely populated field of high-rise design.

Jahn brings a rare combination of strengths to this discipline: a knack for dreaming up sleek, contemporary high-rises that make bold urban gestures, and a commitment to executing these designs with meticulous care.

Structurally, America Plaza’s tower is a departure from standard high-rise design. The building’s four primary supports surround the service core that houses the elevator shaft, rather than being placed at the perimeter, according to project architect Martin Wolf of Murphy/Jahn.

“The net result is we had more freedom to do things at the perimeter. Not only could we make a giant four-story window facing Broadway in our lobby, but we could also accommodate the trolley,” Wolf said. This structural plan allows the trolley to slice through the lower floors of the building.

When Great American and Shimizu purchased the land for the tower, they inherited from Starboard Development an agreement with the city that any development would include a trolley station on the land. Although the developers initially viewed the station as a possible liability with the unpredictability of people it might attract, it is obvious that the trolley is the most important element driving this exciting mixed-use design.

The trolley tracks slash through America Plaza in an S curve, entering the project at the foot of C Street on the east side, exiting on Kettner Boulevard on the west, near Broadway.

As he did at the United Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Jahn has made this transportation hub a high-tech collage of giant steel Erector Set-like parts.

Curved steel beams support a gray metal roof sheltering the open-air trolley station. The roof is divided by long, narrow skylights that spill natural light into the open-air station.

When retail and restaurant spaces in the base of the office tower and behind the hotel are occupied, they will help activate the trolley station with pedestrians.

America Plaza’s tower is skinned with a glass-curtain wall system, but in Jahn’s hands this potentially austere, monotonous material achieves precise elegance.

Four matching sides of this perfectly square high-rise slant inward as they rise from the 19,500-square-foot fifth floor to the 9,000-square-foot 33rd. Exterior walls are covered with alternating horizontal bands of transparent tinted “vision” glass and opaque “spandrel” glass that carries a pattern of dots organized into squares.

These horizontal strokes are countered by vertical aluminum mullions that rise from the bottom to the top of the building between the glass sections, giving the tower a pronounced skyward thrust that culminates in its open, steel-frame peak. The tower’s beveled corners give it the angular appearance of a faceted diamond and also create desirable corner suites.

On the south side, a soaring, squared entry arch of stainless-steel frames the massive stainless-steel-and-glass doors. Clear-glass panels at street level give the building an inviting transparency.

Inside, America Plaza’s four-story lobby teeters on the fine line between gaudy excess and sleek luxury.

Water slithers down one wall through a smooth black granite channel, and four ficus trees are set into the floor--there are no clunky above-ground planters here.

Walls and floors are covered with a mix of expensive marble and granite--the standard-issue corporate ego-boosters--installed with better-than-average craftsmanship.

Two elevator corridors reach back from the lobby to a bank of 20 elevators. A stainless-steel ceiling grid rises to a peak over these corridors, its pattern echoing the steel lattice atop the building.

Walls by the elevators are covered with dark, veiny-patterned birch (Jahn wanted marble here, but the developers went with wood to achieve a warmer effect).

Abstract facsimiles of the tower are etched into the stainless-steel elevator doors and carved into the marble walls at the ends of the elevator corridors.

Jahn oversaw the design of the hardware in America Plaza’s public spaces, from stainless steel railings at the edges of second-level balconies overlooking the lobby to a variety of attractive glass-and-stainless steel wall sconces.

From a distance, it’s hard not to see America Plaza as a poor man’s One Liberty Place, Jahn’s masterful skyscraper that dominates the Philadelphia skyline. But, even if San Diego’s version is short and stout, its crisp, clean lines, meticulous detailing and synergistic mixture of uses make it San Diego’s best high-rise to date.