Why Design Matters, San Diego! The Cabrillo Bridge + Plaza de Panama

Public Space, San Diego, Urban Design

Way back in 2010 I asked the City of San Diego Planning Commission, “Why screw up the bridge to fix the plaza?” Six years later it still rings true as it makes very little sense to significantly alter/change one of San Diego’s best places, the Cabrillo Bridge, in order to remove the few cars now flowing through the now beloved Plaza de Panama. Back then, the project passed our city council amidst volatile debate and subsequently failed a court challenge. Very few cried its demise. Mayor Sanders and beloved philantropist Dr. Irwin Jacobs walked away from their “all-or-nothing pedestrian-oriented plaza Centennial Plan” that consisted of an auto-oriented ‘by-pass bridge’ appendage off the Cabrillo Bridge that funneled traffic into a 200-car parking garage. However, last year the lawsuit was overturned and the exact same project was quietly resurrected by new Mayor Falconer.

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A ‘World’s Fair’ with the same design intent as Chicago’s White City and London’s Crystal Palace.

Three years ago, a group of us assisted Mayor Filner (curse his name) to design a temporary pedestrian plaza that has been a clear success (for 60 plus years it was a parking lot for 57 cars).  It was a ‘tactical urbanist‘ approach to test and measure success before investing in such a dramatic change in its character from a parking lot into the plaza it was designed to be. We had to be mindful of local institutions fear of losing customers (all have since had record breaking years) who would want to park in front of their museums as well as the Uptown Planning Group not wanting people to park in their community if the bridge was closed to all traffic. The plaza sits on an isolated mesa and as design icon Leon Krier noted, the plaza core needs traffic to bring people to it as nobody lives in easy walking distance, which makes it very different from European city plazas in the center of town (Plaza San Marco in Venice, Piazza Navona in Rome, and Rittenhouse Square in Philly).

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7/8th of Plaza was re-opened to pedestrians, replacing 57 parking spaces, but still allowing cars and trams to flow through 1/8th of the plaza to pick up/drop off.

 

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Today the plaza hosts events, food trucks, troubadours, children, new restaurant, 2016 Tour de California, and many wedding pictures.

The Problem

The new by-pass project looks like any other auto-oriented grade-seperated off-ramp leading to a parking garage between Sabre Springs and Riverside. The design is an after thought, breaking the flow of one of the world’s best designed places found in San Diego (the other might be the Salk Institute).

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Rick Engineering and Civitas Design for the Auto By-Pass + Parking Garage (on right)

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I’m not sure what to write here… except that this is exceptionally underwhelming.

My concern is that the poorly conceived, traffic engineering focussed space that will scar our Panama Exposition core as every other building, street, plaza, park space and parking space in it was executed with tremendous design acumen over a century ago for our pleasure. What will be beloved about this new appendage a 100 years from today. It appears we are honoring our cultural heritage with what will now be two new dreary parking garages (the other is between the Botanical building and the zoo) and a ‘by-pass’ that diverts people away from intended beauty and into an enclosed parking lot.

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Okay, a bit dated, but so are the issues at hand.

Unfortunately, San Diego has again forgotten what, Bertram Goodue, and George and Hamilton Marston knew: Building towards social and cultural value always equates to economic value while the converse is not always as true. Point is, we need to design in ways to celebrate, exhaust, express our local cultural values… maybe the by-pass does this?

I understand the construction documents are currently under review in the city’s Development Services Department, so this is essentially a moot point. I’ll go on as an explanation for posterity purposes, and thank you for continuing to read this…

The Original Big Idea

In my century old edition of Carleton Winslow’s, The Architecture and the Gardens of the San Diego Exposition, master architect,  Bertram Goodhue, clearly explains Panama Exposition’s big design idea. His metaphor was to give visitors to San Diego a virtual tour of traveling across the Atlantic Ocean (The Cabrillo Bridge); Through the Panama Canal where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans collide (California Quadrangle and its California Tower as a beacon); Up the Mexican Rivera coastline (the Spanish Arcades), and finally; A majestic arrival at a new California Arcadia (The Plaza de Panama)… all set in a ‘garden!’

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Goodhue had a darn good idea, executed it well, and let everyone experience what the Panama Canal means to San Diego and its beautiful, well-designed future!

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The View of the By-Pass Bridge area as conceived by Goodhue. These buildings are suppose to be in a garden setting, and not a parking lot.

 

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The two reclining figures represent the Atlantic and Pacific oceans with the waves colliding at the Panama Canal in the center.

Three Better Design Options:

1. Shared Street: Keep everything as is… and rather than build more auto-oriented facilities (by-pass bridge + 200 space parking garage), a more  austere solution would be to make the street a ‘shared space,’ and keep the traffic flow to minimum speed of bikes and pedestrians with valet drop off, in order to access and enhance – rather than alter – San Diego’s greatest civic space. Everyone wins, even the parking garage can be built, and the cars/trams will behave even better, while continuing to deliver people directly to and from the institutions, and it only takes the cost of a sign. Supporters of the Sanders/Faulconer plan say the traffic today is dangerous. This would improve that for essentially $250 dollars (the cost of five signs).

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We already have these in San Diego (at the Mouth of the mighty San Diego River).

2. Use the Existing By-Pass to the Existing Parking Garage: Irving Gill, another great designer, already built an arcade portal that links to the north that needs just one short connection to access existing streets and an existing subterranean parking structure. Add 200 parking units (one deck) to the existing structure, make that one connection, and viola! A well-designed By-Pass that drops the elderly and patrons direction in front of the Theaters. Supporters of the Sanders/Faulconer Plan say they want the access/parking for the theaters and the core… this is closer, cheaper, faster. (Post-script: Heard the Quince Street off-ramp could be a better solution for this access point and should be discussed)

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Two ways to access a parking deck and maintain the integrity of Goodhue’s masterful design: Through the Gill’s driveway or up from Quince Street)

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See Irving Gill’s one-way By-Pass arch there on the left? Just signage and paint and its better designed than the engineering Sabre Springs off-ramp.

3. How about a Beautifully Designed Bridge: Propose a new addition that carefully and thoughtfully adds dignity, value, and delight to visitors biking, walking, tramming, or driving to visit the Panama Exposition Grounds. Simply host a design competition. Ask the best in the world to give their best ideas, be bold and transparent to San Diegans about the value of the place that we all love and care for! I have never understood why a world-class design competition has been avoided from the beginning and this project being handled in this ‘my-way-or-no-way’ manner?

The design issue is, beyond its mindless deconstruction of the Nationally Registered Historic Cabrillo Bridge, the banal by-pass bridge in a sea of beauty that purposely impedes the flow of Goodie’s original design idea while adding nothing to the culture and heritage of San Diego’s most recognized jewel. Well, now we can hope for the best as we have zero assurances the best is being considered a century after our forefathers delivered such for our benefit.

 

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Think this Bridge is Important to our Heritage? “Its more than a Bridge…”

 

WORK: Plaza de Panama, Balboa Park Advocacy

Urban Planning

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In 2013, at the San Diego Mayor’s request, I assisted the City of San Diego in reconceptualizing the removal of 57 parking spaces from the heart of Balboa Park. Continued to provide urban design technical assistance as for the park through my role with the City of San Diego’s Civic Innovation Lab.