A Commentary about San Diego's Waterfront
after the Orchids & Onions 2010 Awards
by Michael Stepner
First published by San Diego Architectural Foundation Nov. 2010
I Cover the Waterfront is the title of a 1920s book and a 1933 movie about intrigue on San Diego’s waterfront by reporter Max Miller. San Diego’s downtown waterfront has always been a location for intrigue and controversy.
In his 1908 Comprehensive Plan for San Diego and his 1927 General Plan, John Nolen proposed plans for the waterfront that designated the area south of Eighth Avenue as industrial, but the Embarcadero north of Eighth Avenue was to be reserved as a place for the people of San Diego to enjoy. Nevertheless, we have been debating what should happen on the Embarcadero ever since. How do we balance revenue generation, tourism, and a place for the San Diego populace?
In her October 15, 2010, column in the San Diego Union-Tribune entitled In Search of San Diego's Front Porch, Karla Peterson wrote “Be it ever so beautiful and blighted, serene and rackety, sun-dappled and traffic clogged, there is no place like San Diego’s waterfront; and, in time, it might even be a place where San Diegans can feel at home.”
The 2010 Grand Onion went to the San Diego Unified Port District for its development of the Cruise Ship Terminal on Broadway Pier and the deletion of the public plaza at the foot of Broadway. As Roger Showley wrote in his San Diego Union-Tribune article covering the awards, “the jurors derided the terminal as a pimple on the waterfront; more like a pimple on the face; a realized nightmare; a structure that does not belong at the city’s front porch.”
he design of the Embarcadero is a continuing saga. The Grand Onion is merely the most recent recognition that something is wrong with the way we have been developing our waterfront. How and why the terminal displaced the long-standing adopted plan for a public pier and plaza is the stuff for a sequel to Max Miller’s book. How we, as engaged citizens, might take part in getting our Embarcadero and region back on track and take advantage of the transformational opportunities before us may just be fodder for a new book altogether.
The future of the Embarcadero is in the hands of the Port, the public, and the courts. It is not only the Cruise Ship Terminal that has failed to live up to expectations but the entire Embarcadero, including the Navy Broadway Complex, a previous Onion awardee.
The Grand Onion followed the latest round of workshops. On October 23, members of the public were offered an opportunity to take part in Waterfront Visioning Meeting and tour sponsored by the Council of Design Professionals, C-3, Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, League of Women Voters, Public Trust Alliance, NewSchool of Architecture & Design, Partners for Livable Places, Urban Land Institute and the Ilan Lael Foundation. The report and video generated as a result of the meeting are motivating and hopeful. Have a look!
In the "About Us" page of the SDAF website there is a passage; It is easy to assume that the quality of our buildings and urban design is beyond our control or in someone else’s hands. But the reality is that we all play a role in shaping our built environment. We must be aware, appreciative and involved in the design of our environment in order to ensure that the ongoing evolution of our city and our region creates and preserves a heritage worthy of future generations.
To keep up to date on what is happening, read the newspaper and watch the news. Attend the meetings. Discussions with the Port and other involved parties continue. Take part in them. The question remains: Who does our waterfront belong to and what is the highest and best use for the people of San Diego? Be part of the answer.
In Richard Louv's San Diego Union-Tribune column on 11/28/06, he wrote “What, then, is the measure of a great city or urban region? Its education systems? Its arts? Its business inventiveness? All of the above; but, the most overlooked measure is a city’s dedication to the public space.”
- Michael Stepner, FAIA, FAICP
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