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What City Hall Says About San Diego


In the coming year, San Diego political leaders will decide whether to build a new city hall. But what does a city hall say about the city it serves?

— In the coming year, San Diego political leaders will decide whether to build a new city hall. But what does a city hall say about the city it serves?

For architect Mike Stepner, a quote from public radio host Garrison Keillor sums up how he feels about San Diego building a new city hall.

“If politicians were asked today to fund beautiful buildings, they would respond, why do we need it? And he said the answer is to raise our hearts and inspire us,” he says.

Stepner is now a professor at the New School of Architecture and Design in downtown San Diego, but he’s also served as San Diego’s city architect and planning director. He says, not only does the current city hall not inspire people, you can hardly pick it out of a line-up.

“If you stand on the corner of 2nd and Broadway and you look towards the city hall and you see the Westgate Hotel and the office building across the street, you can’t tell what’s the city hall and what’s just the bad building. It doesn’t say who we are,” he says.

Stepner says the current city hall wasn’t built correctly to begin with. It was finished in 1964 and supposed to have a few more floors and elevators. The city council chambers were planned for the ground level, but in the 60s, street protests were a worry and the chambers were moved to the 12th floor. Stepner says it might be possible to convince San Diegans a new city hall is needed.

“You build a consensus for it because it is a symbol of who we are,” he says. “If you look at L.A.’s city hall, they just spent multi-million dollars in restoration work over the last few years because of the importance the Los Angeles people felt it was to their city. San Francisco did the same thing a few years ago.”

Chula Vista, Poway and Coronado are among the cities in San Diego County that have recently remade their civic centers. Vista plans to open its new $55 million complex this summer. San Diego’s proposed project would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, though proponents say the city would save money in the long run. Right now San Diego leases additional downtown office space because there’s not enough room at city hall for all employees. The current building is also expensive to maintain. But the thought of undertaking a multi-million-dollar project doesn’t sit well with city watchdog Mel Katz, even if a new building would be more aesthetically pleasing.

“I’m not a big fan of architecture, especially when taxpayers have to pay for it. If private business wants to pay for a beautiful building, fine,” Katz says.

Outside a popular downtown sushi restaurant a crowd of people wait to be seated. Vanessa Pridmore stands with some friends. She’s not sure it’s the right time to pursue the project either.

“Unless the building of the City Hall could help create a good number of jobs for the residents of San Diego, I don’t think it’s an important project to be considering right now. Because there are so many things with our city deficit that need to be looked at first,” she says.

Fellow diner Neil Clark says assuring the city can run smoothly should be the most important consideration.

“If the current facility isn’t conducive to everything that needs to happen than either they need to retrofit or reconfigure or else build a new facility,” Clark says. “But city hall is the center of the city so it should represent the city as a whole.”

San Diego’s bottom line isn’t the only one Murtaza Baxamusa is thinking about. He’s with the Center on Policy Initiatives, a local advocacy group for working people. Baxamusa says too much of downtown has been privatized.

“It is especially important in tough times like today, when our middle class is struggling to be able to find a place where I can take my child to and not feel obligated to buy something,” he says.

Architect Mike Stepner doesn’t give a lot of thought to whether it’s the right time for San Diego to build a new city hall. He says there will always be someone who doesn’t want to spend the money.

“We built our best public works in this country during the depression when we didn’t have any money and we enacted all sorts of programs to build things,” Stepner says. “I think the timing is right to start doing a lot of the public works that we’ve neglected, especially in California for the last 40 years.”

San Diego’s negotiations with developer Gerding Edlen over price and project details are expected to conclude in mid-2010.


San Diego's Evolving Downtown

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