Tuesday, February 16, 2010
What should the future of downtown San Diego be? Three people with different perspectives talk about their vision for downtown.
SAN DIEGO MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. There's no disputing that downtown San Diego has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. More people live downtown, there's more nightlife, more construction, more activity. But change also has consequences. With more activity comes traffic and parking problems. As older buildings are replaced or renovated, people are displaced, and affordable spaces are lost. And as more new homeowners move in, the question about providing for the city's homeless is still an unresolved issue. San Diego’s on the brink of decisions involving projects that will further change the look, nature and accessibility of San Diego's urban core. So as part of the KPBS series on downtown, we've invited three people with different perspectives to talk about the future of downtown San Diego. I’d like to welcome my guests. Ruben Barrales is the president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. And, Ruben, welcome to These Days.
RUBEN BARRALES (President/CEO, San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce): Good morning, Maureen. Glad to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Ian Campbell is the general director and artistic director with the San Diego Opera. He’s been with the Opera since 1983. Ian, welcome back to KPBS.
IAN CAMPBELL (General Director/Artistic Director, San Diego Opera): Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: And Don Wood has been involved in downtown planning issues for over 25 years. He was employed by the County of San Diego and SDG&E for over 33, most of the time working in downtown San Diego. Don, welcome.
DON WOOD (Downtown Planner): Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. What is your vision for downtown San Diego? What priorities should the city focus on in downtown? Arts? Business? Open space? Call us with your questions and comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Ruben Barrales, as far as the Chamber of Commerce is concerned, what’s the assessment of downtown San Diego? Is it business friendly?
BARRALES: Well, generally speaking it is, but there’s a lot more to do. I think most people would agree that there’s been a lot of change in downtown but there still needs to be more, more in terms of amenities for the people that commute to downtown and work there, obviously, more residential serving opportunities, businesses for people that are living there. And we know that the population of downtown will be increasing substantially over the next decade, two decades. So we really feel as though there needs to be much more focus on serving the growing population that will be downtown and also creating a downtown that we can be proud of. San Diego’s the eighth largest city in the nation and our downtown should reflect the growth of San Diego and the cosmopolitan and in many ways international community that we are.
CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, Ruben, there’s a lot of retail business in downtown San Diego and we know about the condo developments. But should there be more of a mix of businesses, do you think? In other words, should there be more biotech businesses downtown? That kind of development?
BARRALES: Oh, most definitely. We know that downtown is a hub for the legal community and government in San Diego, and what that means many times, during the evenings and on weekends, other than tourists walking around, it’s something of a ghost town. And I think the focus should be on open space and businesses, again, that provide for opportunities for residents and workers in downtown, things like dry cleaners, things that…
CAVANAUGH: And, again, in terms of the Chamber of Commerce, you know, there’s large focus on tourism and convention business downtown and we see what happens when times are bad and the hotel business dries up. Is this the right direction for San Diego’s downtown in the future or should that area, that whole business area downtown, branch out?
BARRALES: Well, I think, as you mentioned earlier, there should be more diversity in terms of the businesses downtown. I’m excited by companies like ESET, which is a software internet security company, that’s headquartered in downtown San Diego, see more high tech, as you mentioned, biotech, other science related companies in downtown, I think, would be exciting. There you have people – People will have an opportunity to live and work in the same community, which is, I think, where we’re evolving slowly but we really do need more diversity rather than just having government and court-related services.
CAVANAUGH: I want to move to you, Don Wood. You have been involved in downtown planning for years. I want to know, what do you like about downtown right now?
WOOD: I think downtown, you know, especially compared to 20 years ago, is thriving. We’re going through a lull economically because we overbuilt the condo stock downtown and we overbuilt the hotel stock downtown. With the recession, tourism’s dropping off and so it exposes, as you mentioned, the fact that it’s – there’s a heavy, heavy emphasis on tourism downtown, and when that dries up—and it’s cyclical like a lot of other economies—you don’t have the diversification of your economy that you need to keep it healthy but I think, having said that, that if you go downtown today, there’s a lot of young people down there and it’s good crowds. The one thing I’d like to see change is the structure of the new buildings we’re building, and I’ll get into that in a minute.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, speaking with Ruben Barrales, a lot of his focus and a lot of his vision for the future of downtown has to make it – is to make it a more welcoming place for people who are living down there, people who are working down there, people who are visiting down there. So what are some of your ideas for opening up the city, so to speak, to make it that welcoming place?
WOOD: The most welcoming places downtown today are due to the efforts of some really brilliant planners early in the process. Mike Stepner was a former city planning director, you’ve had him on the show. Mike saved Gaslamp. They were ready to scrape Gaslamp, tear it down and put up what we call blockbuster buildings. That’s where you take all the small buildings on a single block, get rid of all of them and build one large building. It’s cheaper for a developer to pay one architect to design one building than it is to build 20. And so there’s been a tendency to just take out whole blocks of a community and put up a big, sterile building and it usually ends up with an unfriendly streetscape as people walk by. Often they have their parking garage there. As you walk by, you see bumpers. And so that’s one of the things that has to change. We need more Little Italys, we need more Gaslamps downtown. We need to build new neighborhoods that have the same ambience, have different built sized buildings, different setbacks, stepbacks to create a more textured street walk.
CAVANAUGH: I see what you’re saying. Before I get to – go on to Ian Campbell, I want to sneak in one phone call. We are taking your calls about your vision for downtown San Diego at 1-888-895-5727. And Nat is calling from Del Mar. Good morning, Nat, and welcome to These Days.
NAT (Caller, Del Mar): Good morning. I think that the most important aspect of downtown, obviously, is the San Diego Bay, which has been ignored by the developers and the people that – the movers and shakers. There’ve been wonderful plans over the years to create areas that take advantage of the bay for both the public and the tourists, and those plans, when they come to – when they approach implementation, somehow or another they always get compromised or put by the wayside by the powers that be. And I think that if anything happens for downtown, the vision really has to pay attention to the bay and public spaces and stop bending over backwards for the developers. And I’d like the comments about that.
CAVANAUGH: Sure. Thank you, Nat. Thank you for that. What about Nat’s comments about limited access to the waterfront? Do you…
BARRALES: I think he’s absolutely right. I think the bay is probably the biggest asset for downtown and it’s completely under-utilized. And, hopefully, with the new plans for along the Embarcadero, we’ll be able to take better advantage of that. Providing for open space, that’s so important in downtown area, making sure that we have affordable – or, open public space, free public space, and I think, as Don mentioned, you really want the human scale. You want people to feel comfortable walking downtown, not standing next to incredibly large buildings but have – being in a community, in a neighborhood. And if we can develop that along our bay front, I think San Diego will have a world class downtown.
CAVANAUGH: I want to welcome to our conversation Ian Campbell, general director and artistic director with the San Diego Opera. Ian, in many cities the arts play a very large part, a huge part in downtown life. How do you think San Diego compares?
CAMPBELL: Well, in many respects we lost an opportunity because San Diego is a city of communities rather than a compact city. So we have NTC, we have Mission Valley, Fashion Valley, we reach out towards La Jolla. We don’t have everything connected the way the older cities do and, therefore, the arts are really somewhat isolated at the moment from downtown. We have the wonderful park with all of the arts up there but it’s very difficult for tourists even to get there and to appreciate the quality of what we have. We have a wonderful Symphony Hall but it’s distant from the current Civic Theatre. We have one Playhouse downtown; we have wonderful ones elsewhere. So we’ve missed that opportunity to some extent but we can certainly improve the arts downtown. I always had the dream of an arts center down on the water in what is now Lane Field, which is now going to become more hotels, walling off the water, whereas having grown up in Sydney, having sung in the Sydney Opera House, I can tell you the change that that arts center made to that community not only in terms of tourism but civic pride. And that opportunity is also apparently lost but I agree, we should develop the Civic Center plaza and in that process create a focal point and in the same process redevelop the Civic Theatre itself, which is very much in need of repair, modernization. Because if we have a lyric theatre like that downtown, let’s make the most of it. I would like to see more arts downtown, I’d like to see more museum activity downtown, that can transfer fairly easily. And if you go to the bigger cities in the world, all of that is central and, therefore, the public can enjoy it, and the tourists can enjoy it.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Ian, as you have seen the city change and, as I say, you’ve been with the San Diego Opera since 1983, so you’ve seen huge changes occur downtown. Do you feel that the voice of the arts, of the arts community, is heard when those changes are being considered?
CAMPBELL: I think it’s heard in some ways and then, like so many other things, not followed through. We hear of developments that are going to include arts. There’s going to be a museum. There’s going to be art on show, and then suddenly that space diminishes and, in many cases, goes away. The city has developed extraordinarily. When I first came, Broadway was sailors and women who worked only at night, and now that’s totally different. And we see far more openness. We see public down there but, as we heard earlier, you can’t find a dry cleaner downtown. And you look back to the older cities whether it’s, again, Sydney or London, these are downtowns of shopkeepers, so you can do all of your business there without having to hop in a car and go to Mission Valley or Fashion Valley. Horton Plaza has changed a lot of that but it’s not enough.
CAVANAUGH: I’m interested in what you’re saying, Ian, because – and I want to ask Ruben this, many of the older cities that have very vibrant downtowns grew organically. These little villages, little sections, neighborhoods, grew up organically. Nobody planned them. I wonder, is it possible or is it even fair to ask San Diego to try to recreate the feel of that kind of a downtown when, you know, from – basically from the top down, not the bottom up.
BARRALES: Well, I think that many of those European or even American world class cities are much older. San Diego is a very, very young town and it really – and it grew as a Navy town, as Ian mentioned, so we’re really inventing San Diego as we move forward. And so the question here really is to take all of the different tensions, dynamics and conflicting interests, in terms of open space, in terms of for developers getting as much square footage as possible, in terms of opening up the bay, access to the bay and the like, get – putting all those things together and figuring out what makes the most sense for San Diego. I’m very optimistic about downtown. Everyone claims downtown in San Diego. Even though most people don’t live downtown, in a way it’s a focal point for our community, our business life, our entertainment, much of our entertainment, and the like, and so I think it’s important that we do pay attention. Don pays a lot of attention to what’s happened – what happens downtown and, hopefully, we end up with a much stronger downtown community and one that we can all be proud of.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. We are taking your phone calls, inviting your participation at 1-888-895-5727. Matt’s calling us from downtown. Good morning, Matt, and welcome to These Days.
MATT (Caller, Downtown San Diego): Good morning, and thanks for taking my call. Yeah, I’ve been living downtown for the last four years and I actually served on the Centre City Advisory Committee where I learned a lot about the redevelopment district and everything going on with the city and the plans and also the history of downtown. And being a resident and a student at the time when I was serving on the committee, I thought that downtown has a very unique opportunity not only to – I agree with the comments about opening up the waterfront and utilizing that but I think San Diego’s downtown has a great opportunity to be a center for learning, basically education, and really featuring that San Diego is a great place to come for learning because of all the different universities and opportunities for learning here as well as the history of San Diego’s arts and culture because there’s a lot of rich culture in San Diego, from my experience of living in San Diego and not only in downtown but other places in San Diego so…
CAVANAUGH: Matt, thank you so much for your comments. I really appreciate it. Speaking of learning in downtown San Diego, Don, I want to ask you about the proposed library. And, first, do you support the proposed downtown library, this major new construction that is now out for bid and the city council is waiting to find out what the cost actually might be for that?
WOOD: Rob Quigley is an old friend of mine and we’ve both grown old waiting for a library, a downtown library, to get built. I think we are slowly getting there but it’s been two decades that we’ve been trying to get this project through. This is one of the difficulties we have downtown, is that our elected political leaders tend to lurch from one multi-million dollar capital project idea to another downtown. It’s taken 20 years to try to get the library done. We are now facing a huge expense, a monster project, trying to re-do the Civic Center, which I think needs to be – I think these are our two top priorities downtown but while we’re trying to get these things done, along comes the convention center, who wants a billion dollar expansion, along come the Chargers, who want a billion dollar football stadium. And I watch our elected leaders lurch from one to the other saying, this is a wonderful idea, this is a wonderful idea. This is like a kid in a candy store with no money. They’re broke. The cops are coming outside because they owe so much money and they’re looking at the new billion dollar toy they want to put up. We need to set, for downtown, our elected leaders need to set very clear priorities and stick to those priorities, get one project done then start thinking about the next project and the next project but get something done. And we haven’t for 20 years because we keep lurching off to the next bright idea that some special interest put in front of our elected leaders.
CAVANAUGH: Well, it sounds like we still have a lot to talk about. We do have to take a short break, though, and when we return, we’ll continue our conversation with Ruben Barrales, Ian Campbell and Don Wood about the future of downtown San Diego. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking about the vision for downtown San Diego. My guests are Don Wood, who’s been involved in downtown planning issues for over 25 years, Ian Campbell, general director and artistic director with the San Diego Opera, and Ruben Barrales, president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. There are a lot of people who want to join the conversation but, Ruben, I want to ask you one question. Has the Chamber of Commerce taken a position on the new library, the new civic center, a new Chargers stadium, any of the above?
BARRALES: Yes, the Chamber of Commerce, our board of directors and members, are very supportive of the new civic center. The current city hall is – has been used beyond its years, useful life. And it’ll – from our perspective, it’ll take more money to put into it to get it up to standard and then it’ll have to be rebuilt anyways because it’s an old building, so we’re very, very supportive of a new civic center. Also, convention center, there might be disagreements about the configuration of the convention center and the like but it’s an important economic driver in San Diego. Also very supportive of a Chargers stadium in downtown, if it can be implemented, executed well, I think it could be a great benefit for downtown as well.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a call. Clayton is calling from Grossmont. Good morning, Clayton, and welcome to These Days.
CLAYTON (Caller, Grossmont): Good morning, Maureen. My comment-slash-question is actually for anyone on the panel who wants to answer it. I’ve seen in the past, other cities that try to do revitalizations and they do wonderful work downtown but the problem is during the revitalization they create so much congestion that everyone moves to the outskirts as it is so when they’re done, no one wants to go into the center and see what’s been done or re – bring business into what has just been revitalized because it’s been – they’ve been incapable of getting there for how ever many years it took to revitalize. What’s the city’s stand on that? How do they plan on dealing with that?
CAVANAUGH: Clayton, thank you so much for the question. I wonder, Ian, do you think that it’s too much, so much construction going on downtown that it’s, you know, it’s counterproductive?
CAMPBELL: At the moment, I don’t think so. And that kind of thing can be programmed and should be programmed. It shouldn’t be everybody in at the same time. And our streets are very narrow. When you look at the width of them, there’s nothing there on Fourth Avenue and Fifth Avenue, for example, where all the restaurants are. And in that area, I think it’s time to look at malls, open areas where people can walk rather than have cars going through and we have to adapt then to the needs of the shopkeepers and restaurants in those areas. But, yes, if you have too much development at the same time, it can be very discouraging and, therefore, there has to be programming. When will the library happen? When will this happen? And, clearly, if we’re going to have a baseball stadium and a football stadium downtown, the traffic is going to become horrendous because there’ll be nonstop traffic there. So planning is what it’s about and that’s what we are talking about here, planning, not just, as we heard, having a go at this and a go at that.
CAVANAUGH: Don and Ruben, I’d like to get your quick takes on what you think the traffic is like now in downtown San Diego. Is it something that you can deal with, traffic and parking, or is it a major problem?
BARRALES: Well, unfortunately, with the down economy traffic improves.
BARRALES: I mean, there’s less traffic on the streets. But parking is a big issue and especially with projections for growth in terms of residents and workers downtown. We really need to address the issue of parking and make sure we put a priority there. But just as important, we need to emphasize public transit, and our public transit system getting to and around downtown is critical.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, Don, is our public transit system addressing the needs of downtown?
WOOD: It has been stop and go, herky-jerky planning. Back in 1991 when we were doing the second-to-last downtown community plan update, the idea of peripheral parking garages was discussed where people coming down Highway 5, 163, 904 – or, 94, would come to downtown and they would park in a parking garage below ground, below a park possibly. Several of the parks that CCDC plans are on the periphery of downtown. You would park in a downtown parking garage. If you wanted to go into downtown, you would have a sensor on your car and you would pay a fee, congestion fee, if you will, for taking that car downtown. One of the beauties of San Diego’s downtown, which is not typical of a lot of large cities, is that you can walk from one end of downtown to the other in downtown in 15 minutes.
WOOD: It is a pedestrian friendly downtown if we make use of it. What we talked about at that time was using the trolley and jitneys, or a jitney system, so that you had these little circuit transit buses for those who are disabled. You’d get out of your car at the peripheral parking garage, underground peripheral parking garage, you’d get on the jitney or get on the trolley, and you have a circle or a, you know, a circular pattern downtown so you’d get to every place downtown via transit after you get out of your car. If you get out of your car, you don’t have to walk all the way to get there.
CAVANAUGH: But we’re not quite there yet.
WOOD: SANDAG and CCDC are still working on this. Money is always a problem. When the state’s taking transit money right and left, it’s hard to follow through on good ideas. But I think that’s an idea that will eventually take off and I think eventually will get to the point where you will come downtown, you’ll park your car in a peripheral, underground garage, and you will take a jitney or you will take the trolley or you will take the shuttle to wherever you need to get downtown and you’ll get there just as quickly as if you spent two hours looking for a parking place.
CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Let’s take a call. Ron is calling from Mission Hills. Good morning, Ron, and welcome to These Days.
RON (Caller, Mission Hills): Oh, hi. It’s the same old thing. Let’s put everything downtown San Diego. God, I get so tired of it. Everybody else must as well. We can’t put everything downtown. We live in a dispersed community. I was recently in Washington, D.C. They don’t have everything downtown, they have things dispersed all over the place. There are really nice neighborhoods.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you…
RON: NTC, Liberty Station…
RON: …I don’t know if you’ve been there recently or not, it has a 46-acre park on the jetty that goes out into the ocean.
RON: It’s a beautiful facility. They have 28—28—former barracks that probably have 25,000 square feet each. You know, I recently wrote an article about this. Let’s do – If you want to put the library someplace, you have $30 million, they say, make it a campus-style library at NTC. Everything does not have to be downtown. The idea of driving somewhere…
CAVANAUGH: Ron, thank you. Gotcha. I understand. Everything does not have to be downtown. A lot of people feel that way very strongly. And I want to take another call. Natalie is calling from La Mesa. Good morning, Natalie. Welcome to These Days.
NATALIE (Caller, La Mesa): Good morning. Yeah, my idea for downtown was to have a nature center and a census poll on all the businesses conducting pollution and all the businesses that are working for more of a green practice, and doing some projects on that nature center to help fund money for the environment and for the resources for our city.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that. That’s a nice idea. I want to take one more call. Alex is calling from Rancho Bernardo. Good morning, Alex. Welcome to These Days.
ALEX (Caller, Rancho Bernardo): All right, my call was along with the forward – the previous, second caller, actually, that when would downtown wants to get – to be self sufficient. Right now, you have the whole county and City of San Diego basically subsidizing the life and all those things, construction and the – well, not all the construction, all the life that goes on downtown. Yet you would figure with all those tourists, businesses, baseball, they would, you know, be – have enough money that they could, you know, get their own going. As far as, I think and understand, they haven’t still paid back the city the loan that they took out like 10 years ago for CCDC. And everything, sometimes whenever they want to get away with something, they, you know, throw in a carrot in front of us, like, oh, yeah, we’re going to have a library pretty soon. Keep dreaming about the library. And let me tell you, we will never have a library down there. So that’s my comment. They’re just wasting our money, wrong location, and, you know what, besides downtown there’s at least 20 different neighborhoods in the City of San Diego.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that comment, Alex. And I suppose our last callers have pointed out that perhaps the fundamental argument that San Diego needs a vibrant downtown is not – has not been made. That argument has not been accepted. And I’m wondering, Ruben, how you would answer that?
BARRALES: Well, I think, as I said earlier, San Diego is the eighth largest city in the country. It’s very spread out. We have a number of different communities and many San Diegans don’t venture downtown. They’re quite content within their own neighborhoods. But the reality is that downtown is an important part of civic life in San Diego and, obviously, not everything needs to be downtown, not everything will be, but we’re going to have more people living there, we’re going to have more people working there, we’re going to have more tourists visiting there into downtown. And there are some of us who want to see downtown San Diego be a world class city, a world class downtown. And I think we’re on the brink of making some important decisions that will affect the life of downtown for generations to come.
CAVANAUGH: Ian, there is something in the arts especially where if there are a number of performance spaces, museums, theatres, artistic endeavors in a rather small area, don’t they sort of feed off each other and grow to an extent that they wouldn’t grow if they were isolated in various parts of the county?
CAMPBELL: They certainly do, and when you have that kind of focus, you also bring more and more quality artists into the city who are likely to stay, whether it’s actors, singers, designers, lighting designers. So an awful lot of talent comes that can be used also in other areas, not only in performing a play or doing a wonderful work of art that might hang on a wall. These people can be used throughout the community. And when you look at any great city—and let’s assume we want to be a great city, although I don’t know what that really means—they do have a focal point about the arts in which they take pride. But that pride also goes elsewhere. I was just in Dallas where they have a new arts center, a new complex. The pride among the citizens was unbelievable. Everybody I spoke to knew where it was, knew what it was, and said, see, we’re not just Dallas, we actually have culture as well. And I think all of us believe in that. Yes, there can be culture in the park, there can be Playhouses in La Jolla and elsewhere. There’s nothing against that. But to have a vibrant downtown the way the Lincoln Center, for example, totally changed an area. That was where “West Side Story” was filmed. And now you know that that is very, very different from “West Side Story.” Or the area where all of the theatres are on Broadway down around 42nd Street and elsewhere, that all helps. It also attracts business because if you’re going to have a lot of people in a theatre area, they also need to eat, they need to park their cars. So the arts can actually be an economic driver of a kind that we often don’t recognize.
CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, I want to ask all of you because we’re in our final minutes here. If you could change anything about downtown, Don, if there was one thing that you felt was now a pivotal point that needs to go one way or the other for the future of this city, what would it be?
WOOD: I think – I think that – I want to – Our callers called in and complained about the suburbs subsidizing San Diego downtown.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Right, right.
WOOD: I wanted to point out that from 1960 to 1980, all the city’s resources went into building the suburbs, which is why downtown was a gutted ghetto for 20 years. And it wasn’t until Pete Wilson came along in 1980 and built CCDC that we started reinvesting in our downtown and bringing it back. So the idea that the outlying suburbs are being ripped off to build downtown basically, no, it’s a reversing the subsidization that took place for two decades. I think that the most important thing we’ve talked about today, I think CCDC needs to refine its policies, its design policies. I don’t think that the day where a builder buys a whole block and builds a single building on it, I think those days have to be over. I think CCDC needs to put some sort of minimum building number per block up so that if you’re going to buy a block of land and tear down the buildings that are there, you build at least 10 or 20 buildings on that block. You can put your big tower in the middle because nobody notices a big tower in the middle but build two- and three-story buildings on the outside of the block so that you get this human scale wall – street wall – street walls.
CAVANAUGH: And, Ruben and Ian, I’m so sorry but you have about 30 seconds, okay?
BARRALES: Well, I’d say convention center, Civic Center, hopefully, Chargers center, and public space along the bay for residents of San Diego and tourists to enjoy.
CAVANAUGH: And Ian.
CAMPBELL: Definitely an improved Civic Center, an improved Civic Theatre and, I agree, in all big development make sure that on the ground floor there are lots of shops and stores for the general public rather than walls of concrete with private doors.
CAVANAUGH: And a dry cleaners.
CAMPBELL: And a dry cleaner.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, gentlemen, so much. I really appreciate it. I’ve been speaking with Ruben Barrales, Ian Campbell and Don Wood. So many people wanted to speak with us and we just didn’t have time to get you on the air. Please do go online and post your comments, KPBS.org/thesedays. Stay with us for hour two coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.