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How To Make A Stadium More Than A Stadium

Evening Edition

Aired 7/5/12 on KPBS News.

San Diego architecture students reimagine Qualcomm Stadium and try to create a new kind of mall.

— A football stadium with a huge parking lot. You might not think of Qualcomm Stadium site being anything else. But some San Diego architecture students took the imaginative leap, turning it into a small, dense community with a historic ruin at its core.

Fourth-year student Huda Al Harith, at the New School of Architecture and Design, tells how her group wanted to redevelop the Qualcomm Stadium site if the Chargers abandon it.
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Above: Fourth-year student Huda Al Harith, at the New School of Architecture and Design, tells how her group wanted to redevelop the Qualcomm Stadium site if the Chargers abandon it.

It was just one of a series of final academic projects done this year by fourth-year students at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design. Whether it was making the best use of an aging football stadium or creating a new kind of shopping mall, New School president Steve Altman said it came down to using the city as a lab for urban planning.

“It's part of our mission to be heavily engaged in the urban community,” said Altman. “So we take on projects that are very real, very tangible.”

So what do you do with the 166-acre Qualcomm Stadium site if and when the San Diego Chargers abandon it and move to greener pastures? The site is now a stadium, surrounded by one of the country's largest parking lots. It's prime real estate, owned by the city, and it lies along the San Diego River.

Frank Wolden was the faculty advisor for students who examined the Qualcomm site.

“One of the early dialogues with the class was what do you do with the existing stadium,” he said.

The verdict was to keep the stadium, but maybe not all of it. Students like Huda Al Harith didn't want to lose the stadium's historic meaning.

"It touches something specific within the San Diego community and all the football fans. So we wanted to keep it like it was the coliseum in Rome,” she said. “We preserve it but keep it, like it still has a function."

Students made a three-dimensional model of the reimagined Qualcomm stadium site. In it, the stadium has become an amphitheater that faces the river. Leading down to the river is a green park, and surrounding the stadium in all other directions is a fairly dense development with condos, businesses and a few smaller parks.

This new development would generate revenue for the city and provide housing. The San Diego River would be re-channeled to make it more integral to the site. Wolden hoped the project reflects modern development principals.

“Such as the role of nature in the city, such as the role of sustainability,” he said, adding that students imagined it being a very walkable development.

And walkability is a good segway to the next planning project, presented at the New School of Architecture: The University Town Center Mall.

Today the UTC Mall, which lies between Interstate 5 and I-805, is pretty typical. It has big department stores that house anchor tenants. It has oceans of parking lots, much of them empty most of the time.

Faculty adviser Mike Stepner sayid his students wanted to combine housing and a variety of transport modes to bring residents closer to the shopping center.

"What do you do to attract people here,” he said. “How do you create a critical mass of people in the area so you have people a short distance from the shops, instead of driving 15 miles to go to Sears."

The redeveloped UTC Mall site would connect to San Diego’s mid-coast trolley line, now in the planning stages. In this scenario, the mall has been turned into a street grid with lots of shops, of course, but also many residential units mixed in.

Bordering the mall to the west is an extension of UC San Diego. To the east would be the relocated neighborhood public library.

Stepner said a lot of surface parking would be eliminated, and much of the existing mall would be torn down in order to create what looks more like a small town center, with an evolving collection of small businesses.

"It seems like businesses are moving all the time. They're changing locations or they're spreading apart," said student Kathryn Butters.

Other students spoke of making the multi-lane roads that surround UTC less of a threat to people afoot. Sidewalks would be broadened and lanes would be reduced, with the belief that reducing the speed of traffic would allow the streets to handle a larger volume of cars.

Would these academic plans work in the real world?

An executive of Westfield, which runs the UTC mall, attended the presentations and gave feedback to the students. He said the ideas were “intriguing,” but they would be “tough to implement, considering the diverse requirements of the many stakeholders with an interest in the property.”

But for now it may be enough for the students to dream, and to get a decent grade.