Future Of Downtown San Diego
JOANNE FARYON (Host): The City of San Diego is facing some major decisions as it enters this decade. A new library, a Chargers stadium, and a new City Hall are all on a list of projects that could shape downtown long into the future. Reporter Katie Orr has been exploring the past, present, and future of the city’s urban core, and she joins me now to talk about what she's learned. Katie, what has emerged as really being the big issues when you were looking at the downtown?
KATIE ORR (KPBS News): Well, I think the big issue for downtown is how it’s going to move forward and become a neighborhood in the future. An estimated 60,000 people are expected to move into downtown in the coming years to add to the 30,000 or so that already live there. So how are you going to balance the needs of the businesses down there, the tourism industry down there, the people that make that area their home? You need more schools, you need parks, you need better infrastructure. You need to address the homeless population that lives down there. That’s a big concern in my coverage. It kept coming up. People want the homeless population to have a place to go. People want to be able to live downtown and feel comfortable in their neighborhood. So, I think as the area continues to grow, that’s going to be the major focus.
FARYON: Now, there are so many new building projects the city has to decide on. Are some seen as more critical than others, like a Chargers stadium versus a library?
ORR: It depends totally on who you talk to. There are people who think there is no way San Diego can be a world-class city without a world-class library. And that is their belief. There are people who think that what we need is a new City Hall and Civic Center. The one we have was built in the ‘60’s and is frankly just not a very nice building. So what does it say about San Diego that that is our representative building? That’s where our City Council and mayor sit. So some people want a grand new structure to be built. Of course, there is the expansion of the Convention Center. Some people think we need that so that we draw more and more lucrative conventions to San Diego. And of course as you mentioned, the Chargers stadium. Some people think that could do for the rest of downtown what Petco Park did for East Village in terms of development. And people think if we don’t build it the Chargers will leave, and people don’t want to see that happen.
FARYON: Now, you spoke to a lot of people about their vision for the future. Who did you talk to?
ORR: First of all, I talked to Ruben Barrales. He’s the president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and he believes that San Diego does need to pursue some of these larger development projects.
RUBEN BARRALES (CEO, San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce): I think what we really need to do is redevelop the Civic Center in downtown and along with that the Convention Center, which is so important to downtown’s economy and explore the possibility of a stadium for the Chargers in downtown San Diego. I think San Diego truly needs to take advantage of the bay and open up and have much more pedestrian friendly, public open spaces for residents, people that work in downtown and for tourists to truly appreciate downtown San Diego.
FARYON: Katie, the Convention Center gets a lot of attention. Aren’t there already plans to expand?
ORR: Yes, there are. The Convention Center would like to add 400,000 square feet of exhibit space to the existing center already. That project would cost estimates put it at close to a billion dollars. The mayor had formed a task force to look at whether this expansion was a good idea. The task force ultimately said yes: ‘We think the city should go ahead with it.’ But, they didn’t come up with a way to pay for it. So, you know, that’s the catch. How are you going to pay for it?
FARYON: Now, you spoke with some other people about their vision for the future. Who else?
ORR: I also spoke with Don Wood. He is a real advocate for open spaces in downtown. He would also like to see more buildings constructed downtown on what he calls a “human scale,” smaller, like we have in Little Italy. His vision for downtown really includes opening up the waterfront down there.
DON WOOD (Downtown Planning Advocate): We need to open up the waterfront. We need more public space at our waterfront. We need less walling off of our waterfront. San Diego is the only major city on the West Coast that has walled off its waterfront. If you go along South Embarcadero there is a one-mile solid line of concrete hotels, convention center facilities. We have a huge opportunity on the North Embarcadero to not repeat that mistake.
FARYON: We see this emerging theme about opening up the waterfront. How likely is that to happen?
ORR: Well, there is a plan in place called the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan. And that would widen the walkways and add more public spaces from about the Broadway pier down to across from Lindberg Field. They were set to go on this, but there’s a dispute over whether or not the Port promised to build a large oval shaped park at the end of the Broadway pier. The Coastal Commission staff says, ‘Yes you did, this is in your plans.’ The Port says, ‘We never promised that. And now we need the space to let trucks come back and forth from the pier to unload the large cruise ships that are going to be docked there.’ And they say, ‘We can’t have a park there.’ So, the Coastal Commission said these two sides have to come to an agreement before they can proceed. So, the plans are in place. What’s going to happen with that park is sort of holding it up right now.
FARYON: Now, you brought with you yet a third opinion about the vision for the future. And this one is slightly off the beaten path.
ORR: Yes this Ian Campbell. He’s the general director and the artistic director for the San Diego Opera. So, bringing the arts’ perspective in. And he feels like there really needs to be a central place downtown for the arts.
IAN CAMPBELL (General Director, San Diego Opera): Obviously because of my great interest, I'd love to see an arts center. We have arts spread all over the community, whether it's in downtown or in the park or in La Jolla. And we can still leave those there but create greater focus downtown. Every great city has an arts center, whether it's an opera house a concert hall downtown that pulls tourism, as well as locals. And I think if we had a prominent arts center downtown that all the public recognized, the tourists recognized, we're saying something very important about what our city is about.
ORR: Campbell actually says investing in the arts is an economic generator. You have events nearly every night of the week. People come down, buy the tickets, go out to dinner, generate a lot of money.
FARYON: So, Katie, where can our audience see the rest of your series on downtown?
ORR: Everything we’ve done is on kpbs.org/downtown. You can go there and see all the segments: past, present and future.
FARYON: Great. Thanks, Katie Orr.