February 5, 1999

East Village Could Be Civic and Cultural Mecca

By Michael Stepner and Lisa Ross

San Diegans thought big in 1998. We approved two managed growth plans along the city's northern edges, a ballpark anchored redevelopment plan in downtown's East Village, a convention center expansion and a massive bond to rebuild our crumbling schools. In 1999, we can think bigger. 

 The ballpark redevelopment project presents an unparalleled opportunity to find a home for some of our most important civic institutions by creating a neighborhood in East Village designed around public buildings and civic spaces

 Without such a comprehensive plan, dreams of significant public buildings in San Diego will continue to be the stuff of cocktail chatter and architecture school dissertations. Project by project planning has left downtown San Diego with an anemic inventory of civic spaces and enough public hearings to fill C-Span 2's airtime.

 The sorry history of San Diego's central library is a case in point. With over a million dollars worth of studies looking for a shelf, the library project has traveled more miles on paper than Phineas Fogg's journey around the world with far less effect. The existing central library, born around the time of Godzilla, was obsolete on arrival in 1954. Yet, despite the efforts of our smartest and most dedicated advocates, the library is back on a mule train traveling to points south.

 The library is not the only important institution in search of a real home. The glistening potential of our acclaimed San Diego Opera is stifled by a civic center auditorium fit for second-tier road shows and high school graduations. City government functions in a shabby fire trap that doesn't meet current codes, its bureaucrats scattered about downtown rent-a-spaces.

 San Diego's most prominent planning organizations, including the Council of Design Professionals, Citizens Coordinate for Century III, the AIA and the East Village Association, are rightly advocating that the ball park project requires a plan for the entire East Village rather than just the 26 block ball park redevelopment district.

 The Centre City Community Plan adopted in 1992 recommends that Centre City East/East Village be primarily a mixed-use medium density residential area with an anchor on the southern end, now the ballpark. Residential areas, primarily apartments, lofts and town houses, would link the cultural institutions at the north end which currently include San Diego City College, Symphony Hall, the Newschool of Architecture and the existing main library.

 The key element in the East Village cultural neighborhood plan is building the new central library as part of the redevelopment of the 12th & C trolley stop adjacent to San Diego City College. In this location, the library anchors the village to the north with a significant building, allows public transportation access to the library and sites two compatible institutions together. This site also lines up library with Balboa Park museums up the street.

 It also frees the present central library site and the remainder of the block bounded by 7th, 8th and Broadway for a new 3500 seat theater for opera and dance. An opera house fronting E Street together with the old post office creates a grand court for the performing arts. E Street would be improved to connect the opera house with the Lyceum theaters and the Balboa Theater creating a theatrical alley.

 The proposed Bay/Park green belt stretching from the water to Balboa Park serves as an urban axis, a fine place to seat city government, if for no other reason than to remind those holding office that a little vision can go a long way.

 Big civic projects, like a grand library or performing arts center, will continue to inspire luke-warm fuzzies in a 21st century cyberworld unless they are set in a planned neighborhood context that infuses them with life. Without such a context, a penny pinching population that’s been deprived so long they don’t know what they’re missing has little reason to cozy up to grand designs.

 San Diegans are ready to grow their city. A comprehensive cultural neighborhood plan for East Village keeps one foot anchored to our traditions and carries us forward into the next century. What better way for our cultural institutions to finally find a home. 

 Michael Stepner is an Urban Community Planner and Dean of the Newschool of Architecture. Lisa Ross is a Carmel Valley Planning Board Member.