Almost a decade ago, when I worked in a high-rise office building downtown, some coworkers and I stood at a corner window and counted the mega-sized cranes that dotted the scenery.
“One, two, three, four,” we counted.
“There’s one back there. I can see its lights just came on.”
“There’s one up on the hill.”
“There are three behind us.”
Fourteen cranes (fourteen!) in all we counted that night. And as the year wore on, more cranes cropped up across the skyline — offices, a ballpark, hotels — all being constructed as fast as possible to catch rising prices and cash in on the real-estate bubble. San Diego was definitely one of the boom towns of the construction era.
Coinciding with and fueling much of this redevelopment was a trend of people moving from the suburbs back in to urban centers. Owners of large, suburban houses were looking to downsize and re-enter the city, where they could be closer to hospitals, nightlife, and work.
What all of this means: the face of San Diego has changed.
Unless you live there, I’ll bet downtown looks different than how you picture it in your head. San Diego isn’t a “little city” anymore. We still have a cap on how tall our buildings can reach — 500 feet above sea level is the maximum height allowable by law because of airport restrictions involving low-flying planes — but the number of really tall buildings downtown has increased.
Let’s drive around town and you’ll see how it’s changed. We can find the old face of San Diego and compare it to how we look today, which is more fun than citing market opinions and abstract analyses and charts and graphs; I’m getting a headache just thinking about that stuff.
Southbound Pacific Highway bends around sight-obscuring fences off to the right, these enclosing the military-industrial area of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Once over a small rise, below us is downtown San Diego and its outcrop of skyscrapers, some brand new, some you might not even recognize.
My, hasn’t downtown San Diego grown up? When my coworkers and I counted cranes from our office window so many years ago, the west end of Broadway, alongside the bay, was a low flat area of empty lots and short buildings, most four or five stories tall. Now, passing the airport and approaching Embarcadero Marina Park, you can see the first of the buildings we’re searching for, the new face of San Diego: high-rise condominium towers.
When you get close enough to see details more clearly, you can start counting floors. By the time I’m abreast of the Grande Towers on Pacific Highway, a point at which I am forced to pay more attention to the road than the buildings, I’ve counted 32 floors on one tower, and I haven’t even made it to the top floors, the penthouses.
I maneuver my car onto Broadway and get out to look around. This is the section of San Diego that most resembles my idea of what a city should look like. From countless TV shows, movies, and photographs, I’ve imagined skyscrapers, train tracks, wide boulevards for racing cabs, people in suits with briefcases rushing down broad sidewalks. And this is it! Right here at the farthest end of West Broadway is One America Plaza, San Diego’s tallest superstructure. (You can pick it out of a photograph by its top, which resembles the tip of a Philips head screwdriver.) The building is 500 feet tall, the maximum height allowed. Seemingly carved from the bottom floors of One America Plaza is the trolley station, with its winding tracks and little red trolley cars hustling about.
Looking north half a block, across Kettner from One America Plaza is the Santa Fe Amtrak Station, a low, stucco, Spanish-revival construct with a blue-and-silver Surfliner train huffing along its tracks. Up the street from Santa Fe Station are the digital cascading letters of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Ringed almost entirely around this lovely, rushing metropolitan area are the condo towers built in the past decade. You can pick out them out easily; like other downtown buildings they are sleek and tall, but the condos have little balconies punched out of their sides. The balconies dot the buildings’ exteriors like slots in a piece of paper torn from a spiral binder.
Continuing on up Broadway, we move away from the newly constructed condos at the west end of the city and into the heart of downtown. The buildings here are older and grimier, and so are the shops that occupy them; dusty, brick-walled discount Chinese restaurants and wig stores. This is a neighborhood of neon “Open” signs and hand-painted prices on the windows.
At 8th and Broadway, you can see where waves of gentrification have crashed and receded, leaving a high-water mark. Across the intersection, on the southeast corner, stands a wall graffitied with street art: what looks to be a cartoon Wookie and some inscrutable writing. I step out of the vehicle into sunlight that peeks around the concrete roofs of downtown. I squint at the ballpark in the haze. Circling the stadium, like ever-vigilant, Brobdingnagian baseball fans waiting for a pop foul, are the omnipresent condo towers. And there are boarded-up and fenced-in construction areas all over town.
For perspective, let’s leave downtown proper for a while, get out of the lowlands and head for higher ground to see if we can find the old face of San Diego.
To reach the east side of Balboa Park, you must first get lost in Golden Hill. Nineteenth Street, Broadway, C Street, the 5 South, the 94 East, and G Street all meet up at what seems a malcontent civil engineer’s cruel prank on us citizens. After scouting around outside the vehicle, calculating the direction of the sun and checking a compass, I finally crawl my car up verdantly lined Pershing Drive. At the top of Pershing, I find the corner I’m looking for: 28th and Upas.