But do we really want a giant football stadium to block more of the waterfront?
Of course, my first hope is for the total opposite. I’d like to see us build little things: houses, condos, right on the waterfront, maybe even out over the bay’s sheltered waters, so that everybody who wants to can live right here, crowding these 34 miles of coast with small ports and cute villages, like Saint-Tropez or Porto Venere or some upgraded version of Popotla, south of Rosarito.
It seems there’s a state law against that, too, at least in terms of private citizens occupying such lands: we cannot live on waterfront areas that the Port — meaning, the State — owns. This is the result of laudable democratic impulses by California officials back in the 1960s, to make sure that everybody had access to the waterfront, not just the rich. In a very real sense, this restriction has backfired: because these lands belong to everybody, they belong to nobody. People stay away, except to jog or launch their boats. Parks are about the only thing that the authorities ruling the bay can think of doing with the single most beautiful and potentially valuable part of their cities.
So, what could we do with our waterfront, if we put our thinking caps on?
Here are some people with ideas for what planners call San Diego’s “land-sea interface.”
East Village by the Sea
It’s a sparkling-waterfront morning when I meet up with Richard Moren, a compact, intense man with a shaved head and a gold earring in his left ear. Moren is a renowned potter, but also an architect who’s created everything from plans for the great staircase in the Bellagio in Las Vegas to schemas for Fantasy Island resorts in Singapore.
We’re standing beside the Coronado ferry landing as a bunch of people traipse up the low-tide gangway from the Cabrillo. Pedicab drivers twitch, ready to pounce as their marks step onto dry land. Families call to each other (“Over here!”), and the pedicab drivers bark out invitations. “Seaport Village? Midway? Gaslamp?” Sun sparkles on the waters. Gulls hold steady in the breeze, at about ten feet, scanning the Embarcadero for scraps. There’s a lot of life here.
I’m waiting to pounce on Moren because we’ve talked before, and he’s an original thinker. Hasn’t been turned into one of those careful professionals who retreat into mindless “solutions”-oriented architect-speak.
“Okay,” I start right in, “so, if you had your druthers, what would you do with this waterfront?”
“My thoughts are simply that we should be looking at creating an active space,” Moren says. “Not just activated by tourism, but actually a part of our world. Let’s make San Diego a place where people can live on our waterfront and enjoy it, instead of it being designated for tourism. There’s no reason people shouldn’t live where the water meets the land. In fact, I’d suggest we carve water channels that can come into the land. In fingers. More water to live beside. It may seem radical, but if you look at other areas that share our climate, like the Mediterranean, in big towns and small villages, that’s exactly what they do, and it doesn’t detract from public spaces and tourism. It enhances it. We could easily create our own Saint-Tropez, or Venice, in a sense, but something that would be well beyond that. Take the city to the water! And take the water into the city. Center the city’s energy and life down here. Let the waterfront be the city.”
He points to the distant business towers of downtown.
“Right now, the city as you see it is high-rise. Nine to five. Purely business. Then there’s this big gap — there’s no connection whatsoever to this area. All we have down here is a small amount of retail and restaurant features — again, basically, for tourism. If tourism goes to hell, what do we have left on the waterfront? We’ve got a wasteland, and nobody comes after…what? Five o’clock? Seven o’clock? It’s all shut down. I want people to be here 24 hours a day. They don’t have to be all locals. It can be a mix. Mixed use. Hotel units, rentals. Bring life to the waterfront.”
But surely land here is too valuable?
“That’s right. And this brings us to the point where we have to start looking at this as a project. Why not let people live here in dense neighborhoods that don’t block the views, that link up, for instance, East Village with downtown? I don’t know what the rules are for extending [into the bay], but all I can say is there’s plenty of land right here that we can cut back into.”
Where only the rich could afford to live, right?
“No. Mixed use. Hotel rooms, condos — expensive places, yes, but also a percentage of low-income housing, perhaps rent-controlled apartments, as in San Francisco, all as part of the mixed-use conditions. Perhaps lotteries to choose lucky buyers or renters.”
People living here, Moren says, would have to be prepared to have semi-public lives. No gated communities. It has to be welcoming to the wandering public. Plenty of small businesses, cafés.
“But here’s the thing: Waterfront housing would provide a grand income for the city. And the state, obviously. Because this is their land, too, their project. And, certainly, there are a million developers who would love to take a crack at it.”
Sounds like Pacific Beach’s Crystal Pier cottages writ large. And why not? says Moren.
“I can’t believe it’s the only place you get this experience. Going to sleep with the waves crashing below you, waking up to the seagulls, with that incredible feeling of looking back at the land. Yet the only reason [the cottages] are there is that they’re grandfathered in.”
He says that the city — and the state — need to take ownership of their waterfront. “Look around right now. Of all the people I’m seeing down here, I bet there’s not more than 10 percent who are locals.”