Jennifer Hankins/ Central Federal Building: “It’s beautiful up here."
It may be no surprise to learn that the top floors of the nineteen tallest buildings in downtown San Diego are dominated by investment, legal, and banking firms; in fact, eleven of the buildings bear the names of banks. More surprising, though, is the fact that four of the top floors are unoccupied, one has no windows, another has a useless swimming pool, another is part of a prison, and another is full of machinery.
The top of the Imperial Bank Building is vacant and is not on the market at the moment, a common and preferred marketing strategy.
At the top in San Diego there are no retail spaces, no residences, no penthouses, and no restaurants. (There is difficulty in leasing high-rise space to restaurants due to supply delivery, fire codes, and exit requirements. If a restaurant tops a high-rise, it was probably planned for by the architects and engineers.)
A visit to any other major city in the country will tell you that San Diego is not a high-rise city, not at all like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. But then, San Diego is younger, smaller, and not near as intense as a center of business and commerce. It is also limited in architectural stature because of the FAA’s restrictions — 380 feet above sea level — in regard to the city’s proximity to the airport. It’s great to look out your office window at eye level to a plane landing at Lindbergh Field, but it makes for a relatively short skyline.
Columbia Centre. The top two floors will be leased together; that is 30,000 square feet, totally unobstructed views to the south, west, and north.
The last high-rise to open in San Diego was the Central Federal Building in 1975. This year alone there will be four new ones: Columbia Centre, the new Wells Fargo, Imperial Bank, and the new Bank of America. This will provide 1,700,000 square feet of new office space. For the sake of perspective — there is a single building in San Francisco with 1,200,000 square feet. One of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City has more office space than all of downtown San Diego.
For all the splendor of light and visual freedom that a top floor offers, this factor is secondary. Top-floor tenants are there for business, not to gaze dreamily westward and ponder the philosophical implications of their positions; and certainly not to inhale the fresh sea breezes — none of downtown’s newer skyscrapers have windows that will open. The view is for visitors and clients and rare moments of reflection. The view is usually an afterthought, something tended to while on the phone or for a moment at the beginning or the end of the day. “I’m not the kind of guy to watch sunsets anyway,” said one top executive. “But don’t quote me on that. I’ll sound like somebody who hates nature.”
Frank Scott/ San Diego Federal Building: “You get a great sense of the weather here.”
Prices and leasing arrangements vary dramatically from building to building. Changes in the market have made bargains of the long-term leases signed by some tenants long ago. The law firm of Haskins/Nugent, for example, could not even get into the new Columbia Centre on any floor for what they are now paying to be on the top floor of the Chamber Building. Prices do climb as you go up the building, but they will also vary according to where you are in the building. Southwest exposure is usually preferred to and more expensive than northeast, for instance.
The new twenty-seven story-Columbia Centre is set to open later this year. It is the high-rise closest to the water and takes up the entire city block bordered by B, A, Columbia, and State streets. The top two floors will be leased together; that is 30,000 square feet, totally unobstructed views to the south, west, and north, two open terraces to the southwest, a circular wooden stairwell and private elevator between floors — all for the most recently quoted price of $2.66 per square foot per month.
The Wells Fargo top floor (twentieth) will be leased by the Wells Fargo organization.
Another of the newest and flashiest high-rises in town is the new Wells Fargo tower that overlooks the Federal Building. The top floor (twentieth) will be leased by the Wells Fargo organization. This building is unique in design, it is a stretched octagon set back from the street and at a forty-five-degree angle on the block to maximize the view of the water. The top-floor gem here is 20,000 square feet at $2.25 per square foot.
The top of the new, solid black Imperial Bank Building, 701 B Street (twenty-fourth floor, 21,700 square feet), is vacant and is not on the market at the moment, a common and preferred marketing strategy. The top floor of any new building is a rare and valuable commodity whose value is likely to increase with time.
Still another preferred practice is to lease the entire floor rather than to break it up. The top floor (twenty-second) of the Central Federal Building, 225 Broadway, is unique in this respect. Leased by a company called Arete, they then sublease the floor in whole or in part as what the company chooses to call “a full-service executive suite.” There are law and corporate offices here, and some space is available. Areté (which means excellence in Greek) offers individual offices or large suites on month-to-month or long-term leases. Tenants rent the space and the services are included on a cooperative basis; there is a conference room, law and tax library, receptionist and reception area, computer and copy centers, exercise room with showers and Universal gym, word processing, binding, a sophisticated communications system, full secretarial service, and more. “The sharp business people realize this is a good deal,” says sharp businesswoman and Areté manager Jennifer Hankins. Like most people showing off the top floor, she is obviously proud of it. “It’s beautiful up here,” she says. “We provide all these services and facilities, but even those businesses with their own staff can benefit from this. It’s an inexpensive way to set up a very professional business. ” Areté’s smallest (twelve by fourteen feet) and least expensive office with a private view rents for $500 per month (less with a long-term lease). An interior office, actually shared open space, rents for $325 per month.
The California First Building
The investment firm of Smith/Barney, the one touted on television by John Houseman as the firm that earns your money, covers the top (twenty-fourth) floor of the California First Building, 530 B Street. They were so busy earning that money that no one was available for comment.
The investment firm of Merrill/Lynch tops off (twenty-fourth floor) the San Diego Federal Building at 600 B Street. Frank Scott, Chula Vista city councilman and Merrill/Lynch account executive, works daily with his back to the window that reveals the city’s southern exposure. From beside his desk, one is nearly face to face with the top of the Imperial Bank, Union Bank, and California First buildings. “This really is a showcase, “he says. “It’s a spectacular view. If I had a dollar for everyone that came over here to look at the view, I’d be doing very well.”
Metropolitan Correctional Center. Because it has no open-air yard, the top of the building is used as a recreation area, the only experience most prisoners have of fresh air. The top floor has no view.
Scott clearly enjoys his perch. “You get a great sense of the weather here,” he says, “of the qualities of the light. It’s always changing. The most spectacular thing for me was to watch the Imperial Bank Building go up from the hole in the ground. You should have seen those ironworkers jumping from beam to beam — incredible.
“The only drawback to an office this open to the view is that it can make some people uneasy. I have had to meet some clients on the ground floor.”
Old Bank of America Building, thirteen floors. The walls and windows of the top floor, listed as the fourteenth, are recessed from the edge of the building and a parapet blocks the view.
The top floor of the Security Pacific Building, eighteen floors at 1200 Third Avenue, is split between the corporate offices of Security Pacific and the investment firm of Dean/Witter. Security Pacific senior vice president Lawrence Cox presides over a sunny and paneled southwest comer office. “I really only have time to enjoy the view when I am on the phone, otherwise my eyes are on the paper on my desk. I get a lot of compliments on the view from clients, some of whom come back with their friends. For someone new to San Diego who might consider investing here, it’s a good spot to get oriented to the city.”
Cheryl Ruffier/ Chamber Building: “You feel everything up here,” referring to quakes and tremors. “We’ve gone up against the wall twice in the last six months."
The old Bank of America Building, thirteen floors at 625 Broadway, provides the regional offices for fifty Bank of America executives. There is really no view to be enjoyed because of the structure of the building. The walls and windows of the top floor, listed as the fourteenth, are recessed from the edge of the building and a parapet blocks the view.
Joe Minto/SDG&E Building. The top floor houses two emergency generators, the elevator machinery, air conditioning equipment, and safety systems.
New Bank of America Building. Bank of America has reserved the top three floors there.
All of these executives will soon be moving to the new Bank of America Building, twenty floors at 450 B Street. Bank of America has reserved the top three floors there, but the rest are available at about two dollars per square foot per month, with leases of various terms.
Presidential Suite, Westgate Hotel, available for $425 per night.
The brown San Diego Trust and Savings Building, fourteen floors on the northwest comer of Broadway and Sixth, was built by banker J.W. Sefton in 1927. It is one of the oldest high-rises in San Diego and was the very glamorous Columbia Centre of its time — the biggest and most beautiful building in town. It cost two million dollars to build and had a beacon at the top, 243 feet off the ground, “a welcome navigation aid to mariners,” as described in a 1927 newspaper clipping. A standout in another time, it is now diminished by the imposing company of the more technologically sleek buildings of recent years.
The top floor is not glamorous here. It temporarily houses various departments of the bank and the Junior Chamber of Commerce while remodeling is completed. In earlier years, this was the private gun room and shooting range of the Sefton family.
The Metropolitan Correctional Center, part of the federal prison system, is at 808 Union Street. It is 332 feet high, is essentially thirteen floors, but by design actually has twenty-three levels housing 700 inmates. Because it has no open-air yard, the top of the building is used as a recreation area, the only experience most prisoners have of fresh air.
San Diego Trust and Savings Building had a beacon at the top, 243 feet off the ground, “a welcome navigation aid to mariners,” as described in a 1927 newspaper clipping.
The top floor has no view. The painted exercise area is approximately fifty by eighty feet and consists of handball, volleyball, basketball, and shuffleboard courts, most of which overlap. The walls rise nearly eighteen feet. Sun, rain, and fresh air are available, but the area is covered by 4‘steel interlacing, ” a mesh similar to chain-link fences: it keeps basketballs and inmates from going over the wall. Most prisoners are allowed an hour a day up here at the most. The view, if they could see it, is unobstructed to the south and west — a freedom of vision in strong contrast to the restricted lives of those housed here.
Another building that serves civic functions (and, some say. may also house inmates) is the thirteen-floor City Administration Building at 202 C Street The mayor’s office is here, but it is not on the top floor. The top floor houses the media, graphics, and public information facilities of city government. Six people work here. Among other things, they put together all the free brochures that are available on the ground floor. There are no windows. It is, as one worker said, “similar to working in a basement.” Illustrator Joe Garcia brought a window frame in from an old building. It hangs on his wall, complete with tattered drapes and dead flies glued in place.
Josiah Neeper/Union Bank Building: “Particularly over fogbanks, you get subtle violets, rose, and gray tinged with blue."
Cheryl Ruffier is a partner in the law firm of Haskins, Nugent, Newnham, Kane, and Zvetina. She is in her mid-thirties, is president of the Lawyers Club of San Diego, and her office is on the top floor (twenty-third) of the Chamber Building, 110 West C Street. The firm pays a very low $1.75 per square foot, a long-term lease signed several years ago. Although the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce is in the building, it neither owns it nor fills it.
“You feel everything up here,” says Ruffier, referring to quakes and tremors. “We’ve gone up against the wall twice in the last six months. The building shakes up here when you wouldn’t feel it if you were on the street. I went under the desk once last year. The elevators and windows whistle in the wind.
“There have been plenty of leaks in the building,” she says as she lifts aside a huge wall-hanging to reveal a large brown water stain. The best thing about being on top, she says, is the opportunity, rare in a high-rise, for fresh air. A door opens out to the roof and a cracked, stained, and rusted swimming pool, a remnant of the health club the original owners tried to promote in 1963. “They’ve had it drained, ’’ she says, “but when it rains it still leaks through to the floor below.”
DeWitt Higgs/Home Tower: “Originally there was a Top of the Tower restaurant here. It had a thriving luncheon and cocktail hour but it was dead after five. ”
The nineteen-story Westgate Hotel on Second Avenue has its most elegant suites on the top floor. The three rooms, the Presidential, Governor’s, and Executive suites, represent the only true commercial use of the top floor in the downtown area.
The Presidential suite is available for $425 per night, the Governor’s for $400, and the Executive for $225. The first two include two bedrooms, two baths, marble fireplaces, full kitchens, large sitting rooms, and rare European antiques. Celebrities who’ve enjoyed the view and the air (balconies for all rooms) include Presidents Ford and Reagan, John Wayne, Sammy Davis, Jr., and actor Lorne Greene.
Miles Harvey/Bank of California Building: "I usually see the monthly fire drill at the airport and the resultant column of black smoke."
For the last twelve years the top three floors (twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-two) of the Union Bank Building, 525 B Street, have been leased by the law firm of Gray, Cary, Ames, and Frye, San Diego’s largest (probate, trust and estate, labor, and tax departments). There are ninety-five attorneys among the 450 people working here. “We love the view,” says attorney Josiah Neeper, a partner in the firm, whose office faces south. He appears to enjoy the view more than most. “Particularly over fogbanks, you get subtle violets, rose, and gray tinged with blue. Concentrated on the water as this city is, it’s one of the great sunset cities of the world.
“Up here you become more conscious of the fact that we are a harbor city, and that Asia is just over the horizon. We have a very active Navy; you become aware of it here in a way that you cannot on the ground.
“On clear days I look south over a metropolis that is bicultural. You become very aware of this up here. San Diego is not the metropolis; San Diego/Tijuana is.
“Yes, we do train for fire and emergencies.”
The top two floors of the twenty-story San Diego Gas and Electric Building, 101 Ash Street, is the domain of building foreman Joe Minto. He has been with SDG&E twenty-six years, “worked on the building as it was going up.” He believes in the company and in the building. “In the event of an earthquake,” he says, “I would rather be in this building than in my own house.”
The top floor here is as far from an executive suite as is the jail. It houses two emergency generators (“tested monthly, could be on line in twenty-eight seconds”), the elevator machinery, air conditioning equipment, and safety systems. It is not carpeted or paneled, but it is as clean as any office.
Talking functions or numbers, Minto speaks with pride and authority. “There are 1380 to 1500 people in the building. I’ve lived in towns smaller than that. I know every inch of this building; I’ve lived every inch. When this building went up, we were years ahead of ourselves. There is no heating system because the building was designed so that it didn’t need one — saves fuel and money. The air conditioning system is a closed loop. We save money by not having to pump water up here and by not having a separate system on each floor.
“We used to light the outside top of the building, what was known as the golden crown of the top two floors. This involved 1010 fluorescent fixtures. It was beautiful, but successive energy crunches did away with that.“
In the southwest comer office at the top of the Home Tower, eighteen floors at 707 Broadway, sits attorney DeWitt “Dutch” Higgs, who recently retired from the UC Board of Regents. The top two and one-half floors are claimed by the law firm of Higgs, Fletcher, and Mack, one of the oldest and largest in San Diego.
Higgs is seventy-four, has been practicing law since 1934, and was president of the San Diego County Bar Association in 1940. His voice is raspy but his sentences are clear and strong. “On a clear day,” he says, “l can see the streets of Tijuana. This is the most desirable office, and I have it because I’m the oldest. I’ve watched everything go up around here from this spot since 1963 — the high-rises, the bridge, the freeways. I’ve enjoyed watching the city grow.
“Originally there was a Top of the Tower restaurant here. It had a thriving luncheon and cocktail hour but it was dead after five. ”
His desk, no exception to the rule on top floors, faces the north wall. “What predominates, “he says, “is the blue sky. The view changes constantly. 1 can watch the naval exercises, see the ships go out Monday morning and come back Friday afternoon. If things get difficult, I just close the door, take the phone off the hook, and have a look out. .
This is the international corporate headquarters for Wickes, and like most of the top floor offices, the view is not tended to here. CEO McNeely travels nearly seventy percent of the time.
The top floor of the twenty-five-story Wickes Building, 1010 Second Avenue, consists of the executive offices of chairman and chief executive officer E.L. McNeely and former president David Primuth. (Primuth resigned last week amid falling profits and turmoil among executive officers of the Wickes Companies.)
This is the international corporate headquarters for Wickes, and like most of the top floor offices, the view is not tended to here. McNeely travels nearly seventy percent of the time; the thirty percent of the time that he is in town he spends with his family or attends to business.
The law firm of Luce, Forward, Hamilton, and Scripps, the oldest law firm in San Diego, occupies the top three and one-half floors of the eighteen-story Bank of California Building. The firm previously occupied the top floors of both the San Diego Trust and Savings and the Chamber buildings. “An earthquake is quite an experience here “relates attorney and Luce/ Forward partner Miles Harvey. “You go straight for the center of the building. ’ ’ He is proud of and pleased with the view from his office, the way one might be happy with a new Mercedes. “I’ve thought about being up here, “ he continues. “One thing that is interesting is to see a lot of valuable land below paved with cars. Dusk is what gets me — it’s spectacular. I also usually see the monthly fire drill at the airport and the resultant column of black smoke. Really I just get in here and get busy and ignore the view. It might as well be a picture on the wall.
“We’ve seen some interesting things going on down on the roof of the Pickwick Hotel — sailors and women.
“The biggest problem, though, is the coming and going. Elevator time is annoying.”
That’s life at the top.