The Wells Fargo Plaza has magnetized the area.
Joe Nicholson is a designer who criticizes architects and their work. “Talking about architecture and not being an architect means I won’t lose any jobs,” he jokes. The forty-three-year-old Nicholson works from a cubbyhole office in a renovated building at Ninth Avenue and G Street, just east of downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter. He arrived here in 1977, having worked in Los Angeles at the studio of renowned furniture designer Charles Eames.
Born in Evansville, Indiana, Nicholson studied painting, drawing, psychology, and sociology at De Pauw University in Indiana and received an M.F.A. from Yale University’s graduate school of art and architecture, where he became intrigued with the architectural process. “I realized we artists mostly contemplated our navels, while architects were finding solutions. ... I’d spent my whole life studying the wrong thing.’’ He then planned to pursue a degree in architecture but instead married and took a teaching position at Chatham College in Pittsburgh. While there, he continued painting, and his canvases — which he describes as “hard-edged, flat-colored, and formal’’ — were shown at the Camegie-Mellon University, where he later taught media and design in the architecture department.
Joe Nicholson: “Talking about architecture and not being an architect means I won’t lose any jobs.”
Nicholson’s most recent project in San Diego was that of designing exhibits for the new Hall of Champions in Balboa Park. He is currently creating new wall signs and graphics for the Glasshouse Square shopping center on Sports Arena Boulevard. Of late, Nicholson has gained attention for his provocative criticism of development in downtown San Diego.
The San Diego city council has endorsed a convention center on the old Navy Field, near Seaport Village, and voters will approve or reject the plan this fall. How would the area along Harbor Drive downtown - the Embarcadero - be affected by a convention center at Navy Field, plus a high-rise development near the Santa Fe depot, and the planned commercial hotel complex surrounding the county building?
"They’re cutting off their lifeline by building a high-rise curtain down around the bay."
They’re cutting off their lifeline by building a high-rise curtain down around the bay. Everybody wants to be near the water because it’s opulent. Businessmen stand in their corner offices and say, “Look at my view. My view is better than your view.’’ But this town shouldn’t be built high along the Embarcadero and then phased back to the freeway. It ought to be exactly the opposite: built high in the back and then scaled down as it gets to the water. And there should be focal points along the water.
The San Diego Port District is proposing a tremendous density along the north/south corridor of Pacific Highway and Harbor Drive, all the way from Navy Field to the airport. And when it’s finally all done, we’ll have all these gleaming, mirrored-glass skyscrapers that will fry each other and the people living around them because they ’re solar mirrors. We won’t be able to see the bay at all. And the “ripples” at the foot of those high-rises are going to kill everything around them because of the density. There ’ll be an enormous strangulation of parking and getting in and out at rush hour in the morning, and in the afternoon people aren’t going to be able to amble over to the water and enjoy it. But there’ll be no reason to go anyway, because there won’t be a focal point over there. There’s this marvelous tuna fleet, right? People come from all over the world to see this marvelous tuna fleet, and yet we can’t seem to find a home for it. It’s the only focal point down there.
"Cape Cod [one of several architectural motifs used in Seaport Village] has nothing to do with San Diego."
Isn’t Seaport Village a focal point?
Seaport Village is a controversial subject. No “designer” likes it. No true architect likes it. I don’t know how publicly they say that, but they say it to each other. If you hear one who says he likes it, the other people in the crowd look at him like he has the plague or something.
What are the reasons often given for disliking it?
They like to say that it’s a Walt Disney-type solution, that it’s tourist oriented, that it’s not a real place. It’s a fantasy. You know, it’s a fast-food, souvenir-oriented, Walt Disney-type place. I would take some exception with that. I happen to be a big fan of Walt Disney. I’m one of those people who think that Disneyland and Epcot, the experimental community at Florida’s Disney World, and all that stuff is about as good as it gets, ’cause it works. But the designers say the architecture is picturesque and is not indigenous to Southern California. Cape Cod (one of several architectural motifs used in Seaport Village] has nothing to do with San Diego.
Do you agree with those criticisms?
Sure. The purist in any art form would insist that you have to be true to your place. If you’re a writer, you try to conjure images that are true to your place. The same is true in design and architecture. You get a little sick of Spanish arches and red-tile roofs, but it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the conversations that keeps occurring in architectural circles is that of when San Diego will develop an indigenous style of architecture. I think the romance of that whole thought is: when are we going to become a little San Francisco? You know, the bay window and the townhouse. There is a recognition in San Francisco that there is a building type that is exclusively San Francisco. There’s also the realization that in San Diego there isn’t. If there is one, it’s the little bungalow, the little simple white boxes that pepper the town.
"The Pacific Wine Bar says that in our own little way, we’re as sophisticated as L.A."
Back to a convention center on the harbor at Navy Field — do you think the complex will be built there?
Any time somebody comes forward and volunteers $95 million, it’s hard to say no. But I would ask why the port commission came forward and volunteered $95 million for a specific project. They didn’t offer it to architects to compete on that site for the best project.
The port district had already leased that land to developer Doug Manchester.
So he had it tied up?
Well, that’s interesting. I know Frank Hope (architect for the Navy Field convention centerj served as a port commissioner (from 1973 to 1979}. That’s power. And I think there’s a romantic ideal. An architect friend of mine always tells me that no matter how many business meetings he goes to with clients — and especially the more hard-nosed and fiscally oriented those clients are — in his estimation. the final decisions are always made for emotional or romantic notions.
What’s the port district’s romantic notion of a Navy Field convention center?
I think somebody has an idea of some guy from Dallas/Fort Worth standing out on a veranda with a cocktail, at a convention overlooking the bay.
What’s wrong with that, though, if it will bring conventioneers and money here?
Nothing’s wrong with it except the scale and scope of the project. You’re talking about sixteen airplane hangars, an enormous amount of square footage under one roof that will create a kind of devastation around it because of its scale, and will render the property that it sits on and is immediately adjacent to it unfit for any other kind of use or enjoyment.
Are you concerned that more places like the new Chart House restaurant [in the rebuilt San Diego Rowing Club building just south of Navy Field] — which is a good example of proper scale and use — won’t come in because of the convention center?
Well, you have to analyze the convention center animal. First of all, from a building point of view, it’s just a large warehouse with a lot of service elements attached to it — parking and catering, that kind of thing. They tend to be rather large, blank buildings. Not to say that this one will be, but they tend to be that way.Unless it’s fitted into the environment, there’s a problem. If it’s landscaped and suppressed in such a way that the sheer volume of building doesn’t overwhelm the neighborhood, it could function as a park element, I suppose.
In terms of rejuvenating a part of our town, our sacred cow in San Diego really must be the bay. It’s our greatest asset, followed closely by Balboa Park. Those are our two great assets. I would think that anything of any magnitude in this town — and this is where I differ from everybody else — ought to be done with the idea of connecting those elements.
Is that why you’ve favored the Broadway Galleria convention center site [on Fourteenth and Broadway near City College]? How would a Broadway Galleria enhance that idea of joining the bay and the park?
One of the important aspects of conventions — and I know a little about it because I’ve been involved in that business — is that you have the business function and you have the entertainment function. The business function inevitably takes place in the convention center. Then there’s the entertainment function, which seeks to go out and see the town, find out what this place is all about. In San Diego, if you built the convention center on the bay, you take care of the business aspect, but when the conventioneers say, “Okay, let’s go out and see the town,’’ well, they’re seeing the town right where they are. There’s nowhere else to go. They’re there. I think from both a business point of view and from a tourist point of view, that’s a bad decision.
By putting a convention center at the top of Broadway, you could create a corridor leading into downtown and the Embarcadero.
Right. Conventioneers will want to get out. They will want to leave that arena at 5:00 p.m. in search of another place, and create a domino effect throughout the downtown whereby, hopefully, they’d be spending money along the way. Now, that is what will rejuvenate downtown. That’s what makes a viable street, and Broadway could be such a street.
I think it [the Galleria proposal] would have given a terminus to the upper-Broadway area, which needs it. It would give you something to head for, and I think a lighted glass gallery at the terminus of Broadway, of substantial public and civic posture, would be a wonderful terminus for Broadway.
Then it would do what the Arc de Triomphe does for the Champs Ely sees?
Yes. People like to walk to things. And big [architectural] civic statements become places.
So why was the Galleria the first proposal knocked out of the convention center competition?
The developers asked me to join their team, and I told them, “You’re not going to win. You know that, don’t you?” Well, they got very insulted and asked. Why? The answer is that the other architects [for the Navy Field and Cortez Hill proposals] are simply better connected [with city officials]. The Galleria designers could have come up with something that would have stood da Vinci on his ear, and they wouldn’t have won.
Now, it’s not as corrupt here as in Philadelphia ... in fact, it’s refreshingly honest here, but still, you must have connections. The design for a building is always incidental. What really matters is: does it [the financing] work out on paper so my ass doesn’t get caught in the ringer?
Though the Galleria proposal failed, some interesting buildings are going up downtown. The Wells Fargo Plaza [on Broadway at Front Street] has caused some excitement.
Yes. I would suggest that the next time there’s a rally of any kind in San Diego, it will not take place in Horton Plaza, but in the Wells Fargo Plaza. I think one thing about that particular building is that it’s so interestingly sited, and with the wall created by the Federal Building, that whole environment there has become quite nice.
The Wells Fargo Plaza has magnetized the area. It’s the first place that brought a flower vendor and a hot dog stand to the sidewalk, and generated some street activity.
In my opinion, it’s the best glass building in town. And I think the architect [Hullmuth Obata and Kassabaum] did a respectable job there. He created that wonderful space, and the diagonal entry really charges that whole plaza. It’s really shifted the focus of downtown to the blocks west of Horton Plaza.
What about the upcoming Horton Plaza shopping center? Do you like the design?
I think it does offer some potential, but one of the things that really bothers the hell out of me is that here you have probably the most sacred ground in San Diego — namely, the Horton Plaza fountain and park, which are symbolic of old San Diego, the meaning of the town. So it seems to me that a responsible design for the shopping center would take all that into consideration, that it would pay homage to the past and be respectful of the plaza. And I’m sure they think their plan does. But there isn’t anything in the immediate vicinity that relates to it. Nothing provides a backdrop for that fountain. Here’s an opportunity for the architect and the developer to play with that idea and at least look at the past of San Diego and say, “We respect that place and that fountain and the name Horton, and we’re going to do something with some physical design that says that we acknowledge that.’’ And they haven’t.
What about Gaslamp? That has the potential for greatness. It’s a place that could hold restaurants and bars, theater, music — everything. It’s “human scale" more than anything in this town, and it will remain human scale. But it’s been a failure.
Yes, it has.
It’s been seven years, and the stores are closing faster than they’re opening. How come?
If the planners had done their homework, they would have found out that [elsewhere] most of those kinds of places have failed. The underground in Atlanta isn’t doing well. The St. Louis Old Town has failed. But Philadelphia’s historical trail, with the old Benjamin Franklin house and Independence Hall — has been really charged. That’s because it’s authentic. And here, Gaslamp has the scale factor and the historical preservation factor, a sense of history and a link with the past.
Can Gaslamp succeed with winos and bums? Or should those winos and bums be driven out?
I’ve kind of made my peace with the winos and bums, so . . .
Will the tourists and the conventioneers?
Probably not. The aesthetics of it isn’t always that pleasing and there’s a certain guilt thing that goes along with just being in the same place, being more fortunate than they. But to sanitize the place, I think, is wrong. My solution to Gaslamp would be to infuse the place with people living there to make it a neighborhood, a real neighborhood. Because you need the laundromat and you need the drugstore and you need the comer bar and you need the restaurant and you need enough real places to support the souvenir shops and the rest.
That takes zoning changes.
Well, it’s being done without zoning. There are plenty of talented artists and designers and architects in this [downtown] area. There are a lot more than people know, and they’re a lot better than people know, and they’re a lot more intelligent than people know, and a lot of them are living on the periphery of Gaslamp, which in a sense is what Gaslamp hoped to be.
Artists and designers always gravitate to the neatest places that are just affordable. People tend to follow artists and designers. The Bowery and SoHo and all that business in New York has become a very fashionable place to live, and people spend a lot of money doing it.
Why haven’t we encouraged that here? But then, what other city of this size would wait until 1983 to legalize sidewalk cafes?
Yeah. America’s finest environmental city. Exactly. I would suggest that the money that went into the Pardee and Shaped projects [city-subsidized downtown condominiums] would have been much better spent legalizing zoning and upgrading housing for people who are already living in the downtown area quasi-legally. I would suggest that the spaces would have an occupancy rate of about ninety-five percent — and I would also suggest that the people would really be living in those spaces, and really be buying from the Gaslamp area if there were real-life businesses there.
How could those subsidies be used in the Gaslamp?
The money could be used to help people renovate the warehouses and factories and convert them to housing. Those places — and they’ve been around since the Thirties, most of them — are more natural to the city — they’re not some designer’s idea of what a cute city should look like. And they’ve got amenities that no one can afford to build today: fourteen-foot ceilings, generous spaces, arched windows.
But the subsidies continue going to the Shapell and Pardee condominiums. Just last month the redevelopment agency issued more bonds to reduce the mortgages for buyers. Yet the units aren’t selling, even with subsidized financing.
It’s a disaster. Both projects [Pardee’s Park Row and Shapell’s Marina Park] are somewhat of a disaster in the sense that they’re sited very poorly. There used to be a nice long access down F Street along the Federal Building and Pantoja Park over to the water. That’s been destroyed. And not only has it been destroyed, but there’s no focal point at the end of the vista down F Street. You get bits and pieces of the Marina Park lobby, not even a centered access, but you get a partial logo and a partial doorway or something. Whatever it is, it’s not ceremonial in the sense of something you come up to and encounter. It’s kind of a back-alley, doorway sort of thing. That’s a terrible error to make. That’s the kind of error that is bad for the city. It’s a perfect instance where if somebody knew what they were doing — be it the architect, be it CCDC [the Centre City Development Corporation, which oversees downtown redevelopment], be it the local chapter of the AIA [American Institute of Architects] — they would have changed it. If they knew what they were doing. But they didn’t. Instead, they took an otherwise preferable situation and made it worse. That should never happen when you ’re redoing a city.
What should have been done? How should the condos have been designed?
They could have retained the access, in which case it would have altered slightly both the Pardee and the Shapell projects to allow a vista through the property. That could have been done through an architectural expression. It wouldn’t have necessarily meant that they would have lost leasable space. Or they should have supplanted that vista with an access to Pantoja Park or a more attractive entrance to the project. Anything to at least give it a terminus so when you look down F Street, at least you’re focusing on something that has meaning, as opposed to a blank wall or a partial logo or half a door.
What about the actual condominium units, their design and appeal. The Pardee units seem especially well suited for San Diego.
The developers had two marketing packages. They had a generic “Spanish” package, which was the Pardee solution, and they had the oak-paneled, leatherbound-lawbooks solution, which was the Shapell solution. Well, the Shapell solution missed by light years in every sense of the word. The Pardee project is much better, but they don’t seem to be selling either, probably because of the economy and probably because they’re the first [downtown]. I think the Pardee units might be a decent investment for somebody. Residential will happen downtown, but not unless they start building quality products.
How could something like the Shapell project be built here?
It was unchecked. You don’t hear everything. You know, with the Stoorza public relations agency “speaking on behalf of” kind of rhetoric, you don’t hear what’s really being said, and there is a general attitude among the people who try to get these projects going of “how lucky we are to get so-and-so in here to develop this property, how fortunate we are.” We’re not fortunate at all. They [the developers) are the fortunate ones. We’ve got the most livable community, environmentally, perhaps on the face of the earth. Why are we fortunate to get a mediocre project that’s going to change the scale of our town and doesn’t fit our needs? Why does that make us fortunate? I don’t understand why it does.
Perhaps it has something to do with the character of San Diegans, that we’re not too demanding.
Yes. There’s an interesting phenomenon about San Diego. Normally there are some patrons in towns, some well-known families. I’m not sure it’s at all possible today as it used to be — I think it may be an occurrence that was more possible in another century — but certainly in places like Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago there are forces that are felt, and they tend not to be corporate so much as family dynasties. Dallas and Houston kind of have that today, and I think certain families are felt in San Francisco. The wishes of those families in terms of how the town developed had as much to do with vision, direction, and opulence as any other factor. Although I’m not a historian I don’t know of any story here where that’s been rue, where a family or a set of families decided n earnest how the town would grow and what its priorities would be.
I don’t know why San Diego has had an absence of really rich and powerful people or whether they just have not been community oriented.
What can take the place of these I families?
I know that Danah Fayman is doing it. [Fayman is founder of Partners for Livable Places, a group promoting downtown activities and culture and prodding developers to include art. sculpture, and design in their projects.] And to the degree that she’s doing it, she is successful. She’s a very bright spot in this town.
But can she wield the sort of clout ! and influence that generations of families have had elsewhere?
She has the intelligence, she has the sensitivity, she has the fostering and the interest, but she needs more help from other people to at least expose the mayor, the city council, CCDC, planning department, the San Diego chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the design community at large to the best and brightest there is and bring those issues to bear on our problem.
How else can these various groups -politicians, the planning department, i architects, and designers - work together to discuss downtown’s future?
I think a local architectural firm — Bradshaw Bundy & Associates [Richard Bundy and Ralph Bradshaw] — along with the AIA and I, have on a number of occasions tried to create a dialogue here. Three or four years ago we tried a seminar called “Great Expectations.” The idea was that you invite seven to ten experts from various cities who have done meaningful projects . . . who have breathed life back into the project areas that they were working in and who had gained some regional, if not national, reputation for being very good at what they did. You listen to them, and while you wouldn’t necessarily want to replicate what they were doing, you would at least start to understand their design process and their intent. Well, we put on such a program. It was hardly attended. These programs are hardly ever attended by American Institute of Architects members themselves, much less the city fathers and the city council and members of CCDC. The seminars are not fulfilling their purpose, and the underlying notion of Great Expectations was that you only get what you expect. If you expect greatness, you'll get it, or at least come close to it. If you expect mediocrity, you’ll get it. And if you expect junk, you’ll get it. I think we’re expecting junk and I think we’re going to get it.
You’ve been outspoken in your criticisms of downtown's planning and design, at times rating San Diego “as striving for a five on a scale of ten.’’ What do you mean by that?
I mean that it’s not even average in many respects. So when the phrase goes around about America’s Finest City, you have to ask yourself who’s saying it and what do they mean by that. If they mean environmentally. I’d say yes. it’s got to be one of the nicest, most lovely meteorological environments anywhere. If you want to talk about the people, that's fine, too. But if you want to talk about manmade environments, it’s not America's finest at all. It’s not very good, and we’d better start facing up to that.
Was the old downtown - the pre-high-rise downtown of the Sixties and early Seventies - a better place to work? Surely it lacked the dynamism of today’s downtown, especially as it started draining away to Mission Valley and Kearny Mesa.
Everything people wanted about a city, it was. It was clean. It was walk-able. It was relatively crime free. It had human scale. It had vistas and access. It had a certain amount of focal points, although that probably was one of the most deficient areas. It was well maintained. You know, it was wonderful. It wasn’t cut up. It wasn’t difficult to park, and it was inexpensive. It cost a nickel to park, plenty of parking. Sure, the merchants downtown complained because a lot of the retail buying had gone to Mission Valley and soon-to-bccome University Towne Centre and places like that. So there was some financial undermining of the retail stores downtown, but you couldn’t call it decay as in Detroit decay or Pittsburgh decay. It wasn’t that kind of decay, though admittedly it needed refurbishing. But the difference between that and what we’re getting today is a complete and total change in scale.
The scale of this town is the real issue. We’re going from essentially a two-story town with some mid-rise — you know, six stories, eight stories, that had human scale and wonderful access to the bayfront — right to something that is ten times as great or twenty times as great. It’s unrelenting, and it’s coming in an onrush and we’re not prepared for it. It’s going to change the downtown area and life in San Diego.
Why has it come on with such intensity?
That’s more of an economic and political function than it is a design function. One of the things that’s bothering me is that the design function in this particular instance is the tail. It's not leading the situation, it's following it.
Does it ever happen otherwise?
There are some planned cities. There are some cities where the best minds around — and they’re not always architects; very often they’re sociologists, economists, and real estate people — come together over a very serious object of designing their environment. They put forth their parameters, and when all of those are met, they say, “This is the design function of this particular place and this is what we’re going to aim for.’’
What's happening in San Diego is a kind of a cowboy Western attitude of the land baron. The guy with the big bucks comes in, he buys up the most desirable real estate, he pulls out his guns and says, “This is where my cattle are. That’s where the water is. This is my land. This is my fence. And I’ll do any damn thing that I please, thank you, because that’s the American way.” And it is. It is the American way.
What I’m asking is, if we are going to change our city — and we are at an incredibly fast rate — are we going to take what’s good about San Diego and throw it away in the process? I think we are.
What’s good about it and what’s being thrown out? Well, what was good about it was its scale and its ease of use. Geography has a lot to do with it. The Los Angeles basin is well known. Our bowl is much smaller, because it’s to some degree defined by Balboa Park and Interstate 5. It’s a much smaller area of real estate and I think we ought to be very careful about that, about how dense it becomes and what the main avenues and arteries are and the Embarcadero treatment, which is also a very mediocre story in San Diego.
Is there anything downtown that you’re proud of, that you'd take a visitor to see?
Yeah, I think there is. The Pacific Wine Bar on Market Street [between Fourth and Fifth avenues]. I haven’t seen their books or anything and nobody has said whether they’re in the black or the red. I do know they have an excellent product. I know the environment is sophisticated and pleasant, and it seems to be a very viable, going lunch-hour kind of place. And Rob Quigley [Pacific Wine Bar architect] is one of our great architects in town. I think there is a perfect example of somebody creating something that fills a desire and a need, because there are some sophisticated people in town and they like that kind of place and they will frequent that kind of place.
Why aren’t there more? Simple supply and demand would dictate that there’d be another one. Why did it take so long for that one to come along?
I don’t know. But the Pacific Wine Bar says that in our own little way, we’re as sophisticated as L.A., we just happen to like fresh air and sun more than they do. And that’s why we’re choosing to live here. But when we do want a Pacific Wine Bar type of experience. it is available to us. It’s just as good as anything in L.A. of its comparable nature.
It is also a good example of a building that was planned for San Diegans but attracts tourists, not unlike what you think has to be done in the Gaslamp Quarter for it to survive.
Absolutely. To build anything with just the tourist in mind is self-defeating, because in the end the fakeness always comes out and collapses the project and shows it to be plastic, superficial and a facade. In fact, everything really beautiful I can think of wasn’t created for a tourist — San Francisco’s cable cars, Athens, the water taxis in Venice. And that’s when you know something’s right, when the people who live and work there use it. For San Diego now, that could be more boats on the bay; perhaps bringing back the Coronado-San Diego ferry boats. They’d serve commuters during the rush hours and tourists during the day. It’d be an absolute financial success, because if it’s good for the locals, the tourists will love it.