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Winton is also sharply critical of the New York architect recruited by museum director Davies to design the project and thinks the choice is tinged with more than a touch of trendy East Coast art-world elitism. "They are touting Richard Gluckman as the guru of museum architects. I think he's a lot of hot air. I think if he has said something often enough and long enough, people get convinced of it; he's even convinced of it."

Others note that Davies was responsible for recruiting noted Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi in 1996 to overhaul the museum's La Jolla headquarters, originally designed as a residence by Irving Gill, the region's most famous homegrown architect. The Venturi remodel, hailed by some, drew brickbats from many others, including a reviewer from Art in America, who noted in July 1997 that "Venturi's postmodern playfulness here goes awry in the bombastic and overbearing entry court. Huge Dalmatian spots pattern the terrazzo floor, and an irregular star-shaped clerestory above dangles a wavy, perforated, patterned fin — its edges outlined in neon — from each of its seven ribs."

Winton says that's a foreboding precedent.

"My opinion is Gluckman got a nice vacation in Southern California to come defend his building, and if it gets built we will have 20 to 30 years of horror to have to look at. It'll probably take at least that long for us to get it torn down. Once something is up, it's very difficult to get it removed."

Winton was present at an October 16 hearing on the project held by the city's redevelopment arm, the Centre City Development Corporation, which reviewed the plan and gave it a hasty thumbs-up prior to sending it on to the city council, which is now set to hear the item November 26. If the plan is approved by the council, the site would be donated to the city by the depot's owner, real estate giant Catellus, Inc.; the city would then lease the property to the museum until 2091. Winton says the CCDC board made it clear it was on the side of the development and refused to give opponents a fair hearing.

"It was old home week," according to Winton, who says she looked on in chagrin as CCDC board members openly alluded to social and personal relationships they had with museum backers. "You could hear the cash registers jingle. I don't think that it's covert. It's quite overt. They get invited to places, they go to dinners. They are invited to museum welcoming parties. The social scene. This is very important to some people."

One board member, attorney Victor Vilaplana, declared he would recuse himself from voting on the issue, then went on to tell his colleagues about the project's great merits. "Mr. Chair, because of my prior and current relationship with the museum and the museum's counsel, I am going to disqualify myself from the vote for the project, which I do think is a terrific and wonderful cultural and architectural addition to San Diego."

When museum president Pauline Foster went to the podium, she received a warm reception from the board. "[Foster] got up to speak and said, 'It's so nice to see you all again,'" Winton recalls, "and they all beamed back at her. When she said, 'It's so nice to see you again,' it wasn't very businesslike."

Yet even as they fell into line for a six-to-nothing vote in favor of the building, several members of the CCDC board winced with displeasure over its design. "I support the project, but I have to be a little bit honest. When I look at the building, perhaps I don't have the architectural eye," said member Gil Johnson. "I support this, but I really do have some heartburn."

Chimed in board member Julie Dillon, "I guess I would say ditto to boardmember Johnson. I have had heartburn for quite a while, and everybody's heard me talk about this. I am also not an architect, but I am really concerned about the boxiness of it. I am fully in support of the project, but I am troubled by this building."

Project critic Bruce Coons, executive director of Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), a pro-preservation advocacy group, argues that "The current design looks like the cooling tower of a power plant. This just doesn't make the grade as a great new piece of architecture or historic preservation. The early design has been watered down, and it's just become a boring, ugly appendage. It's an abomination, and almost everybody else agrees. We think San Diego deserves better."

Skeptics say they can't help comparing the situation to the long-standing controversy at the San Diego Unified School District. In that case, Superintendent Alan Bersin, backed by the Union-Tribune and various downtown business interests, along with his mother-in-law Pauline Foster, is pitted against the teachers' union and a variety of other critics of his policies regarding district purchasing, contracting, real estate development, and educational issues. Irwin Jacobs, for whom the depot museum is to be named, also is a major Bersin supporter; in 2000 Jacobs gave $100,000 to an ultimately unsuccessful effort to defeat Bersin's school-board foe, Frances O'Neill Zimmerman.

"It's very sad," concludes Winton. "We are not anti-art. That is the tack they took, accusing us of that, and it kind of threw me off base. We are not anti-art, we are anti-poor architecture."

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