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Friday, January 27, 2006 | Municipal Itinerant

I hear people talk so much about the weather as a blessing of San Diego that I sometimes wonder if we non-surfers take for granted the other equal or perhaps more important geographic asset.

Nearly all of Southern California – and indeed the Southwestern United States – enjoys frequent sunshine and, at least by Midwestern standards, a pleasant climate. What they do not share with America’s Finest City is the beautiful concurrence of modern urbanity and pristine aquatic expanse (enhanced considerably by the clear, blue skies it gets to reflect.)

But you don’t see pasty Hoosiers gawking excitedly, their heads cranked completely vertical, taking in the azure heaven from a Mira Mesa parking lot. You see them standing on the tile walkway at Seaport Village, their freshly purchased dark sunglasses reflecting a $5 hot dog, telling the missus that the big blue bay is just so gorgeous. And then marveling at the lack of white caps.

Even on a mid-January Monday. As long as the sun (ahem) is out, there’ll be the quiet retired couple from Arizona buying fudge and the amazed-every-minute batch of Kentucky conference boys scoping Harley T-shirts and blondes. Even the locals hang out at Seaport Village – though they usually seem to be jogging away.

To say the place is popular would be an understatement. But – given that this wet desert is our biggest draw and our finest beauty – is Seaport Village really the best meeting of city and bay we can muster? Does it really draw people with its effusive cuteness and, OK, two Ben and Jerry’s outposts? Is it an asset to its bayside location, or a distraction from it?

The Village certainly tries to act worthy of its place, to emphasize itself as a destination. The presence of a tall, black perimeter fence and guard station (with tire killers) makes driving up – how else did you think you’d get there? – a somewhat foreboding experience. Like pretty much everything in San Diego, Seaport Village is surrounded by a parking lot, which, on many sides, is also surrounded by parking lots. Peeking up above green lawns at one end of it are the three low-profile complexes of the place: Cape Cod-flavored West Plaza, Central Plaza, aka Dodge City (an Old West town) and East Plaza, where Spanish-y stucco lets you know it was designed with Old Town in mind.

For inhabiting such a geographically diverse mix of architecture, the commercial establishments all fall along few lines. There’s food – delis, bay-view restaurants, pizza stands, beer ‘n’ burger joints and a window for every kind of dessert invented in the known history of mankind eating dessert – most of it slightly-to-extremely overpriced.

But most astounding about Seaport Village is the sheer unthinkable variety of retail boutiques – and the giggles their selective product stocking policies earn from customers. Who would know that we would want an entire almost-waterfront space dedicated to the selling of magnets? Or coffee mugs – “the world’s largest selection?”

Guess I missed the telegram. As one middle-aged shopper earnestly told her browsing buddies, “Girls, if you miss this store, it’s just one more you’ll have to see when we get back.”

True dat. As the map of the place so subtly hints, the experience of discovery at Seaport Village depends on being joyfully overwhelmed by the retail shopping. What else is there to do, besides eat and look at the ducks?

That’s the trouble with the place: To really experience it, you have to buy something. Perhaps it’s because I go as a perma-broke college chomper, excluded to begin with from the luxury of gift-shop impulsiveness, but the shocking deliberateness of the manicured lawns and rough-cut, knee-high fences around every tiled path, of the relentless selling amid watered down history, and above all, the omnipresent stench of “smooth jazz” at every corner just makes me want to escape to something more natural. Something more real. Or at least some hip-hop.

That and there’s no place that sells the kinds of things people buy when they aren’t on vacation. (Well, OK: they do sell really good cookies.)

And there’s something else, the jewel of my Seaport Village actually – and yes, it’s a store. Upstart Crow bookstore and café, where teeny tables wind through a low-ceiling hut, volumes stacked to the top, and a coffee bar in the middle, has a lovely literary feel, as if any guy in the corner could be the city’s future poet laureate, laboring on his masterwork.

So as much as I want to complain about how we quench our desire to be with nature with our desire for conspicuous consumption, I have to acknowledge that my critique of the Village is otherwise purely aesthetic. As far as noncommercial public space (for us hippies) goes, there’s plenty of it a footstep away at Embarcadero Marina Park, where idyllic green lawns curl around a bright pleasure boat marina under luxurious shade trees.

What Seaport Village needs most is a suitable link to the city it celebrates. The aforementioned parking lots separate the place from downtown like a prison fence. Thankfully, a potential solution – though not one vaccinated against the parking lot plague – is on its way. The Port of San Diego is moving forward with a huge revision of the entire area surrounding Seaport Village.

In place of the old parking lots will be new parking lots, a “village square” (surrounded mostly by the parking lots), a new 3.2 acre park adjacent to the waterfront and the centerpiece, a retail-and-restaurant conversion of the Old Police Headquarters, a National Historic Site. These days the compound sits as a neglected pink island in the pavement, where employees from the Village leave their cars.

The waterfront area revitalization is expected by its developers to be completed by spring 2007. Its execution will be a sign that at the very least, despite the city’s long-standing reputation for being poorly planned, those in charge might finally be realizing that San Diego’s development should decisively compliment its natural environment. If you’ve got as big and blue a draw as we do, you’d better let people get at it – and all the better if they don’t have to buy something first.

Send your own curious tips about San Diego’s public spaces to Ian Port at

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