Thursday, Jan. 4, 2007 | A few years ago, I took a walk through the County Administration Building on Pacific Highway.
If you’ve never done it, it’s worth a few minutes.
It’s a curious place. For such a beautiful building in such a beautiful city in such a beautiful spot, it has a horrible flaw: It really has no good view of the bay it’s nudged up against.
Wait, I should be clear. It has a view of the bay — there are certainly places from the building that offer a visual portal to the surroundings.
But back to the view: That’s it, there’s little to offer except a few inconveniently located portals. The middle tower of the colorful building stretches high enough to see from many parts of the northern zone of downtown and from across the bay.
From inside the tower, however, only a couple of small windows look out to those places.
It’s a wasted opportunity. A friend, who was with me and who is knowledgeable about the building’s history, said that the architects behind it imagined the building’s occupants looking out over the city with their backs to the bay. It wasn’t imagined then, he said, that anyone would value the water view and want it to be embraced.
Some of the best views in the building, actually, are from the bottom floor.
The county building is a good example of what downtown builders are particularly good at: constructing edifices that stand alone — islands to themselves, oblivious to or strangely unable to connect with their surroundings.
Look at downtown. Everywhere. A tower here, a tower there. It’s a downtown. But it’s held up as something special: a dramatic example of urban renewal. And in some ways it is. But there’s a difference between successfully constructing buildings and successfully building a community and revitalizing an urban area.
The mark of success is not, and should not be, that condo towers have been built and people have purchased the places inside of them. That’s a triumph for contractors, Realtors and land speculators.
The mark of success for an “urban renewal” would be easy to identify as the point at which these buildings become more than freestanding islands of condos. It would be the point at which you recognized the buildings as valuable pieces to the whole downtown puzzle.
Over most of downtown, however, there’s nothing really unifying between the towers. It’s like a quilt whose blocks aren’t stitched together.
Downtown is crowding together. Despite the housing slump, there’s still plenty of construction going on. Builders will be finishing thousands of new condos, in fact, in coming months and years. But if the towers are constructed like their predecessors, it will seem more natural to drive from tower to tower rather than walk.
And it makes sense. A year ago, I lamented the fact that it was hard to walk from one part of downtown to another without wondering what you were doing and why you felt so out of place. Nothing really has changed.
The county building’s architects ignored what was behind them — the bay. Perched on the high beams of their towers, condo builders and planners downtown are in danger of ignoring what is below them — the street and sidewalk. And while it will never have the picturesque sailboats, the street can become attractive. It can become comfortable to walk on, easy to navigate and exciting for all the senses.
Lightposts, bricks, walls, planters, even trash cans can make a sidewalk feel like you’re supposed to be there.
While plans continue to be approved for more and more condominium projects, downtown’s leaders should consider putting together a plan to reinvigorate the sidewalks, walkways and bottom levels of their developments. It’s not impossible. Little Italy, for instance, has shown that even in the midst of a building frenzy, a neighborhood can find and accentuate its main pedestrian paths. It can unify buildings.
It is imperative that downtown’s leaders identify what happened in Little Italy to facilitate its success.
Because if they show signs of repeating it in the rest of downtown, we may finish out the decade wondering how come it’s still so uncomfortable to walk around a downtown that has added so much development and so many luxurious condos.