American Institute of Architects

Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2008|CCDC, and the Redevelopment Agency, are charged with rebuilding the city in a manner that hopefully would create a well-planned, world-class livable city. Unfortunately, the agencies are failing to live up to that potential. Not because they don’t have a fine and capable staff — but because their processes and methodologies are misguided. They are missing the mark and they’re doing a tremendous disservice to the citizens of San Diego. The evidence can be seen in the sad shape of our downtown with its poorly thought out developments, and poorly designed buildings, that we all will have to live with for many lifetimes.  

The problem is the order in which skilled people, public opinion, and money are brought into the process of creating new buildings. Currently, when a civic building needs to be replaced, or city-owned land needs to be developed (like the proposal for the new City Hall) CCDC, and/or the Redevelopment Agency, send out Request for Proposals for developers. In most cities, an architect would be the first professional brought into the process. Architects are the people who are trained to create built spaces that are sensitive to their surroundings and appropriate for the specified use. Developers, in their primary role of creating profit, are more single-minded and generally aren’t looking out for a city’s long-term benefit. When a developer is asked to provide a proposal for a new building, they have no incentive to hire a world-class architect for a conceptual design that may not get picked in the end. This scenario happens again and again and is why San Diego is sorely missing the types of buildings that inspire its citizenry. With the new City Hall proposal, the public is stuck in choosing the lesser of two uninspired evils. Or, as is the case, when one of the applicants drops out of the process the public has a take-it-or-leave-it choice of one.

A more enlightened alternative that will give more choice to citizens, create more sophisticated civic buildings, and remove the temptation for corruption would be to hold open, international architecture competitions where submitted work is judged and picked by the public and an independent panel of experts. Architects are used to working for free and submitting designs for the chance to be a part of building an important civic space. I ask the Mayor, the City Council, the Redevelopment Agency and the future president of CCDC to make a gesture for real change by radically reforming the way the City goes about creating buildings. Past generations have left us Balboa Park, The Salk Institute (the City Council gifted the land), and icons like the Coronado Bay Bridge. Let’s not let our legacy be cheaply conceived civic buildings and a cityscape of crass commercial towers. 

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