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Saturday, Dec. 27, 2008 | Michael Stepner grew up in Chicago, a city so steeped in its stunning architecture that children studied downtown skyscrapers in school. The Vietnam War, the draft and the U.S. Navy brought Stepner to San Diego, a city that’s more captivated by its weather than its buildings.

But Stepner found much to like in our Southern California architecture, and he ended up spending 27 years at City Hall, where he served as city architect and acting planning director, among other positions.

The veteran of many battles over historic buildings, Stepner remains a major voice in the local architecture community at the age of 68. In an interview at downtown’s NewSchool for Architecture & Design, where he is a professor, Stepner talked about San Diego’s best buildings, his proudest moments as a preservationist and the city’s reputation on the national architecture scene.

What are some of your favorite buildings to show off to out-of-towners?

For visiting architects, the Salk Institute is always at the top, and places like The Neurosciences Institute.

I like to take them to the County Administration Building and look around downtown. And we go to the Uptown District (the Ralphs supermarket shopping center in Hillcrest). There, we came out with what has become a model for building on a piece of land that’s vacant or underused in an existing community. That’s another one that everybody who comes to town wants to see.

I like to go through the older neighborhoods and enjoy the quality of the streetscapes: the trees, the narrow streets, the way the houses relate to their surroundings. It’s a pleasant thing to do.

What neighborhoods do you enjoy in particular?

Parts of La Jolla, Mission Hills, Kensington, Bankers Hill, Hillcrest, Point Loma. They’ve aged well and have a certain character that makes them walkable and pleasant to be in.

There are parts of Clairemont that were developed right after World War II and laid out like prewar neighborhoods, not really designed around the car. People were able to walk to stores and schools, walk around the block.

I just had my students do a study of the Bay Park part of Clairemont. It’s an older neighborhood with walkable streets and a nice little town center that most people don’t know exists. There are a lot of places like this around the city.

Many of the new subdivisions, 25 years old or so, may never get there. They’re auto-oriented, they’re not walkable, they never had a lot of tree planting. They’re just different.

Do you think developers are doing a better job of building subdivisions these days?

They’re coming along. Part of the problem was perhaps caused by us bureaucrats who wanted streets to be wider and wider, faster and faster. We lost sight of people walking through a neighborhood rather than driving.

In places like Otay Ranch, San Elijo Ranch, Del Sur (developments in Chula Vista, San Marcos and San Diego), subdivisions that have come online in the last 5-10 years are rediscovering some of the principles of neighborhood design that we’ve forgotten. They’re starting to come back.

In terms of newer architecture, is that San Diego’s strength?

We’ve very good at small-scale projects that are at a higher density than the neighborhood they start out with, but fit in well. That seems to be our strongest claim to fame. Our architects aren’t known as being the high-rise experts or the commercial (property) experts.

What are some examples of good small-scale projects?

Two- to three-story housing developments and mixed-use projects, like the one in my neighborhood in Mission Hills (at Washington Street and Falcon Street) that went up a few years ago with townhouses, apartments and commercial. That came out very nicely and fit into the neighborhood.

Have any architectural styles been failures in San Diego?

In the downtown area, there are the 1960s high-rises like City Hall that look like shoeboxes extruded 10 or 20 or 30 floors.

They were buildings that didn’t relate to the ground floor very well, didn’t function well, didn’t make statements about what they were.

As we look back on the style, few buildings from that period were actually good.

You have put in many hours trying to preserve historic buildings. Which buildings are you especially proud of helping to save?

The North Park Theater, which was about to be torn down for a parking lot. And the Gaslamp Quarter. And the Spreckels Theater, the Balboa Theater, and the Golden West Hotel. They’ve added to the quality of the Horton Plaza development.

What were some major influences on architects here?

The mission style and the craftsman style were very influential in the early part of last century.

Climate has influenced a lot of people around here. We have such an even climate. Normally, the temperature ranges aren’t that great, so you design for the inside and the outside. You didn’t have to button up the buildings for the winter like you did in the Midwest. You could take advantage of the site and climate as you couldn’t in other places.

You might find a house here that has a lot more indoor/outdoor spaces, openings to gardens and open spaces. A long time ago, in older homes you used to find outdoor bedrooms. You’d find houses designed so you didn’t have to have extensive heating or cooling systems.

What does San Diego do wrong in terms of architecture?

Sometimes we settle for something. We have an attitude that we’re competing with Los Angeles, and we’re second to them, so we’ll take what we can get. There are times when we don’t ask for as much as we can get out of designs for buildings.

That’s in some ways evident in the current problem of high-rises and condos downtown. They’ve copied a model that they used in Vancouver, but we don’t get quite the same quality they did up north.

In terms of architecture, what is San Diego known for in the country and the rest of the world?

We’re known for people like Irving Gill, his body of work and his contemporaries in the early years of the last century.

But we don’t have much of a reputation architecturally for contemporary work except for buildings like the Salk Institute in La Jolla and The Neurosciences Institute, a few of those buildings. We don’t have the body of architectural icons that you’d find in places like LA.

We have a lot of interesting work, though. That’s part of the problem. People don’t know about it. We don’t have a reputation of being a Chicago, New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. We just don’t make it on the radar.

Is there enough interest in architecture locally?

We don’t have consistent writing about it, so we don’t have interest and awareness.

At one point, we had two architecture critics. We had Dirk Sutro writing for the (now-defunct San Diego County edition of the Los Angeles) Times and most recently, Ann Jarmusch at the Union-Tribune. Now we have none.

What could make San Diegans more interested in architecture?

Land use and development is a contact sport. When a project is proposed in a neighborhood, people get excited and interested about whether it fits or is appropriate or not.

But people often don’t know what could be better. They don’t like what’s going to happen, but they don’t know how to articulate what might be better.

Critics, architectural tours and museum exhibits could show what could be instead of just having everyone reacting to what might be.

— Interview by RANDY DOTINGA

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