Last Saturday I attended the inaugural “Arts & the City” symposium held at the Bayfront Hilton. The event included an international art gallery sale with art pieces from around the world, and an all day set of panel discussions that touched on everything from energizing the local arts community, UCSD’s Stuart Collection, case histories of how the creation of local arts districts has revitalized decayed areas of other cities around the country, presentations on how other cities around the country are supporting the growth of their own arts communities, ways to take back the streets for public events and discussions of other great waterfronts and how ours could be activated and improved.

The event was co-sponsored by a range of local groups, including CCDC, the San Diego Foundation, EDC, and other local contributors. It is the first of what is hoped will become an annual event bringing together the local arts and planning communities.

David Malmuth, who organized the various panels, said there was a lot of wisdom in the room and asked participants to stretch themselves and expand their thinking about what is possible on our downtown bayfront.

From my own perspective, the highlights of the event were a presentation by Bob Wislow on Millennium Park in the Chicago lakefront, and a panel discussion led by Malmuth, waterfront designer and architect Stan Eckstut and Marco Li Mandri of Little Italy.

Wislow was one of the key developers of Millennium Park, and said that it never would have been built without the strong, ongoing support of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who championed the park from the beginning as a means of showing that Chicago was a 21st century city. The new park was built on a new deck over an old railroad yard and a new parking garage that replaced a decrepit older two-story parking garage on part of the site. He discussed how the planners progressed from initial ideas for a new Beaux Arts park similar to the nearby Grant Park to a more modern, more active park design.

Wislow also gave a great slideshow that showed how the new park was designed and built.

Wislow detailed how the new park generated more than $1.4 billion dollars in new residential development around the new park, and how today it generates more than $25 million dollars a year in real estate tax revenues to the city. He discussed how free concerts at the park’s bandstand facility draw thousands of concert goers. The park has generated more than $2.6 billion a year in visitor spending, created another $240 million a year in sales tax revenues to the city, and supports more than a thousands job related to the park.

At the beginning of the panel discussion of our own waterfront and the arts, a video clip of Port Commissioner Lee Burdick was shown, in which she talked about the Port’s art programs and their desire to develop public community uses for the Broadway Pier and the new terminal building on the 300 days when cruise ships will not be using it each year. She noted that the Wharton School of Business issued a study on the positive economic impacts of creating public spaces.

She said the Port’s goal should be to find more ways for people to get to the water downtown. She talked about using the arts to buffer the Port’s industrial areas from surrounding residential areas.

David Malmuth said that the current debate over our downtown waterfront is very important. He noted that much of our waterfront is a place of lost opportunities. He said that our bayfront should be unique to San Diego, based on arts and culture as well as economic pragmatism. He noted that the Port gets 70% of its revenues from rents and leases, and said it could improve its economic performance by more creatively programming and activating more public spaces along the downtown bayfront. He noted that creating more public spaces is important, but how we program them to work is even more important.

Stan Eckstut, who helped develop a 2005 proposal to update the 1998 NEVP plan, which was based on retaining an open, public Broadway Pier, said that it’s OK that it has taken 12 years to determine what will go on our North Embarcadero, noting that it took him 15 years to design and build Battery Park at the foot of Manhattan Island. He said that San Diego and the Port need a truly “WOW!” central place on the North Embarcadero, noting that such places create economic value.

He talked about Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia and the Inner Harbor in Baltimore as examples of places that generate economic value for their areas. He noted that San Diego’s waterfront will fail if we don’t get the programming right. He noted that today’s successful waterfronts are focused on the arts and culture such as concerts and live performances, community festivals and fairs. He noted that because waterfronts are on the edge of downtowns, they are typically not a good place for retail operations, noting that retail should be built in the center of downtowns, not on the edges.

He said that at Battery City Park, the City of New York located museums and schools in its most valuable spaces around the waterfront park, and that has activated the space and made it more successful. He noted that Baltimore also put museums around its inner harbor, which have helped make it a success.

Stan said that its not just the land that makes a waterfront successful, its also the water. He suggested that the Port needs to develop and adopt a water usages plan for the North Embarcadero, as well as a land use plan. He said the Port should have thought of locating the Maritime Museum’s great old sailing vessels at Broadway Pier, instead of modern cruise ships, in order to draw more visitors to the Embarcadero. He noted that the foot of Broadway is the heart of the city, and needed to draw visitors from the center of downtown to the waterfront. He said we don’t need more commercial buildings on the tidelands, we need to create a city center on the bay, which needs to be carefully programmed.

Marco Li Mandri talked about his ongoing efforts to activate the Little Italy district, with regular community arts and street fairs, and the design and maintenance of pedestrian friendly streetscapes with landscaped plazas, fountains and piazzas on almost every block. He spoke about slowing down pedestrians by making every block interesting to look at and shop in. He talked about how they treat the streets as public spaces, giving them up to pedestrians instead of cars for regular community events. He complained about antiquated city laws and regulations that cage people who want to sit and drink along the sidewalks.

He showed slides of the San Francisco waterfront near Fisherman’s Warf, where he had recently vacationed, and said that sitting on a lawn that was integrated with the water, watching people and boats passing by, was “art in motion.” He talked about Santa Barbara’s people friendly waterfront. He also showed slides of Battery City Park and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, reflecting populated, activated waterfronts. He showed active parks in New York and Bryant Park, and people sitting at tables on the streets of Times Square, showing examples of vibrant, economically profitable public spaces, both permanent and temporary.

The he showed slides he had taken on a Sunday afternoon along the North Embarcadero, including the empty esplanade, endless news racks along the sidewalks, pedicabs squeezing pedestrians off the sidewalks, and parking lots with hundreds of vacant spaces on the inland side of the waterfront going unused.

He talked about how Broadway needs to be improved and better connect Horton Plaza to the foot of Broadway. He called lower Broadway an “open sore,” and noted that there is nothing on lower Broadway to attract pedestrians to the waterfront, comparing it with the Miracle Mile in Chicago that draws people to the waterfront Grant and Millennium parks.

He talked about “Embarcadero activation elements,” including taking greater advantage of the physical beauty of the space, increasing the population of visitors on the Embarcadero, the fact that the place is flat, making it more pedestrian friendly, the need for funding sources for more street events, and the need to program and activate the space.

He suggested that the Port should fund capital projects, and create a new nonprofit public benefits district to hire an outside firm to program, activate and maintain the public spaces. He predicted that more density is coming downtown, west of First Street and said those new people will need places to relax, play and shop. He noted that the water isn’t going anywhere, and that we need to make the bayfront an “unconscious destination” like the Gaslamp is now. He noted this will take better collaboration between multiple jurisdictions, but is doable.

In the question and answer session after the panel discussion, Eckstut said the city and the Port need to find a way to make the Broadway Pier the “city pier” for San Diego. The panelists discussed how other waterfronts are other jurisdictional circumstances. Eckstut said we need to find ways to make Broadway Pier work in another way, and noted that as a cruise ship terminal it may eventually go bankrupt anyway. Malmuth suggested designing performance art elements into the new Navy Pier park and building in creative play space along the embarcadero. He suggested activating the promenade, and to not let landscaping displace public space. He called for a “WOW!” piece of public art at the foot of Broadway, signifying that it’s the gate to the downtown. Eckstut said all these things must be linked to the water as part of a land/water plan. He said the Port should increase the water elements in its Port Master Plan. He suggested that the Navy Broadway Complex project be redesigned to better link to the new Navy Pier park and the water.

In all this was an eye opening event, which had me thinking about the north Embarcadero in new ways. It seems to me that we need to come up with a set of “North Embarcadero Principles” as part of the current planning process.

Some these guiding principles include:

• The North Embarcadero should provide mitigation for the loss of public access we’ve seen along the South Embarcadero,

• Public space should be given priority over more private commercial development,

• The waterfront should be home to more great civic buildings and public parks,

• We need fewer residential condo towers and more schools and museums built around the Embarcadero area,

• All parties need to understand the economic benefits that come with public activated space along the Embarcadero.

• Investments by the Port in public spaces and amenities along the Embarcadero add value to the adjoining CCDC controlled properties. This increase in property values must be recognized and a portion of that value should be rebated back to the Port by CCDC. Perhaps the NEVP Joint Powers Authority can be used for this kind of revenue sharing.

The key questions we were left with at the end of the session were, how can we pick from the best elements of the best waterfronts around the world to create something truly unique for San Diego? And where are the real champions for a truly great waterfront in San Diego?

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