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The idea to build a giant sculpture on the waterfront seemed to drop from the sky, stirring up a flood of comment and emotion.

Now, it’s officially time for the public to weigh in. On Tuesday evening, local residents will get their first in-person chance to weigh in on the plan.

The sculpture’s designers planned it to be an iconic landmark to represent San Diego to the world for decades. But once the renderings became public, reaction was mixed. Detractors call the piece a view-blocking eyesore, drawing comparisons to bunny ears, a hood ornament or worse.

Does the mammoth “Wings of Freedom” sculpture deserve a place on the city’s waterfront? And what about the rest of the proposal to remake the Navy Pier, estimated to cost between $65 million and $75 million?

Here’s a reader’s guide to what you need to know to help you decide.

What’s planned for Navy Pier?

The $35 million “Wings of Freedom” piece of the project is proposed to be built on the end of the Navy Pier next to the existing USS Midway Museum.

The proposed remodeling of the rest of the pier has gotten less attention than the sculptures. It will feature a lower-deck parking lot for about 500 cars — about 100 more spaces than exist now — and a landscaped upper deck that would become a park of about five acres for arts events.

The existing four-story Navy building would be torn down.

The Union-Tribune has background about the pier’s history (it was built in 1928) and other ideas for its future, including “hanging gardens.”

What are the sculptures and where are they going to go?

In the proposal, one of the sculptures is 500 feet tall; the other is 400 feet. Both will be made of steel and titanium, and they’re to be installed on opposite sides of an amphitheater on the top deck of Navy Pier. The sculptures are supposed to look like wings or sails.

As a reference point, the three tallest buildings downtown are all close to 500 feet: One America Plaza, Symphony Towers and the Manchester Grand Hyatt.

The sculptures are “indisputably a bold concept to memorialize the veterans, explorers and entrepreneurs who helped create San Diego,” writes Bob Nelson, a commissioner on the board that runs the Unified Port of San Diego.

Midway officials see it as “a perfect example of wings of freedom, sails of freedom. … And that’s the beauty of art and architecture. It’s open to interpretation and people can see what they want in the structure” said Greg Mueller, CEO of Tucker Sadler Architects, which helped design the project, in an interview with KPBS.

The project’s website includes more details about the proposal and a visual presentation.

The project sparks several questions.

Will the height of the sculptures cause problems for airplanes, and will they have blinking nighttime lights at their tops like skyscrapers? Could they suffer from the glare problem that turned L.A.’s Disney Concert Hall into a nuisance for drivers and neighbors (whose condos heated up)?

And how will they be attached? The U-T’s initial story has details:

They would be constructed out of sheets of titanium attached to a steel structure, reinforced with extra pilings and foundations 80 feet below the pier — and engineered to withstand 70 mph winds.

Who’s going to pay for all this?

The port counts on a public/private partnership to pay for the estimated cost of the project, $65 million to $75 million. Philanthropist T. Denny Sanford has agreed to pay for the sculptures, to the tune of $35 million, says the project’s website.

Sanford, a South Dakota businessman and chairman of a banking company, is no stranger to making giant donations. The Chronicle of Philanthropy named him the nation’s third most generous philanthropist in 2010, when he gave away more than $162 million.

I want to die broke,” Sanford told Forbes magazine in 2007. He’s not kidding. The story says his will stipulates that his money will be disbursed upon his death and not end up in a foundation.

Sanford, who’s 75, has given hundreds of millions of dollars to medical causes. Among many other causes, he’s also supported universities, teacher training and an evangelical Christian missionary group.

Locally, he’s donated or pledged tens of millions to the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, which has a branch in La Jolla, and the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine.

If he ends up paying for “Wings of Freedom,” it won’t be the first time he’s supported a controversial memorial: he’s pledged or donated $9 million to the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota, which some Native Americans oppose.

Who’s the artist behind this?

KPBS says “partial credit” for the wings sculpture goes to artist Malcolm Leland. But there’s a problem: The sculpture doesn’t look much like Leland’s original concept, which “was an outdoor amphitheater with two large sails that could fold down over a seating area to shield the audience from rain or harsh sun.”

Leland, who turns 90 years old this year, told KPBS that he’s “frustrated that they’re not using my idea because it’s so simple.” He says he understands technical and financial challenges could be in the way. The estimated cost of his original project was $130 million.

“I’m kind of in the dark. It’s so far beyond my having any effect on it I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it,” he said of his original idea. “It was an honor to have done the original and maybe someday somebody will build it.”

What’s been the reaction to “Wings of Freedom?”

Deeply divided over its aesthetics, its purpose and its effect on the waterfront view.

Mary Beebe, director of University of California, San Diego’s Stuart Collection of public artwork, called the wings “silly beyond words” and called for a piece that would be “far more elegant and beautiful and noteworthy.”

A reader commenting on the U-T story, Kathy Cunningham, said “the sculpture is beautiful and enhances the bay view. … Nothing ever gets done in SD because so many people have negative opinions on just about’s a shame.”

Some others are in the middle, calling for calm consideration instead of “sneering derision.”

Cory Briggs, an attorney for an environmental group called the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, said his group supports the park “but the icon should not be another permanent structure that blocks views of the bay.”

To capture a sense of the debate, check our compilations of comments here and here.

Have there been other public art projects proposed for the waterfront?

Absolutely. Though the bay is stunning on its own, San Diego has insisted on a variety of art projects along the water.

For example, the port district’s “Urban Tree” sculptures — each based in a planter box — peppered the North Embarcadero for seven seasons. The final exhibit ended last month.

The port features several permanent sculptures. Most notably, a 25-foot-high sculpture at Tuna Harbor Park invokes the famous photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square. It’s part of the “Greatest Generation” collection of works about the military.

At least two previous proposed art projects on the waterfront stirred up vigorous debate.

In the late 1990s, artist Nancy Rubins proposed to create a 102-foot arch of fiberglass boats over a street near the convention center. The public rose up against the “shipwreck,” however, and San Diego Metropolitan Magazine complained it brought “hurricanes, perhaps mutiny, certainly claims against insurance policies” to mind.

The Convention Center killed the proposal and dumped Rubins. “I’m sorry you’re so petty,” she told a board member; she later created a similar sculpture for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

And in 2003, critics went bananas about a proposal to build a $50 million civic fountain featuring five bronze killer whales tethered to a five-story-tall sculpture of Neptune.

It was a “kitschy retread of Soviet-style socialist realism,” complained a coalition of local art types. “If this is the future for art in public places here, then let’s have public places without art,” wrote then-art critic Robert Pincus. The proposal vanished without a trace.

What’s Next?

Three public meetings have been scheduled to collect input about the development project for the pier, including the wings.

They’ll be held at the Port of San Diego, 3165 Pacific Highway at the following times:

• Tuesday from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

• Tues., Dec. 6 from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

• Sat., Dec. 10 from 9-11 a.m.

The board that runs the port district will meet Dec. 13 to discuss what to do about the project.

Meanwhile, leave us a comment below: What do you think of the project? What questions do you think still need to be asked?

Please contact Randy Dotinga directly at and follow him on Twitter:

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at

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