We’ve been following the conversation about a plan to build a new multi-level parking structure with a park, amphitheater and massive sculptural wings or sails at the end of Navy Pier. One frequent criticism is that the monument, which would reach up to 500 feet in the air, is too tall.
Last week I sat down with three key boosters of the plan: Real estate mogul and philanthropist Malin Burnham, architect Hal Sadler and Greg Mueller, CEO of Tucker Sadler Architects.
First, Sadler and Burnham explained that they have been talking about a plan like this for more than 20 years, they told me. They didn’t have a particular space in mind when they first began working on the idea to find a new home for the symphony’s summer concerts. After the USS Midway aircraft carrier came in and parked along the waterfront, becoming a museum, the idea struck Burnham to integrate the idea into the museum’s plans to redevelop the adjacent Navy Pier.
We didn’t have room to include all of what they said in our TV piece last week, but I thought there were a few pieces from our conversation that might be interesting to you as you decide what you think about the plan. I’ve condensed and slightly edited these responses to include them here.
KB: With something that is as large as the proposed sails, there’s been some conversation about whether that would block views of the waterfront. What do you think about that and what do you think the challenge will be at the Coastal Commission?
Burnham: It’s interesting to look back on history, at the Midway’s approval in front of the Coastal Commission. Back in 2003, the staff of the Coastal Commission was vehement that the Midway and its proposed location on Navy Pier was unacceptable. They strongly recommended to the Commission that they turn it down because the Midway would be “blocking the view.”
I don’t really understand what “blocking the view” really means. It’s kind of like artwork. You either like it or you don’t. It either is blocking something or it isn’t blocking something.
But here’s what happened. At the Coastal Commission hearing, which was here in San Diego, for the final approval of whether the Midway could be parked on Navy Pier or not, there was a lively, long session.
And halfway through the presentation to the Commission, somebody got up. I don’t know who it was, and it wasn’t even staged.
But this person addressed the full Commission and said, “Ladies and gentlemen of the Commission, we have this all wrong. The Midway is not going to be blocking the view. The Midway will be the view.” The whole house erupted in applause.
That’s exactly what’s happened. The Midway is the view. And it’s highly successful. It’s San Diego’s newest icon and it’s the most successful museum in the country, financially.
Sadler: And we think that’s true of the sails.
Burnham: We think the sails will be right along with it. So what I’m saying is that, yes, people say the sails are going to block the view. From where? What if you move 100 feet? What if you move 500 feet? Is it still blocking the view? The answer’s no.
KB: Yeah, but if you lived in a house on the cliffs in La Jolla, and somebody built something that impacted your view of the water, you would say that blocked the view. You might enjoy looking at whatever that thing was, but is altering or changing or, if you want to use the word “blocking,” that’s blocking the view of the water.
Burnham: We would rather think that it will be the view. The Sydney Opera House is a very beautiful view to people looking at it, permanent residents or visitors alike. The same thing will happen here. What if you lived in Coronado or Point Loma or Mission Hills, it will be the view. It won’t be blocking the view.
Sadler: One of the exciting things about the location is that the sails are an extension on the westerly end of Navy Pier.
It becomes an integral part of the waterfront, the mile and a half roughly of Harbor Drive that [gives pedestrians] the ability to walk and be along the water’s edge. The building that we are planning has a slope that brings you up to a point and it slopes all the way back down to the water’s edge.
The area between the two (sails) is open because the orchestra’s at the lower base of it. And these are, again, sails and have a light that shimmers at night and etcetera. You can see through (between) the sails themselves out to the bay. The total bay width is 250 (feet) roughly. And 990 feet is the length of it. So you’ll have an adequate area between that you’ll see.
Burnham: Let me take another crack at “blocking the view.” In office buildings, or condo buildings, anybody looking out of that window, or that window (gesturing to drawing) or this window and looking at the sails, it will block out a very, very small percentage of the wide view that they have.
Is blocking 2 percent of the total view going to be an objection to anybody? I really don’t think so.
This is stirring up quite a debate about what San Diegans want the waterfront to look like, what this iconic representation could be and should be. What’s the most pressing criticism that’s coming up for you in your conversations around town?
Burnham: Let me take a crack at the opposition, past, present and future. In our society, in this country, in this world and certainly in San Diego, when you do anything in a progressive, large way, our society says, “Hey, it’s open to debate.” And that’s good for democracy.
So we discussed this way before we went public. So far I have heard no complaints different than we expected. In other words, “block the view,” “too tall,” “why waste the money,” “we don’t need it,” all those kinds of things we’ve heard.
But let me for instance answer the one about “too tall.” When you hear that complaint and criticism, I say, well, what’s the standard? What does too tall really mean?
If 500 feet is too tall, is 400 feet too tall? Is 200 feet too tall? I don’t know the answer. It’s kind of like artwork; it’s in the eye of the beholder. But I have not read, nor have I heard, any criticism of the Eiffel Tower being too tall, or the arch in St. Louis being too tall, or the Seattle Space Needle being too tall.
So what does too tall mean? It’s in somebody’s mind, unidentifiable. Yeah, it’s a criticism, but what if it were only a hundred feet, would somebody think it’s too small? I don’t know. I think that’s just part of the democratic process and we were prepared for that.
Sadler: I had one comment of anger the other day before the port hearing, someone said, “We don’t need people coming down here and doing all this work for your own ego.” Well, that’s an insult. (laughs) First of all, I don’t need for my ego — I’ve been around long enough that I’m not worried about that. Malin’s not worried about that. You know, the idea is, what can we do that is left for perpetuity that will make this city grow and be proud and be recognizable around the world? We think this is a good opportunity to do that.
Mueller: And there were several people who spoke up in support of it, who were very vocal. One person who said this is the best thing that we could do in San Diego. There’s one person who goes, this will give us something that will put us on the map that people will see and know immediately that it’s San Diego. Those are comments that, unfortunately, don’t always get picked up.
If you didn’t catch our TV piece, you can watch it here:
I also appeared on KPBS’s Midday Roundtable on Friday to talk about the plan. You can listen to that show here.
What do you think of the argument about the view of the waterfront? Leave us a note below.
I’m Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0531.
And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.