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San Diego has plenty of iconic scenes from the beach and Balboa Park to the San Diego-Coronado Bridge and the downtown skyline, but they’re just not enough for some people. Just about every year or two, a new proposal aims to give us a new international calling card by sending us skyward.
We’ve considered titanium/steel “Wings of Freedom” at the bay that reminded critics of bunny ears and feminine hygiene products. A 400-foot ferris wheel boasting “interactive lights,” whatever that means. A “SkySpire” tower at the waterfront complete with a “double-helix” rail system, a rotating restaurant and expectations for 1.5 million visitors a year — more than the population of the city. And there’s more: A mammoth waterfront observation tower, even more Ferris wheels and gondolas to shuttle tourists from downtown to Balboa Park.
These proposed projects have all aimed to give us some extra mojo on the world stage, and most – but not all — have vanished without a trace. The latest to bite the dust: A restaurant owner’s plan to build a temporary 148-foot-tall “sky wheel” in front of the Museum of Art at Balboa Park, complete with eight-person gondolas where visitors could enjoy meals on the move. The instantly controversial proposal got approval from a park committee in December but is now dead, apparently snuffed out by the pandemic.
San Diego has more than its share of natural beauty, and we’re one of the nation’s top tourist destinations. Why do we feel the need to gild the lily? Here are four things to know about our eternal quest to be more iconic than we already are:
We Don’t Think We’re Special Enough
“We feel that we have to do something to identify ourselves,” said former city architect Mike Stepner. “So these impulses come up for towers, for wings, for Ferris wheels or what have you, because other places have done that. We feel the need to copy something that’s identified as iconic.”
But structures that are truly iconic become that way because they represent something from the very start, he said. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis honors westward expansion, while the Eiffel Tower aimed to show off French expertise, he said.
An inferiority complex plays a role here too, said Stepner. “We’ve gone through phases where we think we can’t compete with other cities,” he said, and we worry about being dismissed as part of Los Angeles.
You can see this theme play out again and again when big new projects get criticized: Supporters accuse their detractors of being small-minded, or at least small-town-minded.
This isn’t new. About a century ago, city founding father John D. Spreckels asked: “Why does San Diego always miss the train somehow?” His answer: “Lack of co-operation. We have no team play. The moment anybody appears with any proposition of a big constructive nature, the small town undertakers get busy digging its grave. Jealousy and suspicion line up the antis and knockers against any man or measure bigger than their two-by-four standards.”
For good measure, Spreckels also declared he hoped to ditch “village squabblers and small-town pikers” in order to “make San Diego a real man-sized metropolitan city.”
The “undertaker” quote has lived on. In a 2011 Voice of San Diego letter to the editor, port commissioner Bob Nelson urged the community to give the waterfront “Wings of Freedom” a chance, and he invoked Spreckels. (The $35 million project, intended to be a memorial, never went anywhere.) And the quote reappeared in a nasty 2016 VOSD commentary by developer Fred Maas in which he bashed opponents of a downtown stadium/convention center expansion, another project that died on the vine.
The full context of Spreckels’ comments have been lost, however. He was powerful, egotistical and influential, and it may have been impossible to disentangle his hopes from his own financial interests.
We’re Short on Tall Buildings, But …
Here’s one possible reason we keep looking up: San Diego has some of the shortest skyscrapers of any major American city. Even Tulsa has a taller skyline.
Blame the airport, whose vicinity to downtown has mandated a dinky 500-foot height limit. (By contrast, the Empire State Building is 1,454 feet tall.) Our tallest building, One America Plaza at the foot of Broadway, reaches right to the maximum height. Unfortunately, it’s an “inferior, squat-looking version” of a sleek high-rise tower in Philadelphia, said Ann Jarmusch, former architecture critic at The San Diego Union-Tribune. “Unless the airport moves — do I hear laughter? — the height limit is an ongoing fact of life, and San Diego’s skyline will be forever stunted.”
But the height limit “doesn’t preclude fine architecture, though, as the elegant, 16-story U.S. Courthouse across Broadway attests,” Jarmusch said. And height doesn’t always translate to might: The 1915 California Tower at Balboa Park, which was the city’s tallest building for a time, “is still a beloved icon and one that reflects the Spanish Colonial Revival character that New York architect Bertram Goodhue envisioned for the city,” she said. “As it turns out, the tower is visible to both airline passengers and a wide range of neighborhoods.”
Tacky Proposals Are as San Diegan as Indicted Mayors
When it comes to local icons, our need to stand out as a city has produced some doozies over the years – and plenty of sharp words from critics.
In 2003, a proposed $50 million civic fountain on the waterfront envisioned five bronze killer whales tethered to a five-story-tall sculpture of Neptune. “It is so solidly and squarely in the past and conservative and unambitious in every way that it would just label us as mediocre,” said one local museum director, making sure to offensively tout his own horn: “it’s enormously insulting that anyone’s opinion is as valued as mine when they haven’t spent their lifetime honing their eye and educating themselves.” Meanwhile, an art critic declared that “if this is the future for art in public places here, then let’s have public places without art.”
More recently, the SkySpire project at the waterfront prompted a descriptive two-word tweet (“Lol wut”), and the U-T likened it to a “giant coffee press.” A waterfront Ferris wheel project was mocked as “an appropriate lawn ornament to welcome visitors to San Diego.” And back in the 1990s, a critic deliciously roasted a “102-foot-high, 100-ton arch of 60 cabled-together fiberglass boats” that was briefly envisioned to be installed over Harbor Drive near the airport as invoking “hurricanes, perhaps mutiny, certainly claims against insurance policies.”
While the project may have merit as art and eventually landed at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s branch in La Jolla, a bunch of boats crashing into each other clearly didn’t belong near the bay. After local officials nixed it, the sculptor – channeling Mr. Spreckels – furiously blasted the city as “provincial,” “immature” and “small-minded.”
A Critic Thinks We Can Do Better
Should we consider big observation towers, like the one that’s now planned for Seaport Village as part of the Seaport San Diego project? (Here’s a rather Seussian depiction of it.) Yes, Jarmusch said, but with a big caveat.
“Craving a bird’s-eye-view by ascending a public tower is only natural, especially in a place as breathtakingly beautiful as San Diego. There’s also a huge thrill attached to being atop a tower at the edge of a continent, where the Earth’s crust meets its largest ocean,” she said. But an observation tower shouldn’t be a “novelty” that could be built anywhere, she said.
“Its proposed multi-use and top-heavy observation tower would rise out of a hotel and offer hanging gardens and bulky spinning discs,” she said. “The location would be good, especially if the Port and the California Coastal Commission permit the developer to cut a new waterway from the bay to the tower’s base. But to me, too many uses would be packed into the tower in an effort to make it unique, and it would benefit from slimming down. As proposed, it’s a novelty structure, but not a memorable or graceful iconic design that shouts San Diego. Where is the maritime influence in Seaport San Diego’s signature tower?”
Going forward, she said, “developers and urban planners could learn a lot from successful public art programs that include residents in the creative process from the start rather than imposing a structure on them and their turf.”
After all, even “small-town undertakers” like to be consulted — and maybe a bit of flattery will keep them from burying everything they see.