Town Square: San Diego
08.16.2013
Patrick Mikusky and Ben Regnier in Planning & Urban Design, Reimagining Cities, San Diego, The Town Square Initiative, Town Square

Image © San Diego History Center

Despite the sprawling nature of San Diego, our team chose to concentrate on the downtown core, not only because it is our own backyard, but because this region of the city has consistently lacked compelling public space. Combining historical research with a survey of the current urban landscape and its dynamics, we have started to unravel the “why” of our contemporary city, as well as its strengths and weaknesses. The historic and current drivers of the San Diego economy – the military, research and engineering, tourism, tuna fishing, and shipping – have over the years worked against the development of the downtown waterfront as a civic arena. In addition, the location of many recreational attractions, from Balboa Park to Mission Bay, just outside of downtown creates a significant centrifugal effect on recreation within the urban core. However, in the last two decades the downtown area has seen resurgence in residential occupancy, recreation, and importance as a center for design and research. With this growing outlook it is vital that the city keep pace with public amenities.

Image © San Diego History Center

This site brought with it a lot of new questions. What is a civic waterfront? Can you have a center at the edge? How do you balance the needs of locals and visitors in a city where tourism is king? Can planned spaces be spontaneous and human? And, most importantly, what is the value of urban public space in this city where the most important social space, the beach, is an abundant natural resource?

The downtown waterfront has amazing potential as a center for our community, a potential that in modern history has been ignored and wasted. The population downtown is steadily growing, and some of the most vibrant neighborhoods are within a quarter mile of the bay, yet this amazing resource is not considered a valid public space by many people. Difficult to reach, without a clear purpose and at times deliberately uninviting, the waterfront is a blank space in our city; it should be a place for gathering, for seeing, and for doing.

Image © Gensler

Image © Gensler

Looking at the history of our chosen focus gives us some hints as to what the answers might be. As recently as 50 years ago, downtown San Diego was intimately linked with the bay, with much of its residents making their living on the water, and the bay front itself being an informal mix of commerce, industry, transportation, and recreation. People swam and had boat races next door to shipyards, tuna clippers and ferries. Over the years, our residents have lost their quotidian connection to the bay, and with it their connection to the very source of our city’s existence. In place of real neighborhoods and squares, we now have moribund recreation zones, intended primarily for visitors and lacking in access and appeal for residents.

Surveying the waterfront revealed a site with enormous potential: a new park at the County Administration Center where almost no attention had been paid to the waterfront. While a generous new public space had been planned along the Pacific Highway, the bay side of the park has been left a generic green field. This site has a unique set of advantages. The new park will be the largest green space in downtown San Diego, close to dense residential development and adjacent to multiple transportation options. Planned 100 years ago as a “recreational center,” this site could perhaps finally realize this goal as a new, bay front town square. The final design evolved out of a simple series of moves. The right of way for harbor drive is reclaimed, and the resulting bar of space is torqued to form a new gateway to downtown San Diego, a public space that dips into both the park and the bay. Finally, the Embarcadero pathway is interwoven with this new space to inject it with circulation and program.

Image © Gensler

Image © Gensler

Enriching the site are a diverse set of programmatic elements that together create a uniquely San Diegan idea of public existence. The relocated Maritime Museum is re-imagined as a gateway to downtown San Diego for visitors driving in from the airport. At the exit from the subsurface parking is a transportation hub that points visitors towards the trolley, ferries, and water taxis, and also provides a “transit vending machine” that disburses bikes, scooters, kayaks and electric vehicles, to enable exploration of the rest of the embarcadero and downtown. A new downtown beach is floated on barges, making it flexible and reconfigurable to changing tides and needs. And in the center of all of this is a new agora, with a canopy floated on treelike supports and mobile retail kiosks that double (or triple) as public infrastructure and points of aggregation.

Image © Gensler

Image © Gensler

Image © Gensler

These contact points provide power, water, wireless, seating, lighting, and a host of other amenities, all controllable via a mobile app and web portal. Groups aggregating around a single spot will unlock new functionality as their check-ins hit critical mass, giving them more prominence digitally as well as locally. In this way the site becomes a billboard and a megaphone for citizens and businesses, giving them a voice in the crowd.

Image © Gensler

San Diego has always been a community organized around a shared appreciation of the ocean. Hopefully this project, or another like it, will eventually allow for our city to realize an urban civic space that celebrates this connection to the water.

Image © Gensler

Patrick Mikusky is an Associate and Project Manager in Gensler’s San Diego Office. Focused on Commercial Office Buildings located in the San Diego region, Patrick is passionate about designing inspiring and memorable spaces for people to work, gather, and play. Patrick has worked on projects ranging from Bio-Tech Campus Repositioning efforts to corporate headquarter imaging. Growing up in Los Angeles, Patrick has had the opportunity to live, travel, within multiple worldwide cities where he gains inspiration for his current projects. Contact him at patrick_mikusky@gensler.com.
Ben Regnier is a designer and the Digital Design leader in Gensler's San Diego office. Focusing on civic and educational projects, as well as planning, strategies, and analysis, Ben has been researching the intersection of culture, technology, work and the environment in several projects in and around San Diego, including the City of San Diego Facilities Master Plan, a research studio at the NewSchool of Architecture + Design, and an art installation at the San Diego Airport incorporating environmental and traffic data from the airport, port, UCSD and NOAA. Contact him at ben_regnier@gensler.com.
Article originally appeared on architecture and design (http://www.gensleron.com/).
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