April 10 2013 10:29 AM

Let's start the conversation, post-Jacobs Plan

Pauly De Bartolo (left) and Howard Blackson
Photo courtesy of DBRDS

"True ornament is not a matter of prettifying externals. It is organic with the structure it adorns, whether a person, a building, or a park."

—Frank Lloyd Wright

In March 1955, renowned architect and provocateur Frank Lloyd Wright swept into San Diego amid a roiling debate over the future of Balboa Park, dilapidated over the years from neglect and Navy occupation. It was a brief visit to pitch his plan for a civic theater, but Wright—never one to mince words—encapsulated the city perfectly.

"You've got a wonderful situation," he said, according to a San Diego Union report, "great fashioning of ground and sea and harbor and forest. You haven't done much with it except the park. I think the park is delightful."

Then he thundered: "We are the ugliest civilization the world has ever seen, and we are trembling on the verge of the intent to make it beautiful."

San Diego at the time was rushing forward with plans to keep up with Los Angeles and San Francisco by plotting paths through tranquil neighborhoods for massive highway systems as the car approached kingly status.

By the following month, state highway officials had secured whip-paced agreements from San Diego and National City for a concrete ribbon—Highway 101, today's Interstate 5. It split communities like Middletown, Little Italy and Logan Heights in ways that resonate to this day.

This walkway is the only over-freeway pedestrian
access to Balboa Stadium.
All photos by John Lamb

But it also severed Balboa Park from its historic southerly Downtown connection with a serpentine swoosh designed to avoid San Diego's commercial heart. While the Union's coverage tilted toward excitement about nonstop driving rather than the damage done, letters to the editor began noting the "butchery," as one resident put it.

"Go to the park, see what is being done and going to be done," one letter suggested in 1960 as construction boomed. "Can you see how, legally, our park can be given over to the traffic lords?"

Fast-forward to 2012, when most San Diegans likely gave those heady days of upheaval a minute's thought. Two modern-day provocateurs, however, hope to rekindle that conversation.

Over beers and the occasional shot of whiskey, urban designer Howard Blackson and Australian-born transplant Pauly De Bartolo—whose architecture firm DBRDS drew headlines in 2011 for its unsolicited proposal for a swirling, bolt-inspired Chargers stadium in East Village—began brainstorming about ways to reconnect Balboa Park to its truncated past.

Many readers may not recall that the park once flowed to Russ Boulevard at the southern edge of San Diego High School and the historic Balboa Stadium. What these two young turks discovered, in what Spin Cycle found to be a Stonehenge moment, is the connection—despite the I-5 interference—that remains today.

"The center of Balboa Stadium lines up perfectly with the fountain in the center of the Plaza de Panama," Blackson said with kid-like giddiness. "It had to be intentional, since the stadium was part of the original 1913 plan. That's when it dawned on us: Let's reclaim that lost connection to Balboa Park!"

They clearly want to avoid the missteps of Team Irwin Jacobs, whose efforts Blackson—in unabashed Wrightian style—described as "a plan on the back of a napkin that he forced down everybody's throats because he had gazillions of dollars."The result is a proposal they're calling "Reclaim Balboa 2015." Both De Bartolo and Blackson describe the idea's signature component—a triangular 9-acre, grassy freeway "lid" that spans the I-5 east of Park Boulevard coupled with a pedestrian "Centennial Bridge" delineating that stadium-to-Plaza-de-Panama link—as a "conversation starter."

Like the circular Chargers stadium his firm dreamed up before, De Bartolo said he saw another opportunity to "spark another dialog" for a "piece of San Diego's rich history. Balboa Stadium has held some really historic events."

Here's roughly where Blackson and De Bartolo would
propose a grassy lid for Interstate 5.

Indeed. Now home to the San Diego High Cavers and some minor-league sports activities, the stadium accommodated the newly arrived Los Angeles Chargers from 1961 to 1966 (and hosted the team's only notable championship). In addition, U.S. presidents took the stage there, as did The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Elton John. Auto racing and the occasional bullfight took place at Balboa Stadium as well. Baseball greats like Satchel Paige, Babe Ruth, and Ty Cobb strode the base paths, too.

Why not more greatness for its future, De Bartolo and Blackson figure, possibly as a home to a Major League Soccer team or appearances by the wildly popular Tijuana Xolos? The stadium, after all, looks south to Mexico and could provide an important cultural link, even as a future Olympic site.

Balboa Stadium

The plan could also revitalize the dismal southern end of Balboa Park with new cultural institutions, they said. Why not an Olympic Hall of Fame to kick-start that fantasy of a binational Olympics in San Diego and Tijuana? Even perhaps a home for Mayor Bob Filner's dream of a comic-book museum honoring San Diego's annual Comic-Con International?

Even a low-slung, curvilinear parking structure on little-used Inspiration Point could tie in to a transit station that serves as a public-transit hub from Downtown to Balboa Park and into Hillcrest, they reason.

The charm of the evolving concept is that it leaves the tranquil heart of Balboa Park alone, where the Jacobs Plan would have caused two years of disruption and institutional heartburn during construction. Meanwhile, sports activities, as the original park planners seemed to intend, remain on the perimeter of Balboa Park.

Mike Stepner, the onetime city architect and a professor at Downtown's NewSchool of Architecture + Design, called the plan "right on" and said he'll be working with students over several quarters to flesh out the plan.

"We want to put something out there independent of the traditional public process," he told Spin. "When students or people do it independently, there's no threat. No student is going to make a fortune out of a design for Balboa Stadium."

Echoing Wright, De Bartolo added: "That's why we did it. We wanted people talking about what this great city deserves."


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