Professionally speaking, these are the best of times for architect Mark Steele. But with success can come a darker side, particularly in a profession that is notorious for skyscraper-sized egos, fervid political gamesmanship and, sadly, public ambivalence.
Le Corbusier-pioneer of the International Style that dominated architecture in the 20th century-certainly had his detractors, too. But his critics principally stuck to denouncing the inflexibility or oversimplification of his sparse designs. Rarely was he attacked personally.
Steele, at 61, finds himself in a different century-and a different climate. Although he has 35 years of experience as an architect under his belt, it appears nothing could have prepared the Cincinnati native to cope with the barrage of criticism that has come his way in the past couple of years.
To those critics, first on the list of complaints is not architectural style-although, like with any architect, there is always that thin ice to cross. No, these critics wonder why an architect who has taken on some of San Diego's most controversial projects in recent memory should be serving as a member of the city's Planning Commission, which, next to the City Council, is the most powerful deliberative board in San Diego.
Councilmember Donna Frye, the sole dissenter to Steele's reappointment to the Planning Commission last year, summed up the opposition: 'I did not support Mr. Steele's nomination because I felt there were too many conflicts. If you're going to have an architect on the Planning Commission, it would be nice to have someone who didn't have to consistently recuse himself from voting on matters before the commission.
'Surely there must be somebody else who is competent and doesn't bring so many conflicts to the table.'
Evidently, Mayor Dick Murphy didn't think so when he nominated Steele for a second four-year term in April of last year. That process might have caught the eye of conspiracy theorists when Steele's nomination emerged from the city Planning Department with his last name missing (he was listed in city forms as Mark Wellington, which is actually his middle name).
Some folks thought city leaders were trying to pull a fast one, but those involved, including Steele, say it was merely a typographical error made by a clerk. Nevertheless, the slip-up frayed the nerves of some Steele opponents, Frye included. For emphasis during deliberations, Frye consistently referred to the reappointment candidate as 'Mr. Wellington.' Her colleagues were not amused.
The San Diego Coastal Alliance, a local activist group, even took a jab at the architect's reappointment in its 'top anti-public decisions' of 2002, except the group referred to him as a developer.
'I've never been a developer,' Steele snapped in an interview this week with CityBeat. 'I've heard that before, and I think-Jesus God-if I was a developer maybe I could afford a Ferrari or something.'
These days, Steele says he still can't understand why he's been a looming victim of personal attacks, but a cursory look at his list of projects might shed some light on the reasons, whether fair or not. His name has been indelibly linked with such contested developments as Corky McMillin's Naval Training Center redevelopment in Point Loma, the Chargers' proposal for revamping the Qualcomm Stadium site, the 139-unit Inn at La Jolla condominium project on La Jolla Boulevard (now marketed as Seahaus) and a host of infill projects throughout the city that have some residents raging about their bulk and scale.
Steele, often garbed in black turtleneck that accentuates his shaved head and sunken eyes, insists he has done nothing wrong and says both the city's Ethics Commission and a county grand jury-which received citizen complaints about his dealings-agree with him.
'People attack me all the time in La Jolla these days,' Steele said. 'It's sort of become a favorite thing, but attacking me, quite candidly, is a little like attacking the guy who designs Saddam Hussein's uniforms, saying he's the problem behind it all.'
Of his projects, the La Jolla Shores resident said in his defense: 'All I've tried to do is make them work the best in the community. I don't know why people are fighting me. I think it's because I've become so visible.'
City insiders say privately that Steele frequently requests opinions from the City Attorney's Office about the projects he's involved in professionally to see if they conflict with his voluntary work on the Planning Commission. Steele acknowledged that he does abstain from voting from time to time, but he said so do most of the seven members who make up the commission. Presently, two architects, a landscape architect, a real-estate attorney, a planner and two community members sit on the Planning Commission.
Carolyn Chase, a local activist and editor of the San Diego Earth Times, joined the commission at the same time of Steele's reappointment and said she believes Steele and the other development professionals have been above board in declaring their conflicts.
'No, they're all real clean on that,' she told CityBeat. 'And the other commissioners don't discuss projects.'
However, she said Steele frequently dominates discussions, often trying to redesign projects during commission deliberations. 'But it's not because I think he's conflicted or manipulative,' she added. 'It's just who he is and he believes he's right, and he's an architect and he is almost always going to be pro-project.'
Steele does not deny his advocacy for growth in San Diego, but he paints the discussion in colors of his liking, saying that growth is inevitable here and that all city planners can do is 'harness that growth and actually make the city better.'
He half-jokingly added, 'There's only a couple of things, I think, that can stop growth here. One would be a terrible economic calamity, or some sort of something in the water to prevent babies, or [acquitted penis-snipper] Lorena Bobbitt coming to town, because 60 percent of it now is internal growth.'
Ask people who know him, and you will get many characterizations of Mark Steele. Persuasive. Inspiring. Controlling. Determined. But talk to him about the vilification he has endured of late, and his deep voice rumbles with pent-up anger.
'There's this little covey of people that seems to be chasing me around,' he seethed. 'They blame me for all sorts of crap that I had nothing to do with. I get regularly blamed for the 30-foot-height issues at NTC, and it just couldn't be further from the truth. First, you can blame the law, and then it's the city attorney. Candidly, I argued in favor of voluntarily keeping all of the buildings to 30 feet. It was the city. It wasn't McMillin. Trust me.'
'I'm just getting sick of being interesting,' he grumbled at one point during the interview. 'I have worked hard all my life on things like ethics and integrity, and I believe that is one of my strongest characteristics. It comes from my family and my entire life. So when people attack me, it really makes my blood boil.'
The son of a dentist and a homemaker, Steele graduated with the first architectural class at the University of Kentucky. After college, he traveled to Detroit to work under the tutelage of Latvian-born architect Gunnar Birkerts, who is credited with giving shape to Detroit's skyline. Steele referred to Birkerts as a 'hero,' but he was no fan of the tough economic times that faced Motor City when he arrived. He and some colleagues soon set up their own practice.
'That was fine except that the Detroit economy was so terrible,' he recalled. 'I realized I was never going to get any place in my career there, so I started looking around.'
He took a couple years to visit numerous cities, and at one point asked a friend if he would go with him to Phoenix to check it out. 'He said, ‘OK, I'll go with you to Phoenix if we can stop in San Diego, because I've always heard it's pretty.''
Steele said, 'I didn't want to even look at San Diego. From the Midwest, it always sounded like it was a military town with pink stucco cottages. But I said OK, and it turned out to be the reverse. Phoenix was terrible, but I stopped here and fell in love with the place.'
He landed a job in the La Jolla office of architect Dale Naegle, where Steele said he learned a great deal about urban planning-skills he has applied most recently to the urban design features of NTC (now called Liberty Station) and the as-yet-unveiled plans for the Qualcomm Stadium site in Mission Valley.
After his first wife succumbed to cancer, 'I sort of had the urge to get back into my own practice,' he said. His firm, MW Steele Group, at first gravitated to downtown, but a bankruptcy involving the building he had chosen forced him to look elsewhere. He settled in small quarters on Drury Lane in La Jolla to ride out the recession and ended up staying put for 10 years.
It's also where he met his 'soulmate,' Dale Fitzmorris, who ran a modest clothing boutique next door. She would eventually manage Steele's architectural firm and help start a popular catalogue company for menopausal women, called As We Change, which she eventually sold with her partner. Dale Steele now is a full-time advocate for a downtown public market similar to the famous Pike's Market on Seattle's waterfront. They also take frequent trips up and down the coast on a Harley.
Fourteen months ago, Steele moved his offices to East Village, into a vacant warehouse on 15th Street that once housed a rubber-product distribution concern. The brick-and-concrete one-story is less than half a block from the San Diego bus maintenance yard, but also only four blocks from the rising downtown ballpark.
'My heart has always been downtown,' he explained about the decision to locate an architecture firm in a rather rugged part of East Village. 'And I really like our building.'
He said his firm is probably most well known for its design of the Carmel Mountain Ranch Public Library, which was featured on the cover of Architectural Record in late 1997, and the Cal Western School of Law library addition downtown, which was completed in 1999.
Jim Gabriel, once a Steele staffer who departed six years ago with two colleagues to establish their own architecture firm, Hanna Gabriel Wells, in Ocean Beach, described Steele as 'definitely the person who wanted to be in charge of decision making, the first-person-to-the-chalkboard type.'
'He has a way of taking over a meeting or situations without bowling over or annoying people. At the end of it, everyone's happy and feeling good, and you have no idea that he's just completely manipulated the whole thing.'
Gabriel, who is also a member of the Uptown Planners community-planning group, said Steele's penchant for controversial projects has likely helped personify him as to go-to guy for developers who know their projects will cause angst in various communities.
'He's got a lot of hot potatoes, that's for damn sure,' Gabriel said, adding, 'He's developed a reputation for being able to solve the problem or get through the roadblock. It was something that we were always very proud of at the office. We never, ever, ever didn't get a project approved. We always found a way to work our way through whatever it was.
'It was a great source of pride to tell our clients that.'
But as time went on, he said, the clientele changed to people who 'knew they were in for trouble before they even got started. So it want from being just this wonderful thing for your client to being almost like a reason you were being hired.'
Steele said his firm still has a perfect record on city approval of his project designs. 'The reason for that is that we always listened to the community and planning staff, always played by the rules and ‘earned it,'' he said. 'Success in this field can only be built on listening and the quality of the work-anyone who thinks differently doesn't understand the profession or the process.'
Like many, Gabriel thinks it's important for architects to sit on the Planning Commission. 'I think an architect can bring a real good point of view to all the discussion,' he said. But an architect with so many notable projects in the hopper? 'It just may be that he's gotten himself so involved with so many projects that maybe it is conflicting,' Gabriel said. 'I can see where people are drawn to ask that question.'
Some are asking that question in a big way, particularly in La Jolla.
On July 10, the La Jolla Town Council unanimously rescinded its approval of the Steele-designed Inn at La Jolla condominium project in Bird Rock after an architect who had been hired to review Steele's plans found numerous discrepancies. While the town council is not officially recognized by the city as the area's community planning group, the decision sent shockwaves through La Jolla.
The town council's approved motion read: 'Because misrepresentations (of the Inn) appear to have been made, the prior LJTC approvals are rescinded.' The vote of trustees was 15-0.
'‘Duped' was the word used by many trustees to describe how they felt,' said Sherri Lightner, the town council's chairperson.
Steve Florman, the La Jolla-based architect who reviewed the Steele drawings, told CityBeat he was 'dumbfounded' by what he discovered. Roof lines that fail to line up, windows that appear in some drawings and not others, elevation heights that don't pencil out and retaining walls that differ from site plan to floor plan.
'What he was showing was not consistent between his different drawings,' Florman said. 'In order to describe a building, you need a floor plan, a section, an elevation, a roof plan-and those drawings didn't reflect the same building over and over again. It was a lot more inaccurate than I thought the city would ever allow.'
He said the perspective rendering Steele provided was drawn from the one corner that would make the project appear to fit in with the residential quality of the neighborhood. But in developing his own renderings, Florman said he found that 'when you look at it at a more fair location-actually any other location-you'll see that there's a 20-foot height difference in the buildings.'
Opponents of the project, which garnered City Council approval last year after unusually fierce support from Councilman Scott Peters, have long contended that Steele has not been forthcoming about the actual height of the project, which must conform to the city's 30-foot height limit.
For his part, Steele is flummoxed by the criticism. He said the drawings Florman worked from were preliminary in order to gain a plan development permit from the city. The drawings, he said, 'were not meant to be final.'
About the height criticism, Steele insisted, 'The height limit is the height limit. It's the law. It's like any other law, and we don't have the option to violate the height limit. Because I'm on the Planning Commission doesn't mean I can violate the height limit. It's ludicrous.'
Regarding the town council's unanimous reversal, Steele called it 'utterly disgusting. I find it demeaning for all the people who are involved in it, including the people that are doing this crap. I don't get it.'
He went on to say, 'La Jolla's becoming like a Jerry Springer show. I mean it. There's nothing but people throwing out personal insults and yelling and screaming. It's crazy. La Jolla has always been sort of crazy, but it's never been as mean-spirited as it is now.'
Steele continued on to lament the blame game that dominates television, politicians and the Internet today. 'There are plenty of us who are just fed up with it,' he said. 'The disappointing part for me is that I've invested a lot of time in the community. I've spent a lot more time on community groups than I have on the Planning Commission, but it's not productive anymore. It doesn't produce anything. All it does is tear things down. It's like termites. What's the good of it all?'
Mark Fabiani, special counsel for the Chargers, told CityBeat that the NFL team chose Steele's firm to draw up plans for the proposed revamped stadium site prior to the team's presentation to the citizens task force in January because 'we liked him and liked his ideas.'
Did Steele's role on the Planning Commission play a part in the decision? Fabiani said the Chargers did 'examine that issue but learned that it was common in San Diego for planning commissioners to work in fields such as architecture and urban planning, and we understood that obviously he would be recused from any matter having any relationship to us.'
Added Fabiani: 'In other words, if we were just hiring someone just to figure out how long it took to do an EIR [environmental impact report] and how long it took to get through the planning process, I think there are a lot of people who fit that bill. Our concern was hiring the best urban planner that we could find who could give our project the kind of vision and creativity that we thought we needed.'
Contacted for a comment, local activist Mel Shapiro wondered about the hubbub over Steele and his perceived conflicts. 'I thought you were going to do a piece on the entire Planning Commission, because they're loaded with conflicts,' he said. 'From my perspective, the people who are appointed to the commission, except for Carolyn [Chase] are all pro-growth people who make money out of growth. Besides voting on individual projects, which they do, they're also supposed to make [planning] policy for the city, and obviously their sources of income prejudice them as to what kind of policy they'll make.'
One local award-winning architect, who requested anonymity, said he frequently watches the live broadcasts of Planning Commission meetings on Channel 24, and he invariably will observe Steele trying to redesign plans that are before the commission. He said Steele would make 'reference back to his own projects as good examples of things to do, and I thought to myself, ‘I know his project and I think it's not very good.' He's hit or miss depending on who in his office is working on it.'
When told that the Inn at La Jolla project took just about a year to gain planning approval, the architect gasped, 'Unheard of. It's been a year and a half for me, and I'm doing just four units. Maybe I should have hired him. He seems to get things through.'