“Even a little dog can piss on a big building.”—Jim HightowerCity Councilmember-elect Carl DeMaio's protestations notwithstanding, the escalating debate about building a new, sleek City Hall to replace what many consider an uninspired, asbestos-laden municipal dump does afford us the opportunity to see where we've been to help us know where the hell we're heading.
It's funny. The more you study the history—and histrionics—of San Diego, the more it's apparent that we live in a constant state of déjà vu.
New airport? The ideas over the years have flowed ad nauseam, from practically every military base in the county to floating it on the Pacific to—I'm not making this up—running it down the length of a landfill-widened Silver Strand. Sure, that was in the late '50s, but that's the beauty of déjà vu.
New stadium? Talk has ping-ponged from Downtown to Oceanside to Chula Vista and now back Downtown on a concrete pad over the 10th Avenue Terminal. The late Jack Murphy, dean of local sports columnists, suggested floating it on Mission Bay.
Yes, we San Diegans are traditionalists when it comes to the vanguard of vacillation. But as traditions go, few topics have perplexed more administrations than whether to build a new City Hall—or, to use the drab San Diego vernacular, City Administration Building.
Built in the 1960s, the beige behemoth—along with its convention hall, theater and parking-garage neighbors that collectively became the Community Concourse (now the Charles C. Dail Concourse, named for the mayor who championed it)—was hailed as a civic commitment to bring development back to a grungy Downtown. Mission Valley was the happenin' place building-wise back then, and city leaders caught a heavy dose of urban-sprawl-phobia.
So, buzzwords like “Centre City” became the clarion call. Few might recall that before it was cockily dubbed “America's Finest City” in the 1970s, San Diego was hooked on the slogan “City in Motion.”
Problem was, the city was as much a visionary spendthrift then as it is now. In a 1995 Union-Tribune story penned by local history guru Roger Showley, a former assistant planning director from that era put it bluntly: “The building is cheap, extremely cheap. It was cut in quality from the first pencil put to paper.”
Mike Stepner, who was San Diego's one and only city architect during the Susan Golding era of the 1990s, told Spin Cycle that the decision to avoid the usual term “City Hall” was far from unintentional.
“The name of the building is a reflection of the attitude about government at the time it was built,” Stepner explained. “It was to be a background office building with government focused on picking up the trash and turning on the lights. Government provided services; it was the caretaker, not the leader.”
(Funny how Mayor Jerry Sanders continues to consider himself more a caretaker than a visionary. Ah, there we go with déjà vu again.)
Funding shortages also hampered construction. At the time, voter-approved bonds were tough to come by (déjà vu?), so—get this—the city used a chunk of employee pension funds to help finance the deal, along with private donations from Downtown bigwigs. (It's safe to assume there won't be any déjà-vuing of that practice in the future.)
So, what the city got were the bare necessities and an innocuous plan for future expansion of city offices sometime in the future, which got as far as one other building, the current Development Services Center on First Avenue, and a slew of scattered rentals.
The result, Stepner said, was a series of bland, crammed-in structures that afforded little open space and a bad case of tunnel wind. “If a stranger to Downtown were to look down Second Avenue from Broadway,” he added, “he would be hard-pressed to tell which was City Hall—the Westgate Hotel or the former U.S. National Bank Building.”
Over the years, one mayor after another has brought up the touchy subject of replacing the now-44-year-old city building, which was erected in an era when asbestos was included in young boys' rock collections (it was fun to peel off shards!) and government buildings were pretty standard fare—prior to President Nixon agreeing to create the federal Design Excellence Program.
Opponents, however, always seemed to get the upper hand, arguing that there were other priorities of more significance, like street repairs and police and fire protection. Déjà vu, anyone?
Now, the Centre City Development Corp., the city's Downtown redevelopment arm, is mulling two design proposals for a City Hall extreme makeover, and once again the howls have begun.
DeMaio, who hasn't even been sworn in yet, has issued missives from the mountaintop on councilmember-elect letterhead that he will oppose any effort to rebuild City Hall unless it is “directly linked to the issuance of a $200 million infrastructure bond—supported by the cost savings and enhanced revenues resulting from this project.”
(Spin Cycle received a short reply from Lance Witmondt, chief of staff for outgoing Councilmember Brian Maienschein, about DeMaio's hit-the-ground-running-before-the-gun-goes-off demeanor: “I hope you're enjoying your summer!”)
DeMaio hopes to recalibrate the conversation. “The City,” he implored in a memo this week, “should change its stated goal from ‘How do we build a new City Hall?' to the more appropriate goal of ‘How can we leverage existing city assets to fund long-deferred repairs and improvements in community infrastructure?'”
In other words, let's fix all our municipal messes before bestowing a spiffy new building on government workers. Déjà vu all over again.
It's also interesting to note that DeMaio will be the first City Council member in memory without a 202 C Street address. Yes, DeMaio confirmed to Spin Cycle, he and three staffers will be working out of the Scripps Ranch Information Center in his District 5, and not from an office Downtown. Maienschein's current office, he said, will be converted into a meeting room.
“I will not have a personal office at C Street,” he said.
DeMaio's chief of staff, communications director and what he calls “director of budget and oversight” will be stationed in the 10th-floor office Downtown, but he acknowledged that this was a compromise with his chief of staff. “I'd rather not even have staff on the 10th floor at all,” he admitted. When he mentioned this idea to Spin Cycle prior to his election, he explained that he wanted to remain close to his North County constituents and away from the taint of Downtown influences.
Stepner has a different take, one more grounded in the ethereal and the avoidance of déjà vu. In the early '60s, he said, “we did not have the understanding then that we were building a civic center, a facility that represented who we are and what we aspire to be as a community. And good design doesn't cost more!”
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