SAN DIEGO — Who's wearing the pants when it comes to downtown redevelopment?
The Centre City Development Corp.'s approval last month of a 36-story luxury condominium tower shows that the financial viability of a project often takes precedence over urban design concerns.
Going against the advice of its design specialists, the CCDC granted exclusive negotiating rights for the high-rise project to the Koll Co.-Davidson Communities team. It will be built at the southwestern corner of State Street and Broadway.
City Architect Mike Stepner and CCDC urban-design expert Max Schmidt both objected to the height of Koll's project, known as the Huntington and designed by San Diego architects Lorimer-Case. Even CCDC board President John Davies had reservations about its 472-foot height, which will make it one of the two or three tallest buildings downtown, dwarfing its immediate neighbors: the 20-story Koll Center just to the west, the mid-rise Columbia Tower seniors housing project to the south and the six-story Hotel San Diego to the east.
Approval came only after the CCDC's economic consultants, Keyser Marston, stated that a 10-story reduction in the building's height 'would materially affect the feasibility of the project.' Potential buyers of the $300,000 to $1 million homes, according to Davies, would only be lured by a landmark building. Apparently nothing less than 36 stories would do.
Walt Smyk, the developer of the Meridian, San Diego's existing luxury high-rise condo tower, doesn't agree.
"A landmark building doesn't sell condos," he said. "A landmark building has more value for office prestige than condos. The important things are the views and the interior layouts. My opinion is the best views in the Meridian are on the 12th or 15th floors. I live on the 24th, and it's too high. There's no relationship to the street or other activities. The higher you go, the views almost get worse."
Also, there aren't that many buyers for such pricey condos. What if Smyk, who's sold 130 of 172 luxury units in the Meridian in four years and may find his project competing with Koll's when it comes on line, has already tapped out the market?
If a lower luxury condo tower simply didn't appeal to developers, why not a different brand of project?
Competing developer A. J. Lirot's proposed 400-foot rental apartment tower was more in scale with the neighborhood. The architecture wasn't everyone's favorite, but the size was right on. CCDC felt the Koll team was stronger financially, and wasn't swayed when Lirot brought in high-powered developer Trammell Crow as a partner after the submissions deadline.
A look at CCDC's original request for proposals (RFP) for the State and Broadway site, and subsequent alterations to it, show that CCDC was resigned months ago to a building the size of the Huntington.
The first RFP asked for a building matching the adjacent Koll Center in scale. In November, under pressure from the Koll team, CCDC decided to permit a building of 600,000 square feet on a site that, by some interpretations of CCDC's guidelines, should have accommodated about half that.
The Huntington occupies only part of a larger piece of redevelopment land referred to as "Parcel C," which also includes the Koll Center and the Columbia Tower. In simple terms, the CCDC decided that, because the Koll Center wasn't built to the maximum allowable height for Parcel C, the new condo tower would be allowed to use up the difference.
Such flip-flops are what will determine whether we get a hospitable downtown with ample glimpses of blue sky and sunlight or a Manhattan-like urban core where giant buildings dwarf the scale of smaller nearby structures.
Granted, Great American Plaza, under construction across Broadway a few blocks west of the Huntington will be of equal height. But, from the northern side of Broadway, it won't cast shadows on downtown's most significant street.
And, as Stepner commented on the Huntington, "When you're a block away, you will see the relationship between the various buildings and will notice the height. It's not a good fit."
Since the '60s, the CCDC's Schmidt, in various capacities as a city planner, has favored locating downtown's tallest buildings near Interstate 5 and Cortez Hill, site of the El Cortez Hotel. In his ideal scenario, they would have decreased in height closer to the water, giving most downtown offices and residences good bay views and keeping the waterfront free from a wall of towers.
But '60s and '70s high-rises were built in the heart of downtown. Now, with the intense development of lower Broadway, including not only the Huntington but the Great American project and the 30-story Emerald Shapery Center nearby, along with hotel and residential towers along Harbor Drive, Schmidt's fantasy is being reversed, with the tallest buildings closest to the water.