SAN DIEGO — Del Mar Plaza, the new mini-mall at Del Mar's most prominent intersection, has quickly become the hub of action at the heart of this seaside village.
Like architect Jon Jerde's Horton Plaza shopping center in downtown San Diego, this project from the Jerde Partnership that opened March 31 is a bustling retail center with a rich variety of sights, sounds, textures and smells: ocean breezes, espresso, fine food . . . and building materials.
Jerde's planning instincts are excellent. Meandering paths and ramps curve through the project, taking you on a trip of constant discovery. But while the architecture gets a high rating for channeling people through diverse experiences, it doesn't do nearly as well at making a cohesive design statement. There's something a little too cutesy about the pastiche Jerde and company used, the way they quoted so literally from the architectural vocabulary of the community: a stone wall referencing an adjacent bed and breakfast, wood shingles and a tent-like overhanging roof playing off the Union Bank building across 15th, plus brick, stucco and other materials.
As with Horton Plaza, Del Mar Plaza is a cut-and-paste scrapbook of forms and materials, in this case from nearby buildings instead of Horton Plaza's rainbow sherbet of classical references. The result is a similar kind of visual confusion, as elements that don't fit together collide; seen from Camino Del Mar, they seem to be fighting for your attention instead of creating a harmonious whole.
This shortcoming is all the more disappointing when you consider the excellent logic that went into its scale and circulation.
A one-story stone wall punctuated by several arches meets the sidewalk along Camino Del Mar. Although the project is a large one, the impact is softened by the way it steps back from the street.
Instead of being sealed in like Horton Plaza, with its poor pedestrian access, the project offers several entrances serving both pedestrians and autos. Along Camino Del Mar, the plaza anchors one end of downtown Del Mar's pedestrian strip with wide stairs leading up from the sidewalk. There's another small entrance at the northwest corner, a curving ramp that takes you up to the first level, next to a sushi bar, where you can look up at the outdoor deck of the Il Fornaio restaurant.
Motorists can get into the plaza's concealed parking lot from either 15th Street or Camino Del Mar. There are two more pedestrian entrances along 15th. And the service entrance has been smartly located north of the main intersection; big, noisy trucks needn't bother the center of Del Mar.
Which entrance is the main entrance? None seems clearly designated as such by its form, size or placement. In fact, the main entrance isn't completed yet, according to Ivan Gayler of Del Mar Partnership, the project's developers.
Gayler explained how the southeast corner, across from the Rock Haus bed and breakfast, will eventually get a wide, amphitheater-like set of stairs that will descend into the plaza from a sidewalk several times wider than the one there now. This will also be a drop-off point for valet parking.
With this in mind, Del Mar Plaza's organizational scheme makes more sense. This entrance shoots you into the mall through a dramatic promenade under a roof crafted from heavy wood beams, which gives the entire plaza a central spine, a focus.
Looking down this long outdoor corridor, you see open sky and sense the Pacific. The walk culminates at a fountain that's the focus of the project's large top-level terrace, where a wine sampling shop will open soon. Several storefronts lead around an arc to Il Fornaio, where the espresso machines seem constantly busy supplying locals and artistic types who occupy ocean-view tables on the outdoor patio. Additional restaurants will include a fish house and a Mexican grill.
Materials and details throughout Del Mar Plaza are above the norm for a shopping mall. Stone walls are real stone. Walkways and patios are often covered with flagstone. Wrought-iron railings have sensuous curves. The upper-level terrace is equipped with several wooden Adirondack chairs, those classic back-yard loungers, and pine rocking chairs. A huge outdoor chess board is waiting for 45-inch-high pieces by artist Jill Moon, who's designed sets for the La Jolla Playhouse.
The interior of Il Fornaio, the only San Diego branch of the San Francisco-based restaurant, has a kind of cosmopolitan polish you don't often see in San Diego, with its rich woods, marble floors, brass fittings and murals of pastoral scenes, all tucked under a barrel-vaulted ceiling that lends an appropriate formality.
Del Mar Plaza's history is a fiery one. Del Martians weren't about to let just anything anchor their prime intersection, and they weren't shy about saying so. In Del Mar, any project over 10,000 square feet needs voter approval, and Del Mar Plaza was approved by a margin of only 41 votes out of more than 2,000 cast--not exactly a landslide.