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Seeking to Regulate Apartment Projects but Not Curb Creativity

December 07, 1989|DIRK SUTRO

SAN DIEGO — Is there a way to mandate good architecture by virtually dictating architectural styles?

A group of more than 30 San Diegans, calling itself the Architectural Advisory Committee, doesn't think so, and it is sending a message to the city of San Diego that, when it comes to city involvement in design, less is more.

The mission of the committee, organized by local architect Ken Kellogg and including both architects and non-architects, is to prevent restrictive design standards throughout San Diego County. The current focus is on an ordinance being drafted by San Diego city planners to address the unfortunate tendency in some San Diego neighborhoods for small, period houses to be replaced with large, poorly designed apartment buildings.

The ordinance is part of a mandate handed to planners by the San Diego City Council after various growth-control measures were defeated in a citywide public vote in the fall of 1988.

By requiring that design elements in new apartment and condominium buildings be similar to those of existing nearby buildings, city planners proposed, in a draft of the ordinance, to upgrade the overall quality of new apartment complexes.

Although there is some chance that this thinking could improve the lowest levels of apartment design, it could also hamper architectural creativity and set a dangerous precedent for city regulation of other types of buildings.

Besides wrestling with the apartment ordinance, city planners are working on design standards for such communities as Pacific Beach, seen as a litmus test for guidelines in other neighborhoods.

Already, the danger of bureaucratic control has been seen in a temporary measure governing design in the Uptown area of San Diego, including Hillcrest and Mission Hills. The ordinance forces architects to use details from one of three stylistic families: contemporary, Spanish or bungalow.

Such absurd thinking almost guarantees mediocrity, not better looking neighborhoods.

"It doesn't matter what project you're looking at," Kellogg said. "If you want compatibility, let's base it on size and bulk. I don't think people in neighborhoods want architects to copy front doors just to copy the neighborhood character. That's superficial.

"Why are we restricting art? I think stagnation and backwards thinking is related to wanting to keep one style. All buildings can't be strong statements. I don't think they should be. But I think the unusual architecture of today will be your historical architecture of tomorrow. To try to make everything look the same, I wouldn't want to live in a neighborhood like that. We call those Stepford houses."

The possibility of cloned architecture has touched a sensitive community nerve, attracting to the Architectural Advisory Committee members with such varied backgrounds as violin instructor Nick Stamon and attorney Bruce Ray.

"You can't put numbers on artistic expression," Stamon said. "That's sort of like asking a musician to write in the style of Mozart today. We've gone beyond that."

Said Ray: "I am concerned, personally, with the pressures I see in society toward sameness and conformity. I see the design process as a matter of expression. I'd like to see that continue."

City Hall has responded to this suggestion by slowing the drafting of the multi-family ordinance and softening its stance. Last weekend, City Architect Mike Stepner met with Kellogg's committee to hear its ideas.

Stepner conceded that the attempt to regulate architecture in the Uptown area was a mistake. "No one is sure if that came from the community or us. The goal is to do away with it.

"But where do you draw the line? There are a couple of houses in my neighborhood by PAPA," Stepner said, referring to two quirky designs in Mission Hills by Randy Dalrymple of Pacific Associates Planners and Architects. "They're entirely different than the prevalent bungalow style, yet they seem to fit. I wouldn't want to be in a position of saying those kinds of things can't happen.

"But I do sometimes feel uncomfortable when I see something like a typical Rancho Bernardo house, given steroids and plunked down somewhere like La Jolla or Kensington. Does that fit or not?

"Bulk and scale, that's where we're heading. Not stylistic requirements such as red tile roofs or wood shingles. That's not our role."

Developer incentives, instead of tight regulations, might help bring better buildings, Kellogg's committee believes. In exchange for sensitively scaled buildings with thoughtful detailing of exterior masses, developers might be allowed to build additional units or benefit from reduced requirements for parking or landscaping.

Of particular concern to committee members, many of whom are architects working on the coast, are design standards for this area.

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