John Nolen
The Future of the San Diego Waterfront
Richard W. Amero

In 1978 City Planning Director Glenn Rick noted that the introduction of “hotels, restaurants, yacht clubs and associated uses” along the waterfront reduced the amount of “desirable waterfront land.” To architect Sam Hamill, in 1960, it was “intrusions by the Navy and industry” that spoiled the effect of “a grand [waterfront] entrance” to San Diego. These criticisms applied to developments north of B Street leading to La Playa and Point Loma, though the criticisms were also applicable to unseemly developments south of B Street. (It is worth noting that the E Street terminus for commercial development that John Nolen had recommended in his 1908 comprehensive plan for San Diego had shifted to B Street in his 1926 comprehensive plan. Business and political interests, acting in behalf of themselves and the U.S. Navy, had maneuvered the change.)

Developments on Harbor Drive, such as those cited by Rick and Hamill, departed from Nolen’s recommendations in both 1908 and 1926. Even the location of the Civic Center, with its back to San Diego Bay that now runs from Ash Street to Grape Street, was a third choice after more attractive and functional sites nearer San Diego’s downtown were eliminated for economic reasons. Ironically, Nolen’s choice, as stated in his 1926 plan, was to put the Civic Center between B and Cedar Streets with the understanding that an archway would be built over an elevated street, above railroad tracks further inland. A street, running through the archway, would link the Civic Center to San Diego’s downtown retail section. Nolen also wanted a second recreation pier established, at the foot of Cedar Street, to balance Pier No. 1, at the foot of B Street. Suffice it to say that the recreation pier, the elevated street, the “portal” archway and the location, of the Civic Center, further north than Nolen had specified, were not developed according to his plans.

Prodded by a Harbor Commission ruling that tidelands could only be used for commerce, navigation and fishing, the City of San Diego recognized the isolation and inappropriateness of the waterfront site for a Civic Center in 1964 when it transferred its portion of the Center to C-Street between Front and Third Streets and introduced into it a, terrazzo-paved plaza with a sculptural centerpiece that superseded seedy, run-down and cramped historic Horton Plaza. (Incidentally, the Harbor Commission’s ruling, if scrupulously applied, would have made the greater part of Nolen’s landscape and recreational improvements to Harbor Drive superfluous.)

After much debate, San Diego County, in 1962, abandoned Nolen’s suggestion for grouping public buildings together on the same site when it put a new courthouse on the Broadway site of its old courthouse rather than on the north side of its waterfront administration building as Nolen presumably had proposed. “Presumably” because Nolen was sometimes vague about filling in blanks in his planning schemes. Consider the brouhaha in 1938 over the location of a city jail which, after many recriminations, wound up at the foot of Market Street.

The privatization of Harbor Drive north of E Street and the location there of cumbersome buildings with the concurrence or connivance of the Harbor Commission have left a distressing residue. The behemoth Headquarters Building of the 11th and 13th Naval Districts, between Broadway and Market Streets, the Solar Turbine Company buildings, the vacant TDY Industries buildings&emdash;under court order to be demolished&emdash;, car rental storage areas, a pump station, aircraft maintenance facilities, U.S. Coast Guard Air Station, and U.S. Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare Complex, and miscellaneous businesses, motels, restaurants and apartments, all bordering or adjacent to Harbor Drive, tarnish the scenic San Diego Bay crescent that Nolen had compared to the harbor at Naples, Italy, and the bay at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Nolen intended that Harbor Drive would follow a scenic 200 ft. wide path around the bay, beginning at National City and ending at the tip of Point Loma. He anticipated that from B Street to the U.S. Naval Training Station, the Drive would “be intensively used for general north and south bound city traffic.” He did not see a discrepancy between a pleasure drive and a traffic artery, a discrepancy that currently plagues Harbor Drive approaches to the municipal airport. “Aside from the value of the Harbor Drive as a traffic artery,” Nolen predicted, “it will be the feature of the San Diego Parkway System giving approximately ten miles of waterfront along San Diego Bay.”

To fill the need for a through Harbor Drive (it was never joined directly to the tip of Point Loma) Nolen relied on dredge that broadened the uneven shoreline as it crossed the smelly Dutch Flats on which Naval and Marine stations were about to sprout. Nolen placed the Drive on top of a bulkhead near the Bay and as far away from the stations as was possible. Fortunately for the Drive, San Diego’s Bay was noted for its unruffled waters.

When Nolen submitted his 1926 plan for Harbor Drive, he was [seemingly] not aware that the U.S. government owned about two miles of tidelands that embraced the soon-to-be U.S. Marine Base and U.S. Naval Training Center. Accordingly in 1938 the City of San Diego rectified the anomaly by obtaining a right-of-way from the government for then intermittently submerged lands. Military commanders did not relish the disruption of training, parade and athletic activities in their areas, so the Drive had to be laid out on the outskirts rather than within the military bases. Ultimately the Navy and Marine Corps moved the bulk of their training programs to more suitable locations for wartime exercises.

In 1993 the U.S. Navy donated the U.S. Naval Training Center to the City of San Diego. The San Diego City Council, in 2000, granted Corky McMillin Companies development rights to the site. Since that date McMillan Companies have converted the greater part of the abandoned Naval Training Center to detached housing, condominium complexes and office buildings with a broad marketplace occupying former “historic” U.S. Navy buildings. In 2002 the McMillin Company named its 235-acres Liberty Station. As McMillan has not shared profits from site sales with the City or assumed responsibility for enhancing property, the City’s business transactions with McMillan have become disasters. The U.S. Navy and the City of San Diego retain ownership of 315 acres. Unlike the case with the Navy, the Department of Defense has thus far kept the contiguous San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot off its list of surplus properties.

The mandate of the Port of San Diego, established by the State Legislature in 1962, was more flexible than the Harbor Commission’s. Port authorities wanted to make money, but they realized, as Nolen had before them, that money could be made by providing tourists with handsome surroundings. There followed a rash of improvements, including the creation of man-made Spanish landing, across from the U.S. Marine Base, set aside in 1976, that is a boon to the Bay and to children, pedestrians and picnickers and the construction of Shelter and Harbor Islands that are boons to pedestrians, bicyclists, sailors, fishermen. and tourists. Though lined on one side by hotels and restaurants, the spacious walkways and the terraced restaurants on both islands provide visitors with views of colorful, constantly-changing and vibrant San Diego Bay. Both Shelter Island (1934) and Harbor Island (1962) were man-made creations that owed their existence to suggestions from boat owners and entrepreneurs long after Nolen had completed his plans.

When the north end of Harbor Drive dissolves into a snarl of streets that lead indirectly to Shelter Island and directly to La Playa, a juxtaposition of contrasting elements exists that is Baroque in essence, as, for example, the revelation of light after dark, of openness after closure, and of beauty after ugliness. Grand though individual residences on the Scott Street extension of Harbor Drive may be, they exist in ignorance, or defiance, of one another.

Oddly, since conventions had been held in big American cities since the middle of the nineteenth century, Nolen did not allow for a convention center in San Diego in 1908 and 1926. The same was true of all of his plans for small towns. Civic Centers are indispensable focal features, and it could be assumed that Nolen expected convention centers to be part of a Civic Center mix, but he did not say so. I suspect that even in the early years of the automobile, Nolen foresaw the confusion and congestion that convention centers would bring. He had proofs of this in New York City, San Francisco, Denver, Cleveland and other large American cities.

While it is impossible to extrapolate from his recommendations to conditions today, I think that, in spite of the admonitions of Rick and Hamill, Nolen would be pleased with what San Diego has done to its waterfront. Like a phoenix the waterfront from Park Boulevard to La Playa has renewed itself. There were tradeoffs, primarily with the view of the Bay from anywhere except its littoral edges, but there has also been a renaissance of parks, playgrounds, landscaped boulevards, and maritime amenities. Who can deny the exhilarating effect of the Star of India, with and without sails? The gargantuan USS Midway is a bracing reminder of this country’s mechanical and engineering ingenuity as well as its military might. Hokey shore-side sculpture is best left to those who can laugh at its brashness and naivety.

Hotels, restaurants and convention center have brought prosperity to the waterfront. San Diego citizens and tourists, alike, enjoy their benefits. A few of the older buildings are eyesores, but almost all the new buildings, with the exception of the inharmonious exterior of the 2001 addition to the convention center, are pleasing to the eye, even if they do not succeed in becoming icons of their place and time. There is much to complain about, particularly in the dreary corridors, north of Martin Luther King Parkway, that, like medieval moats, surround many of the high-rise hotel, office and condominium complexes that rear their heads skyward. Compensations become more conspicuous the nearer one approaches life-giving waters and for these San Diegans should be grateful. If visitors will sense the poetry that is hidden in things, they can see the contented people of Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte or Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party basking in the conviviality and comforts of San Diego’s wonderful waterfront.

Plans by the Manchester Financial Group (MFG) currently in the works for a 40-story “condo” hotel, a 24-story office tower, a second 19-story office tower for the use of the U.S. Navy, and 6 undeveloped acres for conversion into “open space or park” (Doug Manchester’s words) on a 14.7 acre parcel owned by the U.S. Navy on the south side of Broadway at its intersection with Harbor Drive prophesy missed opportunities. They violate principles of city planning that John Nolen stressed: namely, the enlargement of open space to enhance views and to increase public enjoyment and the decrease in heights and widths of buildings as they descend toward the water. Similar plans for the north side of Broadway by Lane Field San Diego Developers (LFSDD) at the same intersection call for two hotels on the north and south sides of a 5.7 acre parcel formerly known as Lane Field, owned by the Port District of San Diego. The southernmost hotel would be 23-stories, the northernmost would be 17 stories. Unlike plans for the south side of Broadway these hotels will be perpendicular rather than parallel to the water, thus opening up views from the downtown business district that otherwise would be precluded. Also a generous expanse of open space would exist between the hotels, restaurants and shops and free sitting areas would be provided for the general public as well as guests at the hotels.

Like a moving panorama, actions on the water complement those in the air. Industrial, commercial, military and recreational movements on the shimmering and sparkling water surface of San Diego Bay counterpoint the risings, fallings and spiralings of birds and planes, the slow stately passage of clouds, and the ethereal dome of blue that highlights the blue of waters below, a view that scientists tell us would not exist if it were not for the oxygenation of the air and water.

Futures in San Diego existed after 1908 and after 1926. Futures will exist after 2008. The San Diego waterfront will continue to delight people. That is if developers, such as Doug Manchester, the head of MFG, do not succeed in extracting a maximum of profit from open-space devouring building on the site of the present U.S. Navy Southwest Regional Command headquarters with a minimum of concessions for public appreciation and convenience.

John Nolen was not precise as to what should be done in areas at the foot of Broadway soon to be occupied by buildings. He simply said “commerce” should be confined to areas south of Pier No. 1, which meant south of B Street. A street map of San Diego shows that proposed LFSDD and MFG buildings are within the commercial area. Aware how easily his plans could be changed, Nolen declared: “that hotels [should] be encouraged to select sites along Atlantic Avenue [today Pacific Highway] facing the waterfront and that the architecture of these buildings [should] be restricted by height, setback and other legal arrangements so that unity may result. This zone of the waterfront [referring to an area between Cedar and Laurel Streets] should be looked upon as an attraction for tourists, and if properly handled could be made a most delightful asset to San Diego.” This proposal can be construed as applicable to the combined 20.4 acres north and south of Broadway at Harbor Drive with the caveats that hotels should be “properly handled” and made “delightful assets” for ALL San Diegans, including those who are not guests at the hotels or patrons of its enterprises. At present concept plans by LFSDD appear to be in conformance with Nolen’s recommendations.

In Temporary Paradise? (1974) city planners Kevin Lynch and Donald Appleyard established a strict goal for building along San Diego’s waterfront. This goal was for the entire waterfront and not just for zones within which John Nolen had specified special uses. Lynch and Appleyard’s comment was as follows:

“Control the height and bulk of waterfront development and encourage housing of mixed prices and types in existing coastal communities. In the long term, remove all uses from the shore that are not residential, recreational or water-related.”

Lynch and Appleyard were not asking for a wholesale erasure of what had been put along the waterfront in the past. They were asking San Diegans to be careful what they put along the waterfront in the future. There is little chance that the Port of San Diego or the San Diego Centre City Corporation will heed this blanket advice. Yet it is possible that these agencies will accelerate recreational and water-related uses along the waterfront whenever and however they can. The proposal for increased open space at the foot of Broadway and the proposal for a North Embarcadero Visionary Plan joint powers agreement between the Centre City Development Corporation and the Port of San Diego are fumbling steps toward the fulfillment of this goal.

The North Embarcadero Visionary Plan that covers the waterfront area between Market Street on the south and Laurel Street on the north is not without problems. A review of the plan and its appendices has failed to yield any reference to John Nolen. Perhaps this is an indication of how little Nolen’s waterfront recommendations count in today’s San Diego.

The Visionary Plan projects an extension of “commercial fishing” and “commercial recreational” uses in its area of study. This translates into narrowing Harbor Drive from 4 to 3 lanes with a maximum width of 74 feet, placing a parking structure on Navy pier, increasing berthing uses (and users) on Broadway and B Street piers, building a new pier at the foot of Grape Street, a dock between Grape and Hawthorn Streets and 4 new piers at the foot of Laurel and Hawthorn Streets with concomitant hotels, restaurants, terminals, kiosks, and berthing facilities located on or adjacent to the piers and docks. A parking structure on Navy Pier would replace some of the present lots that are to be converted to “shared” pedestrian and bicycle walkways, 25 feet in width except when they are interspersed with an oval plaza in front of the Broadway Pier; formal groves of trees on both sides of the Broadway Pier; a “market square’ --- covered with a “sail-like” canopy in front of the B Street Pier; “a tavern on the bay” --- that will be an addition to Anthony’s seafood restaurant at the foot of Ash and A Streets; a north and south lawn at both ends of the tavern; and a wharf that will span Harbor Drive and run parallel to the west facade and grounds of the County Administration Building (former San Diego Civic Center). One of the wharf’s stated uses, as a setting “for civic events,” is at odds with a claim that it will also be used as a mooring place for sailboats whose stays will be limited to approximately 2 to 3 hours. The Port Commission of San Diego does not have authority over San Diego County property; however, a December 1999 Draft Master Environmental Impact Report to the Visionary Plan states that the east and west parking lots adjacent to the County Administration Building can be transformed into “commercial structures up to 85 feet in height . . . This would add building volume along the waterfront by adding buildings to areas that are currently open.” (North Embarcadero Alliance Visionary Plan, Draft MEIR, December 1999, 4.3-41)

Possible uses of the walkways by skateboarders, roller-bladers and sitters are not defined in the Visionary Plan. (Providing “free” public sitting is a particularly sore subject in San Diego!) For some reason a swath of land facing what is called the “Cove,” between the Navy Pier and the West G Street Breakwater has been contoured into a rolling surface. Except for Jack and Jill, of storybook fame, the rolls (also known as grass knolls) disrupt pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

The North Embarcadero Visionary Plan coordinates a mix of private and public and commercial and non-commercial facilities in a way that this country’s seminal planners (Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. and John Nolen) did not envision. What alarms most is the prospect that the developers and planners involved in this project are going to “kill the goose that laid the golden egg.” This is the grandeur, openness and animated excitements of the bay. Architect Sam Hamill’s was right when he called this portion of the bay San Diego’s “grand entrance.” The monumental County Administration Center at the foot of Cedar Street, the Donal Hord sculpture of “The Guardian of the Waters” at its west bay entrance, and the green park that was, at one time, in the works for both sides of the Center have the hallmarks of becoming a distinctive emblem of all this is attractive and gracious along San Diego’s Bay. It would be criminal to destroy this apparition.

The Visionary Plan is heading in the direction of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf with its helter-skelter mélange of hotels, restaurants, museums and boats that one recent visitor said was “so much more fun than a night in jail, but you might enjoy a good nap more.”

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