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Urban designer: San Diego could use a makeover

San Diego may bill itself as America's finest city, it's also a city with some of the worst streets in the country, uninviting buildings, underused parks and an underappreciated waterfront, urban designer Fred Kent told a meeting sponsored by the Downtown San Diego Partnership this week.

To Kent — who helped revitalize central Manhattan in the 1970s and ’80s with projects to make sites like Rockefeller Center and Times Square more people-friendly — the remedy is to create narrower roadways, larger sidewalks and bike paths, and more outdoor dining and shopping to draw more foot traffic, both downtown and in the outlying neighborhoods.

"Don't drive anywhere," Kent told a packed room of local urban planners, designers, architects and others. "Get used to walking. You lose your sense of place when you're always in your automobile."

Kent, who heads New York's Project for Public Spaces, is one of the nation's primary proponents of "light, quick and cheap" ways of revitalizing neighborhoods, starting with relatively small ways of attracting more people.

Kent's revitalization project for Rockefeller Center, for instance, began in 1975 when the center was considering adding rows of spikes to keep people away from its greenery. His suggestion was to install benches instead, which would draw more people into the center while drawing them away from the plants.

He has since been involved in projects from Norway to Singapore and is now working on revitalization plans for downtown Detroit.

Kent said one simple change to create more interest in a neighborhood is to allow retailers and restaurants to extend their operations onto the sidewalk.

"Putting things out onto the street creates extensions of buildings so the buildings become totally alive," he said. "Instead of designing a building for the building's sake, you design it as a place where people want to be."

But that kind of liveliness can be hidden if streets are so wide that the shops and restaurants are obscured by a wall of cars. "You have some of the worst streets you could possibly have," Kent said. He said streets throughout the city need to be "right-sized" to allow for more foot transportation.

"When you design communities around cars, you get more cars," he said. "When you design them around people, you get more people."

Kent said Little Italy sets a good example with outdoor restaurants and attractive retail shops lining a relatively narrow street that keeps traffic slow, allowing for a steady flow of pedestrians.

He was not as complimentary about other areas. He said that Balboa Park could do more to attract visitors by livening up the Plaza de Panama and other underused sites. Among his recommendations: Add Mexican-style retail stalls around the circular fountain at the eastern edge of El Prado.

Kent focused much of his criticism on the San Diego waterfront, which he said was "one of the world's best waterfronts," but which is operating at about 20 percent of its potential for drawing local or out-of-town visitors, because of the wide roads and walls of buildings that create barriers along the water, as well as a lack of attractions to keep people moving along the quay.

The biggest attraction on the waterfront, the USS Midway Museum, attracts roughly 1 million visitors a year, including many schoolchildren who come with their classes. Kent said that for many tourists, the visit to the waterfront stops at the Midway, as they leave to go to SeaWorld or the zoo, since there is little to keep them wandering along the water.

Kent contrasted that with the Victoria & Albert Waterfront, a project that he helped revitalize in Cape Town, South Africa, which attracts more than 3 million visitors a year — the most popular tourist destination in southern Africa — with a wide variety of retail shops, restaurants, apartments and entertainment venues, as well as museums, a major aquarium and a landmark Ferris wheel.

Kent noted that the Cape Town site employs 17,500 and has year-round residents who add to the foot traffic and have a vested interest in seeing that it is well-maintained.

He contrasted that with the San Diego waterfront, starting with the two major barriers on the southern end that separate people from the water: the Convention Center and its adjoining hotels, which create a wall of buildings, as well as the children's park and Martin Luther King Promenade Park across the street, which Kent mocked as "one of the largest expanses of unusable space that I've seen in a city."

Kent said the children's park, with an avant-garde playground, circular pool and small wooded area, attracts relatively few children. And the promenade functions mainly as an often-vacant sidewalk, with nothing to entice people to spend much time there.

"He makes a very good point," said San Diego Planning Director Bill Fulton. "We should be having thousands of people along the waterfront all the time."

Fulton said he hoped the planned extension of the Convention Center would create more connections with the waterfront with a rooftop park, including gardens and picnic spaces, which will be open to the public.

But even if the Convention Center attracts more people to the waterfront, Kent said, there is little to connect it to nearby attractions. He said Seaport Village "is on a scale more appropriate for a tiny city, not a big city like San Diego," besides being surrounded by wide roads and an underused park.

On the northern edge of the waterfront, Kent said, San Diego has one of the nation's best collections of historic ships at the Maritime Museum. But there aren't enough attractions surrounding it to catch the attention of outsiders and bring them in.

Kent said current suggestions for turning the northern waterfront into a bayside park would fail to attract visitors. Instead, he suggested allowing buildings closer to the water —to give the area more of a festive, lively atmosphere.

Noting that he is heading to San Francisco for the opening of that city's new Exploratorium — which he helped plan — Kent suggested, "Why not have an Exploratorium here? We have to transition away from ideas about stupid, static parks where people have a passive experience."

Fulton did not disagree.

"You don't just want a beautiful park," he said. "You want a place that can activate people's interests."

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