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Panel of architects looks at possibility of 'iconic' new Civic Center

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The city's leading downtown redevelopment agency wants a new Civic Center to be an icon -- like the Sydney Opera House, Empire State Building or Eiffel Tower -- admired throughout the world.

Nancy Graham, Centre City Development Corp. president, said if it is planned far enough in advance, the funds for such a project will come.

During a recent CCDC-sponsored event, "Excellence in Urban Design," at the Hotel Solamar, Graham said neither money nor building code restrictions, such as the Planned District Ordinance (PDO), need be obstacles to making the Civic Center an iconic building.

"It's not about money. We already have an existing process that works. We can start planning what we want now. The precedent can be set," Graham said.

Graham suggested that the current economic downturn is actually a perfect time to start, before planning and other costs get higher.

If the Civic Center is to be an iconic building, it won't be cheap. What's more, if there are delays, labor and material costs can soar in the interim.

Architect Frank Gehry designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angleles.

Such was the case with architect Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall, which, according to PlaybillArts, was supposed to come in at about $100 million and ended up costing $274 million instead.

Howard Elkus, co-founder of the Boston-based Elkus Manfredi architectural firm, was a panel member of the CCDC event here.

He said the concert hall was worth the wait. "The Disney Hall may be the most important Southern California structure," Elkus said, adding that the building took 16 years to realize from concept to the first concert.

Elkus was also quick to point out that it takes more than a wonderful building to make a wonderful neighborhood.

In short, regardless of how handsome the new Civic Center may be, it will need to be surrounded by structures and plazas that enhance the design theme if it is to be architecturally successful.

Los Angeles is trying to unify its architectural themes in the 137-acre Bunker Hill Redevelopment Plan area where the Disney Concert Hall is located.

A key question is whether the PDO provisions such as floor area ratios (FARs) and setbacks -- that vary greatly depending on location -- prevent great designs from gracing downtown San Diego's skyline.

Another panel member, Gordon Carrier of San Diego-based Carrier Johnson, wondered, "Is the PDO the most convenient vehicle? Are we providing the proper incentives, and is it visionary thinking? Or is it just regulation?"

Carrier said the city would be doing itself a disservice if it refused to take a risk on projects because they may not exactly conform to a given set of guidelines.

He then said that projects with iconic designs should go on two separate tracks, or as he put it, "a Y in the road." The first would allow the project to be removed from the PDO route at least until its merits have been debated. Then, the proposal would be reconciled with or amended from the PDO rules if necessary.

"We want to do what we can to bring energy to a community," Carrier said adding that it would be a mistake to reject creative projects because they don't fit a prescribed mold.

Brad Richter, CCDC manager of current planning, said with the exception of Federal Aviation Administration restrictions, most buildings could fit within the guidelines of the PDO.

"And there are ways to work around that. We actually threw out the PDO in the Ballpark District," Richter said.

Richter said if the new Civic Center is out of sync with the PDO, it just has to include an amendment, which would add about a month to the planning process.

Another panel member, Paul Whalen, a partner with New York City-based Robert A.M. Stern Architects LLP, said San Diego needs to learn from the past.

He complained that after Horton Plaza was built in the 1980s, development moved so quickly in San Diego that good design didn't have a chance to catch up.

"People are looking for more variety. They want world-class buildings here. That is a problem because your FARs are really big," Whalen said.

Behnisch and Partners designed the roughly 150,000-square-foot Norddeutsche Landesbank building in Hanover, Germany.

If it's more variety San Diegans want in their buildings, panel member Gwynne Pugh of Pugh + Scarpa Architects of Santa Monica showed it in Behnisch and Partners' roughly 150,000-square-foot Norddeutsche Landesbank building in Hanover, Germany. This design creates floors that are no longer stacked in a linear fashion.

"As you can see they spun the floor plates," Pugh said, adding that he likes the fact that all the windows are operable in a building that also ties itself together with stretched steel cables.

Pugh said this kind of out-of-the-box thinking can create great civic buildings.

"You have to set the bar high, and sometimes you have to allow buildings to fail," Pugh said. "It's a risk you have to take."

Panel member Karen Alschuler of San Francisco-based SMWM Architects, also said San Diego should take steps to create a great design for the Civic Center even though the costs may be unknown.

"There's no question that San Diego is booming, but is it blooming?" Alschuler asked.

London's soaring Leadenhall building was designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership.

Both Alschuler and panel member Mark Steele of San Diego-based M.W. Steele Group, seemed enthralled with London's soaring Leadenhall building designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership.

"That building has almost cathedral-like spaces and every single floor of the development is different," Steele said.

The Steele firm is a designer of the re-use plans for both Liberty Station (the former Naval Training Center) and the Old Police Headquarters in downtown San Diego.

M.W. Steele and ZGF Architects are on one design team vying for the new Civic Center headed by the Gerdling-Eden development firm of Portland, Ore. Turner Construction, which built the San Diego Convention Center expansion, is the general contractor.

The Hines development company of Houston heads another team bidding on the Civic Center and has brought in Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects and Roma Urban Design, and Clark Construction for its team. Those firms were involved in the design and construction of Petco Park.

The next informational hearing on the Civic Center plans will be held at 6:30 p.m. March 13 on the club level of Qualcomm Stadium.

An additional informational session will be held at 10:30 a.m. March 15 at the Malcolm X Library at 5148 Market St.

A final decision on which team will gain the right to build the Civic Center is expected this fall.

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